As we approach the end of the academic year, and your senior year, I sincerely hope that you are ably coping with pandemic conditions and that you are in good health. You may have read The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus along the way. If not, I hope you have an opportunity to read it following graduation. The book is an allegory of the then-recent Nazi occupation of wartime France. Camus portrays people's sense of unreality and lack of readiness for pestilence, as well as the will to prevail in philosophically absurd conditions. This book captures well what we are experiencing now. The novel's hero, Dr. Rieux, gives us all hope.
I recognize that you must be struggling with the rapid changes and many fears about what the future may hold. I am so sorry that our graduating seniors will not experience the traditional on-campus graduation ceremony that marks an end and a series of new beginnings. However, your faculty and I look forward to joining you to celebrate your many achievements at the virtual commencement (AU's 139th!) on Saturday, May 9, at 1:00 p.m. (EDT), in what will no doubt go down as a noteworthy historical event because of the pandemic and, more importantly, because you are graduating, something we should all take time to commemorate. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. promises to be a very interesting and inspiring commencement speaker.
In a time of uncertainty, many graduates may feel anxious about what lies ahead. In thinking about what we might be able to do to help with this important transition, we thought, who better to offer some perspective than graduates whose experience might provide some vision of what is possible after graduating with a BA in Philosophy? The letters that follow are for you from AU philosophy alumni, some of whom graduated into very challenging economic conditions. The letters are intended to be words of encouragement and insight on navigating the world beyond American University. Once you find your footing and succeed in life as your professors are confident you will, maybe one day you can offer the wisdom you acquire to those who will graduate years from now.
Ellen K. Feder
William Fraser McDowell Professor
Chair, Department of Philosophy and Religion
Letters from our alumni
- Stephanie L. Connor, '01, Attorney
- Brooke Harris Garad, ’02, Education Research Scholar
- Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, '02, Psychologist and Consultant
- Rosemary Twomey, '02, Assistant Professor of Philosophy
- Tony Vacanti, ’02, Attorney
- Eric Schoonover, BA ‘02, MA ‘03, Chief Operations Officer
- Kate Linehan, '04, Clinical Psychologist
- David Flynn, '09, Coffee Entrepreneur
- Fran Muhrer, '09, Chief of Staff
- Kiersten Batzli, '09, Engineer, Patent Agent, AND Law Student
- Bobby Allyn, '10, Reporter
- Skye Frontier, '10, Executive Director
- Seth Shamon, '11, Acupuncturist
- Aaron Rogoff, '12, Attorney
- Anthony Kakoyannis, '12, Attorney
- Prerna Rathi, '13, Founder, People Beyond Borders
- Eliana Peck, '16, Doctoral Student in Philosophy
- Isabella Blanchard, ’16, Strategy Analyst
Stephanie L. Connor, '01
Attorney, Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher
I am so sorry that the covid-19 pandemic has hit at the very moment you are ready to launch into the world. It is not lost on me that many of you were born in the aftermath of September 11 – and so your youth is bookended by two calamitous events. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of this pandemic, or your situation, by comparing it to the past – but I hope that my experience will give you some cause for optimism in these perilous times.
I graduated from AU in May 2001, and shipped off to teach English in China days later. I was in Hong Kong on September 11, watching the Twin Towers fall in black and white on a Cantonese TV channel. Although I knew life would never be the same, the extent to which our world would change was scarcely apparent to me in 2001. I felt the same way seven years later … when I started practicing law on the very day that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. The gravity of these major world events sink in slowly, and sometimes you only see their magnitude in hindsight. Indeed, every aspect of my professional life has been shaped by these moments. The international law and trade work that is now my specialty did not exist 20 years ago – my career was born of the chaos and destruction of 9/11, several brutal wars, and the economic calamity of 2007/8.
Although the reality of Covid-19 is still settling in, I expect that the impact of the pandemic will be even more extreme than that of 9/11 and the economic crisis of the last decade. Life will never be the same, and the trajectory of your lives will be shaped by this pandemic. As devastating as this is, it also gives you an opportunity to bear witness – to observe the way in which the world is changing, to notice those who are most vulnerable, and to help shape a future that is better than the past we leave behind. In a world where everyone competes for attention in 140 character tweets, your education in philosophy has taught you how to perceive, analyze, listen, and think critically about information and ideas. This is of vital importance. It is okay to use the next few weeks/months/years to listen and observe, to learn and watch. This will make you a better thinker and doer later on. (Some day you will wake up at 5am when your 3 year old crawls into your bed, and you will roll over to check your phone and find at least two dozen emails that came in from every continent in the wee hours of the morning … and you will think, remember when I used to read? Not just a headline but an entire article, from start to finish? As a favor to your middle-age self … read everything now. Read every newspaper and magazine and good book you can get your hands on. Quiet moments like these are rare and vanishing, use them to feed your brain with the raw material it needs to continue to grow.)
Terrible times have a way of revealing a person’s character and strength. Be your best – raise your hand, work really hard, be nice to everyone, and ignore everyone who tells you that you have to be one thing or another (you can be all the things!). Find your team. You are just at the beginning of an amazing adventure.
Brooke Harris Garad, ’02
Education Research Scholar, Indiana University
My degree in Philosophy has served me well. More than anything, it taught me how to think deeply and critically, which has helped in every aspect of my professional life. After AU, I lived in New York City; Grenoble, France; and Djibouti, East Africa, working within the field of international education. I am now an Education Researcher. With the goal of making schools more equitable spaces for all children, especially lower income students, students of color, and students with disabilities, I work with school districts, school leaders, and teachers to find a useful balance between theory and practice. When my colleagues and I dive deep into data, trying to make sense of the educational trends we see, I draw from what I learned at AU about moral philosophy, critical race theory, and critical feminism, among other things. Sometimes my colleagues are surprised by the depth of my analysis, and I tell them: "Yeah, I was a philosophy major in college." Congratulations on your accomplishments! I wish you a lifetime of critical inquiry, deep thinking, and flexing your philosophical muscles.
Jeanette Sawyer Cohen, '02
Psychologist and Consultant
I really feel for you seniors who are unable to mark this important transition with familiar rituals, and who will enter an economically uncertain future. The good news is, armed with your study of philosophy, you are already prepared to contribute to society meaningfully and successfully. You excel in critical thinking, know how to analyze information, and can communicate effectively in written and spoken word. You have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, for truth, and for justice. These attributes are marketable across industries, and you are the future leaders we desperately need. While we must acknowledge and honor the great loss experienced by you on many levels, we must also find solace in, and in time become energized by, our belief that adversity breeds ingenuity. Your cohort has the capacity to reflect on and metabolize these unique and challenging experiences in a way that will ultimately strengthen your sense of purpose. You are resilient and you will persevere. And the world will be grateful for your contributions.
Rosemary Twomey, '02
Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Queens College CUNY
I graduated from AU eight months after 9/11. That was a scary and uncertain time too, though in a very different way. When classes resumed, every professor in every class felt the understandable need to say something about what had happened and how it would and should affect us. I remember particularly what my philosophy professors said. It seemed to me at the time that only in those classes did we really have the collective tools to think about the situation in a productive way. What kind of evidence would we need in order to apportion responsibility? How ought we to respond, especially since there will be innocent people affected? What should we do with our fear? Our anger? These are questions for philosophers, by and large. I think about that a lot at the moment, when now I am the teacher. This term I happen to be teaching a class on ancient philosophy as a way of life, and I have had valuable conversations with my students about the prevailing emotion of this crisis: anxiety. Epicurus and the Stoics especially have a lot of things to say about assuaging anxiety and I truly believe it makes a difference to realize that even in extraordinary times we can find precedent in the past. No matter what career you end up pursuing (and there are many fields where the ability to think clearly is essential), in moments of great crisis you will return to philosophy. I am very sorry you won’t be having an in-person graduation: that must feel devastating at the moment. But eighteen years later I barely remember my graduation, while I do remember what I learned in my classes. Be well, and congratulations!
Tony Vacanti, ’02
Attorney, Tucker Ellis LLP
You are in the thoughts of the alumni, including my thoughts. Eighteen years ago I graduated from AU with my BA in Philosophy in a similar unnerving and uncertain time. It was just after 9/11 and the world was rocked and changing fast. While it certainly did not impact my last year at AU in the same manner as the current pandemic has impacted your last year at AU, it had some similarities, so I have some sense of what you are feeling as you enter this new phase of your life in an uncertain time.
I have a few words of experience (I’m not old enough to have “words of wisdom”) that I hope will assist you in this transition. First, your philosophy education will serve you very well. It has served me very well in my continued education, career, and personal life. I am a constitutional and property rights attorney, and I would not be where I am today without my philosophy education. Aside from the analytical and writing skills it provided me, it also provided me with curiosity, understanding of different perspectives and complex subjects, and the ability to read dense material and understand complex subjects. And it serves as the foundation for seeing the forest for the trees, while many get caught in the trees. For me, I do not think I could have picked a better major to prepare me for law school or even the practice of constitutional law. And the intellectual curiosity it sparked is still flaming today. I am so grateful for my experience in Philosophy at AU. It was one of the most impactful influences in my life direction.
Second, while these are difficult times, they will subside, so take time to focus on resilience, authenticity, and vulnerability. From my experience, the most successful and content people have these qualities. There will be many other wonderful times and many other difficult times ahead for you. Life takes twists and turns that are completely unexpected and uncontrollable. Create space for yourself. And go forth and be and be again. Try not to not latch on to comfortable and familiar perspectives, positions, or situations in order to navigate life with less friction. Friction creates energy. You may think you have it figured out, but you haven’t – no one has. And that is ok. I learn something new every single day and am periodically adjusting my perspective and beliefs. Be flexible and evolve in uncontrollable circumstances and focus on being authentic and vulnerable – if you start early it will be so much easier later in life to be resilient.
This is a difficult time with many things outside of our control, so take the time and space. You’ll be stronger in the long run. And you have the AU community behind you, including me. Best of luck and please reach out if I can ever be of assistance.
Eric Schoonover, BA ‘02, MA ‘03
Chief Operations Officer Schoonover Plumbing & Heating, Inc.
Since graduating, I have faced colleagues and acquaintances who, upon learning I hold degrees in Philosophy inevitably respond, "…. Really?". While I don’t "do philosophy" in my current position, the skills and habits that I learned during my course of study have paid dividends. The ability to organize my thoughts and clearly express ideas both verbally and in writing is a wonderful sales tool and also serves me exceptionally well in administrating my business. Being able to absorb and critically think about complex ideas and their implications is important both in business and in personally understanding the world in which we live. A degree in Philosophy gave me the tools to use my mind more effectively in all facets of my life, a skill that cannot be overvalued. In a short time, you will be graduating in to a crazy world. Do not be afraid to bring your tools to bear to understand that world and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, both inside and outside of the world of Philosophy.
Kate Linehan, '04
These are indeed strange, uncertain times without tangible closure in sight. And it must be magnified for you as soon to be graduates! Particularly as graduates in philosophy, you are likely struggling with and assessing these current times more deeply than are others. This will continue to be one of your greatest strengths and perhaps also one of your greatest vulnerabilities as you continue to navigate the world. Since graduating from college with a major in Philosophy, I have been forced to grapple with many difficult and existential situations in life. I believe my degree in Philosophy has allowed me to do so with depth, humor, and fortitude. I have never once regretted majoring in Philosophy. When I was thinking of what career to enter into after graduating, I realized I wasn’t suited for a life in academia and wanted to find some way to apply my love for Philosophy in a more practical manner. This eventually led me to become a Clinical Psychologist. I am now able to use all of the important analytical and reasoning skills that I cultivated as a Philosophy major directly in my work with other people. I use these skills constantly in my attempt to understand the inner lives of people and in order to connect with and attune to others in a meaningful way. When it comes right down to it, all we ever want in life is to feel less alone. Please know that although you are forced by circumstances out of your control to be currently socially distancing, you are not actually alone. Wherever you find yourself in life, you will always evaluate and consider the meaning and ethics behind what it is that you are experiencing. In turn, there will always be other individuals who are doing so as well- even if they are not always easily found. These other individuals are your fellow Philosophy majors (whether they are “officially” or not)!
I leave you with this quote: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” -Joseph Campbell
David Flynn, '09
Graduating university at any time is an unsettling experience, and I can imagine that graduating during a global pandemic is exponentially so.
When I graduated, I did not have a clear idea of where I was going or what I was going “to do” with my degree. I had vague notions of maybe returning to school a few years down the line (a masters? law school?) but no concrete plans. 4 months after graduating I rashly moved to France, a country where I knew exactly 1 person and did not speak the language, with one suitcase. In the 10 years since I’ve opened 3 coffee Shops, a coffee roastery, a French sidewalk café, acquired a business from a major national chain, closed 3 cafés, seen my staff expand to 50 and then contract to 25. I’ve dealt with French bureaucracy, major transport strikes and now a pandemic which has forced the closure of most of my businesses and a complete rethinking of the others. In short, the last 10 years have been both incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding and with each passing year I am more and more grateful to have studied philosophy.
You are still in the thick of it so it may be difficult to see, but the skills you have honed over your years in the philosophy department are incredibly valuable. The ability to critically read a document is as important in a business setting as it is in philosophy class. I have routinely caught errors and potential problems in documents as small as a lease or as complex as a merger agreement that people with MBAs from prestigious business schools skimmed over without a second thought. I’m not some superhuman reader, I just studied philosophy. Frankly, if you can make it through Nietzsche, Heidegger or Merleau Ponty you’re more than ready for anything a business situation might throw at you. Should you want to, you can learn business on the fly, I don’t think the same is true for close reading and critical thinking.
You’ve been writing so much (and surrounded by people doing the same), you probably don’t realise that the ability to write clearly and to explain an idea is not common. As an employer I’ve had to come to terms with just how uncommon the ability to write competently is(in any language). Even in today’s digital world the ability to express a thought in writing is very valuable.
I would go further though, I think that in my years studying philosophy I learned how to learn. I think you have probably done the same (even if you haven’t realised it yet). I think you will find over the next few years that this is the most rare and most important skill you’ve acquired. It will serve you well no matter what your future career path looks like.
About that path. Right now the opportunities available to you may look murky. You may have been counting on a job that has evaporated or, like me, only have had vague notions that now seem absurd. I don’t know what your path will look like any more than I know what my own path will look like. We are all living in an unsettling time, but I feel confident in the skills that both of us learned. They are skills that travel and can be adapted to whatever opportunities you may find in front of you.
So good luck, it’s going to be challenging but you’re well prepared. The exact knowledge anyone learns in university isn’t so important. The skill to gain more definitely is, and on that front I think you as graduating philosophy students are out ahead of everyone else.
Fran Muhrer, '09
Chief of Staff, Banyan Risk Group
I know the current situation is much tougher and more uncertain than my senior year graduating in '09, but I relate to the anxiety and pressure of job hunting in a very bad economy. Ten years later, I can look back and tell you my BA in Philosophy has helped me to excel throughout my career: first as an intelligence analyst at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and later helping build Banyan Risk Group, a risk management firm, from the ground up. Being able to analyze complex information and distill it down to its key points, looking at problems from different viewpoints, challenging underlying assumptions, and reinterpreting assessments to bring out new layers of meaning are all skills that I developed studying philosophy at AU and apply every day in my work. Do not underestimate the unique advantages your degree program has helped foster in you; they may be hard to quantify, but they will shine through in the quality of your work. I wish you all the luck in the world right now finding your first job, and I hope you remember that this is just the first step in building your career. I could never have predicted my current career path. Like many of you will probably experience, the job I'm in now did not exist when I was finishing school. The world will change, jobs will change, new opportunities will emerge. Know that through it all, your training in philosophy will always be an asset to your career.
Kiersten Batzli, '09
Engineer, Patent Agent, AND Law Student, Cornell University
A philosophy degree is a degree in critical thought, and the skills that philosophy students acquire in your study are tools that will be useful in every pursuit you undertake. Studying philosophy teaches you to think critically about what you read or hear, find patterns, apply logic, and ask important questions. Philosophy teaches you to push ideas to their limits, think things through from a different perspective, and to extract the most important points from a long, dense, boring, or strangely written text. These skills are incredibly important, and rarer than you might think. Throughout graduate school while getting my PhD in Materials Science & Engineering my philosophy training helped me to think creatively and logically about my research. In my work now as a patent agent it helps me to make persuasive arguments and to write clearly and effectively. Now completing my second year in law school, I have been undaunted by the amount or density of required reading thanks to my philosophy background. Philosophy provides a great grounding for undertaking any type of work.
Bobby Allyn, '10
Having graduated in 2010, with the economy still limping from the Great Recession, I actually skipped my graduation ceremony and instead drove a car cross-country to Portland, Oregon, to start my first full-time job in journalism: A newspaper fellowship at the Oregonian that paid me barely enough to subsist with no health benefits, but it did bolster my professional portfolio and helped jumpstart my career. For me, the lesson there was if an opportunity presents itself but it is less than ideal, say, 3,000 miles away, with low pay and only temporary, still go for it. At the time, there were a number of mentors in my life telling me that. It may seem like obvious advice, but it’s easy to talk yourself out of a suboptimal opportunity when sometimes, especially early on in a career, saying yes to any honest work that comes your way can pay off.
In terms of the value of my philosophy degree, I’d say: Even in times of unfathomable crisis, like we’re now confronting, philosophy taught me how to retain the ability to think clearly. And it has instructed me to be critical, especially in times of adversity. When I encounter a fact, I’m looking at what undergirds the fact. And what system grounds that fact. And not just scrutinizing the source of information and the source’s motivation, but the systems of power and oppression and conflict that encase the fact. And then I consider this question: who has decided that this “fact” is indeed a fact? What is this arbiter of truth’s underlining assumptions? In short, philosophy supplied me with an analytical framework that is still always nudging me to stop and interrogate the implicit text of all situations. As a philosophy student, this was key. And now as a journalist, it’s just as crucial.
I’d also say, and this took me years to figure out, that you are not your job. You are whoever you are inside your heart and mind. And I’ve seen too many friends let the vicissitudes of a career dictate their happiness, and if a mix of luck and timing didn’t play in their favor, the outcome can be punishing. But, in reality, fulfillment and happiness and meaning can spring from so much more than a career. Might sound like cold comfort to recent graduates scouting for gainful employment, but it’s important to not lose sight of this.
Skye Frontier, '10
Executive Director, BERA Brand Management
Stop. Take a breath and congratulate yourself. Take a minute to really appreciate the fruit of your hard work. You've mastered the contradictions of Hegelian dialectics and the esoteric poetry of Plato's dialogues. The challenges you will face next you are Aristotally prepared for. I promised myself I wouldn't resort to philosophy puns but it seems I Kant help myself.
Joking aside, your time at AU has prepared you for whatever you may do next. Philosophy is a transformative education. It is impossible to not take what you've learned and let it shape you and those around you. While the career path for us may not as obvious as other degrees, I’ve yet to find a career path a student of philosophy has not been able to forge for themselves. Take that curiosity and rigor, continue to cultivate it, and apply it to whatever you do next.
This couldn’t be a letter to philosophy students without at least one shameless Nietzsche quote so I’ll end with one that believe to be more relevant now than ever
“I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! I do not want to wage war against ugliness. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse the accusers. Let looking away be my only negation! And, all in all and on the whole: some day I want only to be a Yes-sayer!”
Seth Shamon, '11
A year out of AU facing much uncertainty financially and professionally, I found Chinese medicine, first as an acupuncture patient with no knowledge or faith in the treatment. I soon realized that it was a whole world of study that was a unique blend of philosophy and science (I also studied physics and math at AU). History, science, culture, anthropology, with a clearly defined licensed occupation and profession that was all about helping people. Thousands of years of fascinating texts combined with ancient and modern modalities means there is enough to study and explore for several lifetimes’ worth. I completed a 4 year master’s program in acupuncture and East Asian medicine in 2016 and have been practicing acupuncture and herbal medicine since then in the DC area. I’ve mostly been employed at City Acupuncture Circle, where I’ve seen often 100+ patients per week for a wide variety of conditions, from low back pain to depression to Crohn’s disease to endometriosis, etc… basically everything under the sun at this point. After working a lot for a few years and saving up money, in 2018 I was able to live and study Mandarin and Chinese medicine in Taiwan and China for a year. And I am now back (re)starting my private practice as Sun Moon Wellness in Dupont Circle, DC. I wouldn’t be where I am today without having completed my BA in philosophy at AU. Being able to read texts comprehensively and analytically is immensely valuable when I read the ancient & contemporary medical literature. Being able to reason soundly (I’m still not always great at it) is a daily exercise when I have to diagnose complicated conditions and prescribe treatment plans. My background also has me uniquely suited in a way in my field because it’s given me an academic skillset that’s much lacking in my field and in most others, I’ve already edited one medical text and there are opportunities for much more of that should I want to. I believe it’s also helped me in being able to teach material and I’ve been able to teach and supervise in two master’s programs. I believe studying philosophy brings one to a place of being uniquely suited to tackle such a wide variety of careers. I know philosophy majors who are journalists, teachers, lawyers, doctors...the possibilities are endless. Go forth with a sharp mind, an open heart, and an unstoppable zeal; the limits are few.
Aaron Rogoff, '12
Attorney, North Carolina State Department of Health and Human Services
In a few short years, you will feel like you have been out of school for ages and will realize that you have so much time after graduation to shape your career and the kind of person you want to be. The virtues that I learned from my studies in philosophy at American—diligence, concision, intellectual curiosity, and a sense of humor—have been essential to most of the good things that have happened to me professionally since graduation. Continue to cultivate your love of learning and do not be shy to talk about things that interest you, especially philosophy. It makes you a more interesting person, and I can say with certainty that it has helped me in my career.
Anthony Kakoyannis, '12
I graduated with a philosophy degree in 2012, went to law school, and became an attorney. For any of you that might be considering that route too, I’ll briefly describe my experience.
I went to law school because I thought being a lawyer offered the best opportunity, outside of academia, to apply what I had learned and come to love in philosophy. I mostly stand by that belief, with some caveats. Practically speaking, if you go to law school, you will come in having read texts that are more sophisticated than anything in the law school curriculum, and having done more analytical writing than most of your peers. The skills you acquired as a philosophy major will be your most valuable assets (provided that you adapt them to the standards of law-school exams), but the content of what you learned will take a back seat for a little while. Opportunities to directly apply your knowledge and principles are out there -- concepts of what is "fair," "just," etc. are everywhere and are perpetually in the process of being defined. However, you won’t be able to access those opportunities right out of school, and you’ll have to be patient and make some compromises as you work toward them. Nevertheless, if you’re willing to stick with that kind of winding and probably uneven path, you certainly have the potential, as lifelong students of philosophy, to achieve things of significance.
Prerna Rathi, '13Founder, People Beyond Borders
Why Philosophy? It sure brings me happiness but how will I get a good job after investing so much into this? How do I put the intangible skills that I am gaining through this degree into practice? I have started seeing Socrates, Descartes, Nietzsche and Foucault in my dreams now…. What do I do with them in my real-life? I was piled up with so many questions while graduating in 2013 despite knowing that my insane degree (Philosophy) made me saner while my sane degree (International Studies) actually left me feeling a bit insane. Today, when I look back, graduating with a philosophy degree from AU is one of the best decisions of my life! It has anchored me in every possible way through the unpredictable waves of career, relationships, health, education, travel and spirituality.
“We need to go into people’s hearts” – these words from one of my Philosophy professors at AU showed me my destination and home. Unknowingly or knowingly, I have worked since then to live in people’s hearts and in this process my heart seems to have magnified. I realized over time that it isn’t as simple as it sounds. We have to pave our way through piles of mistrust, fears, assumptions, insecurities and emotions, not just of others but also ourselves. Personally, I never realized the weight of the burdens I had been carrying all my life until I felt the weight of its release while studying philosophy. Eventually, since 2014, I found myself creating safe spaces for those marginalized communities, such as displaced persons and refugees, who sought to recycle their piled-up burdens, or as Nietzsche would say, to engage in self-overcoming. In his words, “A philosopher - alas, a being that often runs away from itself, often is afraid of itself - but too inquisitive not to ‘come to’ again - always back to himself” (Beyond Good and Evil, §292). This practice of self-overcoming enables us to recreate a new self by time and again returning to a past self.
The most meaningful time of my life began while volunteering with conflict and disaster-affected people. I remember asking how can I apply all my philosophy learnings in action here? All my conscious efforts at it went down the drain and then I decided that I need to stop trying so hard. I remember while learning to swim or to ride my bike, when I put in too much effort, it felt more challenging, but the minute I let go of all my forced efforts, I managed to learn it effortlessly. Similarly, the moment my only effort became to effortlessly give my full self to those around me, I started to feel magical shifts in my own life. I no longer tried to apply my knowledge but it all flowed freely on its own! In retrospect, I can see how I have applied lessons from philosophy in humanitarian relief missions at Nigeria, Niger, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Nepal, India with Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Initiatives of Change and via my own newly-founded NGO called People Beyond Borders. We are working to co-create safe spaces with displaced communities and refugees to re-channel their resilience, creative strength and skill sets to empower themselves and the world around them. In Foucauldian terms, I am paving the path for individuals to reconstitute their own subjectivity, through constant self-reflection, and open up a new field of possibilities.
“Whatever we cultivate in times of ease, we gather as strength for times of change.” Our philosophy professors at AU have definitely encouraged us to ruminate over and cultivate a wealth of knowledge and skills. When we open up the space for it, then this knowledge starts to flow in unexplored ways. Trust that it is there within you and will anchor you through changing spaces and times! Sending so much positive energy and good wishes to each of you.
Eliana Peck, '16
Doctoral Student in Philosophy at the Graduate Center, CUNY; Instructor, Baruch College
Congratulations on having nearly completed your studies at AU! As a student and a teacher myself, I know how hard it may feel at the moment to focus on schoolwork, and – to the extent that we can find the time and energy to work – how doubly important it is to feel that one is doing intellectual work that matters. I’d like to say a few words about how grateful I am to the philosophy department at AU for teaching me – and I suspect you, too – to do the kind of philosophy that feels both helpful and important even now. The department at AU is a community that takes philosophy to be beholden to real people, and is committed to tackling problems of the social world (from which philosophy is not excluded). This is a department in which courses on feminist philosophy, critical race theory, Latin American philosophy, and mass incarceration are the norm, where my mentors were overwhelmingly women, where I was encouraged to TA, research, intern, and study abroad, and where practices like name-dropping and disciplinary border-policing were discouraged. In this department, I learned to do work of social and ethical significance, to read across the disciplines, to treat the classroom as a political space, and to make philosophy accountable to people. More than ever before, I am thankful this semester to have been “brought up” in this kind of philosophy department. Whether or not you pursue future degrees in philosophy, I hope and believe you will find that the skills and commitments that you have developed at AU will continue to serve you, as they have certainly served me. Wishing you all the best, and a hearty congratulations.
Isabella Blanchard, ’16
Strategy Analyst, SRI Executive
The four years of my life between my graduation and yours have been punctuated by successes (large and small), failures (mostly large), and a great many pints in between. Since my graduation, I have been fortunate to travel the world, enroll in an incredible Master’s program, and find work doing what I love in a city I love—Dublin, Ireland. I also failed dismally in my first job out of college, broke up with my long-term partner, and had one (or three) existential crises. Through it all, the philosophy degree that I earned, loved, and ardently defended to the well-meaning people who questioned its value (everyone has an opinion when you name yourself as a philosophy major), has been a remarkable companion; it helped me to cultivate the passion, curiosity, and analytical abilities which have proven to be the most transferrable (and cherished) skills that I have.
In her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde wrote that “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized.” While the world scrambles to find its light in the wake of this pandemic, you’ve spent four years honing yours; sharpening its edges against Kant’s Critiques, Arendt’s banality, and Plato’s forms. The challenges which lie ahead are significant; so are you. I hope that you bring the light—endowed with the quality you’ve suffused it with in these past four years—and help the world to scrutinize itself, in whichever uniform, with whichever job title, in whichever geography you choose.
In the past weeks, I’ve often thought about Rainer Maria Rilke’s correspondence with a young poet who was in search of his purpose. I read Rilke’s compiled responses—Letters to a Young Poet—in my last year at AU, and I hope you’ll find his words as comforting as I did when I set out for the world beyond:
"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves… Do not… seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will… gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."