Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered the Keynote Address for Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the award-winning author of six books. Her works have been translated into more than thirty languages, and she is widely esteemed for her powerful depictions of events in her native Nigeria, as well as her searching explorations of identity, race, and feminism. Adichie’s novels include Americanah, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; Half of a Yellow Sun, winner of the Orange Prize; and Purple Hibiscus, winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Adichie was awarded the PEN Pinter Prize in 2018, in recognition of the exceptional literary quality of her body of work.
Adichie has delivered two landmark TED talks: The Danger of a Single Story and We Should All Be Feminists, which started a worldwide conversation about feminism and was published as a book in 2014. She was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015, and Fortune magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders in 2017. Adichie is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Adichie holds a bachelor’s degree in communication and political science from Eastern Connecticut State University, a master’s degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University, and a master’s degree in African history from Yale University. For displaying “extraordinary creativity,” Adichie was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 2008. She divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
Undergraduate Student Speaker Charlie Everett, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, delivered an address for graduates.
Good evening President Burwell, Provost Meyers, Dean Starr, graduates, faculty, friends, and family. Thank you for allowing me to share this moment of triumph with each of you. And a special thank you to my family in the audience and my friends and family watching online across the country, I couldn’t have done it without you. Class of 2019, despite the seemingly larger than life obstacles each of us has surpassed on the path to today-- we made it here. And that in it of itself is certainly no small thing.
About four years ago, my kind of cheesy and a little bit corny dad gave me a nugget of wisdom that has clearly stuck with me throughout my time at AU. When I was considering where to go and who I wanted to be after high school Dad kept telling me, “your next move is picking out a good trampoline.”
Now, this is a little bit of a silly metaphor so y’all are going to have to stick with me on this… For him, coming to college and the resources and community I was going to have access to here were a network of support that could push me to reach for my highest potential. He always knew I had the right stuff to achieve anything I wanted, but a good trampoline could take me and my dreams to new heights.
Coming to American University, I think I found a little bit of a different trampoline than I expected. Not unlike most of you, I can’t say that I’m exactly the same person I was when I arrived here in Fall 2015. So much beyond my traditional Justin Bieber haircut has changed since then and whether I pretend to hate it or not, so much of that growth is tied to my experiences here. For me, AU was just the right place at just the right time.
Like so many of you, there have been times over the last four years that I have struggled with who I am and who I want to be. I have grappled with complex questions about identity and justice and what it means to advocate for yourself and others. There have also been times that I have thrived through leadership, scholarship, and friendship.
I have had cheerleaders and co-conspirators and I have had people that have pushed me to think more critically about things I thought I knew too much about. At AU, my community, my trampoline, not only held me to high standards but pushed me to hold myself to those standards as well. Even more important than that, however, were the professors, staff, administrators, mentors, student leaders, classmates, and close friends I connected with here that also invested in supporting me when I tumbled or fell along the way.
Class of 2019, I hope each of us can look to the family we built over our time here, either at AU or in DC more broadly as a source of support, guidance, and motivation. As we look out onto a future that can sometimes feel uncertain or turbulent, I know that our “trampolines” will be there to guide us in the right direction in the days, weeks, and years to come.
There is no world in which we succeed without taking risks but more importantly there is no world in which we succeed in a vacuum. We are all a product of the experiences we have had and the love we have grown from.
In this next chapter, I am excited to change the world alongside the class of 2019 and with the support of all the people who built up my trampoline over my time here. Thank you so much and congratulations graduates.
Graduate Student Speaker La'Nita Johnson, a student in the School of Education, delivered an address for graduates.
Good Evening Everyone! Buenas Noches! Wǎnshang Hǎo! Bonsoir! And alsalam alaikum! Good Evening to our University President, Sylvia Burwell… to the distinguished deans, administrators, faculty and staff of the College of Arts and Sciences, my own School of Education, and the School of Professional & Extended Studies … and to our special guests gathered here tonight – I am honored to be here with you.
To my fellow American University Eagles, Happy Graduation Day!! Congratulations to all of the graduates. We’ve arrived here together, and I am excited to be a member of this “tribe!”
I also would like to give a warm welcome to the family and friends of tonight’s graduates…and a special shout out to my family and loved ones…Many of us could not have made it to this point in our lives without the support of you all, so we’d like to take a moment to thank you and say that we appreciate you!
Graduates today is a story of success for us all … and while everyone can see our visible successes -- like the caps on top of our heads and the master’s and doctoral hoods draped over our backs -- some of our successes are INVISIBLE to the eye. Many are not aware of, or cannot see, some of the “INTANGIBLE” achievements that we are marking this evening — the milestones that are measured by our personal challenges and obstacles that we have overcome. And since we rarely have time to relish in these “small wins,” I thought we might take a moment to commemorate those “less visible successes” – as sometimes they are even more powerful testaments of our triumphs.
I surmise that many of us in this room today, wearing these beautiful AU caps and gowns, are celebrating the accumulation of those hidden, personal “off-paper victories.” You guys know the ones I’m referring to…those successes that cannot be seen on your resume…again, the ones that you are unable to quickly jot down as an accolade on a job application
Some of those successes may include being the first in your family to graduate from college. Pursuing your degree while serving in our Armed Forces. Or finishing your degree as an international student… Or even graduating having managed disabilities, physical or mental illness. Whatever individual win you achieved; I extend an even heartier congratulations to all of you!
Today marks a day where I, too, celebrate some of those clandestine wins –those wins that you can’t see by just looking at me … You see today, as I stand before you hoping to honor all of your wins, I celebrate graduating with a master’s degree in International Training and Education as a survivor of an international terrorist attack that almost claimed my life.
And as I reflect on this huge, but visually undetectable success, I can’t help but share with you that I am a little bit humbled …. Okay – let’s not kid around – I am MASSIVELY humbled!
Today, as I would have walked across the stage to accept my degree, no one would have fathomed that just three short years ago, members of Al Qaeda entered the restaurant in which I was eating in Burkina Faso and took the lives of 10 people, and another 20 down the street at a hotel also frequented by “Westerners.”
And as I would go to shake hands with President Burwell, and have that degree placed in my hand, she never would have known that I lost two friends in that attack, and that it left me with the unseen scars and ramifications of terrorism that I often felt were barriers to finishing my graduate education.
As I moved my tassel to the left, very few would know that I completed grad school while battling PTSD, depression, and anxiety, all while working two to three jobs, going to weekly counseling sessions and caring for my amazing emotional support dog, Chino … who I’m very clear now that we “rescued” each other.
Lastly, as I threw my cap in the air, no one would have understood the tear that would trickle down my face, as I looked to the sky thanking God for having received two fellowships to help fully finance my graduate education after exhausting nearly all of my personal savings in the aftermath of the attack, while paying for medical care, and batting through short-term disability.
So now, fellow graduates, as I stare down any fear of terrorism and prepare to enter the Foreign Service in the coming months, if you are anything at all like me and are internally celebrating these invisible wins, I ask you to use today as the day to acknowledge those uphill battles that you thought would never end — and let the world know proudly that YOU DID IT!
So, let us joyfully give ourselves a round of applause for arriving at May 11, 2019 after years of hard work, stress, tears and – at last, tonight -- jubilation! And let us celebrate this day as the one in which we were able to successfully keep the promises that we made to ourselves – and recognize our own invisible wins – as we move forward as graduates of American University’s “aware and awake” – or “woke” -- class of 2019!
Thank you so much for this incredible opportunity to share my story with you tonight! Let’s go do great work … and let’s continue to bring honor to AU!!
College of Arts & Sciences Dean Peter Starr delivered an address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.
School of Education Dean Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy delivered an address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.
School of Professional & Extended Studies Dean Jill Klein delivered an address to Spring 2019 graduates on May 11 in Bender Arena.