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A Special Day Delayed but Not Denied

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For 2020 graduates, commencement was not at all what they planned. Even 2021 graduates, who were permitted to cross the stage in person but without their loved ones in attendance, had a commencement experience different from all classes who graduated before the pandemic.

On May 21, 2022, AU will make good on a promise, first made in the pandemic’s early, chaotic days, to stage a commencement for those graduates during which they would be able to make the same types of memories they dreamed about when they began college. For one Class of ’20 graduate, this will include giving the commencement speech she surely thought would be a distant memory by now when she first drafted it back in spring of 2020. Adrika Lazarus, SIS/MA ’20, will serve as a student speaker on May 21, just as she originally planned in 2020. We had a few questions for her about how she believes the pandemic changed her speech—and her post-graduation career.

What do you remember thinking or feeling when you realized that the 2020 commencement ceremony wouldn’t happen in such a way that you’d be able to give your planned address?
I remember feeling devastated. Like many of my fellow graduates, I worked very hard during my graduate program. I also held leadership positions at AU and in SIS, so commencement was to be the culmination of hard work in and out of the classroom as a grad student and on campus as a leader while simultaneously balancing professional and personal obligations with my studies. I poured my heart and soul into that original draft of the commencement speech…and two weeks after being chosen in the rigorous selection process, the world changed.
I was sad for my family and loved ones who I invited to celebrate the day. As a first-generation Bangladeshi American, former Third Culture individual, woman of color, and LGBTQ+ person, I hold a lot of marginalized identities. For folks who also hold marginalized identities or come from underrepresented communities, we have to approach the world of school and work bearing our backgrounds in mind. So, for me, after working really hard in my grad program, being a student leader and then being chosen to speak at a commencement felt like my work had paid off in the most beautiful way. I especially wanted to make my parents proud. I was planning on wearing a Bengali sari/shari (traditional South Asian attire) under my graduation regalia to represent my culture and heritage while standing on that stage and to show my mom that all her sacrifices to make sure I was born in America were worth it. Education is a core value in my family—it’s what changed our family’s situation from generation to generation. This moment was not just for me; it was for my parents.
I loved my time at AU, and the idea of missing out on commencement—being among my favorite faculty and staff members; my close friends and classmates; and my mentor, Karin Edwards, who I found through AU—was heartbreaking.
At the same time, within those complex emotions, I also understood that for the safety of the greatest number of people and the most marginalized among us, including the disability community and immunocompromised people, not having an in-person ceremony was the safest choice. It would protect people who, regardless of a pandemic, are often not centered or thought about when it comes to events like this or daily life. As an Asian American person, I come from a collectivist culture where you prioritize the group, not the individual. I also have parents that dedicated most of their careers to the United Nations—and my mom specifically to global health—so from that standpoint, I fully agreed that this was the best decision for the greatest number of people.
It was bittersweet, to say the least.
Do you think the speech you’ll give on May 21 is radically different from the one you planned to give in 2020? And, if so, why?
Yes. Everything has changed. I read over my original draft with fondness, remembering a time that feels so distant to me now—almost like looking through someone else’s glasses to see their perspective. The young woman who wrote that speech is not the same person I am today, in 2022. I think many of us likely feel this way. And so, the message itself must be different. Additionally, I only have three minutes to give this speech, and that is going to be a hard limitation to abide by! I have to think really carefully about what can be said in that short time that resonates with the audience when our lives are entirely different in just two years.
Do you have thoughts about how the pandemic has affected you and your fellow graduates professionally? Have there been any positive impacts?
I think about how the pandemic has affected us on a weekly basis. It’s part of my job, because I work in talent management and DEI at the moment, so we talk about hybrid and remote work all the time, as well as what it means to be equitable in this new way of working that is permanent for many leading companies and industries.
I think there have been some positive impacts (just as there have been some negative impacts), which I hope others can relate to:
I got to return to where my parents live and be close to them for two years. My dad was diagnosed with a medical condition in 2020, and the fact that I was able to be “home” for the initial shock, procedures, and treatments was something that may not have been possible if we weren’t in a remote work world. There were many long walks with my parents, many relaxing weekends spent together, enjoying our time with each other. I couldn’t be more grateful to be so close to home, even though I miss the DC metro area dearly. Family came first in a very special way during this time. That said, every time my dad sees me, he jokingly exclaims, “I thought you moved out?! You’re back again?!” and he lightly threatens to buy me a dictionary with the words “moving” and “out” highlighted so I get the message.
I got a puppy, and she is my best friend!
I developed deeper relationships with my close friends, most of whom are also AU alumni. I bonded with my partner at a deeper level as well. I think, in general, relationships and priorities have shifted for the better. We value our time spent together more now than we likely did prior to the pandemic.
I know myself better than ever before—my boundaries, my goals, my hopes—and I am more determined to pursue my goals now, as well as uphold my boundaries.
The world of remote work is more inclusive now, generally, for people who are marginalized—namely, the disability community, to support accommodations, and the Black community—and in general, people of color—from having to deal with microaggressions on a daily basis in a physical workplace.
The world couldn’t turn away from the social injustices that have been around for centuries, from George Floyd’s tragic and awful murder that resulted in global protests to people paying attention to anti-Asian hate, and from COVID-19 disparities in Black and Brown communities and higher deaths among people of color to crises in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Ukraine (and many other regions). We, as citizens of the world, are paying attention in a way we maybe didn’t before. We’re caring about people in a way we didn’t before. And companies—decision makers, specifically—are taking action to address these concerns in and out of the workplace.
You graduated with an MA in social enterprise, and you now have experience as a consultant, facilitator, and workshop designer working to help build equitable and inclusive workplaces. How do you think the past two years have changed the workplace and what employees expect from their employers?
People are naming their needs unapologetically, and it’s beautiful. Employees are asking for work-life balance; more compensation in both benefits and pay; flexibility around work schedules; and recognition for additional duties, e.g., compensation for being in a leadership position for an Employee Resource Group. And they’re leaving unhealthy environments for better opportunities. Largely, employees are expecting their employers to do more good, be better for humanity and the world, and own up to and acknowledge shortcomings, and they’re demanding actionable change. Actionable change means going beyond performative statements to the practices and policy shifts in organizations that account for the most marginalized members of society. And if these employees are considered and taken care of, the rest of us will inevitably benefit from the same changes.
Adrika Lazarus at work in 2022Before the pandemic, workplaces weren’t really centering their employees. In the pandemic, we’ve seen organizations drastically change because they have had to. As I am writing this, we’re in the middle of the Great Resignation and Reevaluation, which has been a long time coming. Employers seem to be aware that if they aren’t meeting the requests and demands of employees, they’re going to lose talent to another company or organization that is meeting the needs, or their talent will go off and start their own thing.
I love that people are advocating for themselves and their colleagues. I love that leaders and decision-makers are willing to do the work. This is critical if we want to get to a more inclusive, fair, and equitable world of work.
How did your education at SIS and your master’s degree prepare you for your current work?
I was very intentional about my coursework and skills institutes. There is currently no degree program in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Talent Management (that I know of, although there are certificates). Instead, I thought about what skills I would need to be successful in any work environment. I chose social entrepreneurship because it is becoming a key imperative for businesses and for people. Organizations are focusing more on social impact, including corporate social responsibility (CSR) or philanthropy, tech for social good, sustainability, gender equity, racial equity, LGBTQ+ inclusion, disability justice, etc., because these communities may be what their people identify with. Organizations are also taking more accountability for their own roles in some of these issues by implementing social impact in their organizations: e.g., think of climate action commitments and how companies that went fully remote are trying to lower their footprint by having folks work from home.
In my social enterprise classes, I learned everything from design thinking to impact investing to pitching. These critical skills have helped me be a strong professional in the DEI and talent management space. By studying at SIS and building upon my global lived experiences in Asia and Africa, I connect DEI and talent management work to social entrepreneurship, impact, and innovation.
My favorite courses were training and program design I and II, which I apply pretty much on a daily basis to my work, whether it’s creating workshops from scratch, building toolkits for clients, developing training, or creating programs.
I’m grateful for AU faculty and staff who have made a massive impact on my life and career: my program director, Professor Bob Tomasko, who was so enthusiastic and supportive when we met that I decided not to apply to any other universities or graduate programs; SIS professors Nancy Sachs and Stephanie Fischer; adjunct professor Maria Morukian; professors Michael Gibbons and Tom Lent in the School of Education’s International Training and Education program; my former boss, professor and assistant vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Amanda Taylor; SIS professor and associate dean for graduate education Mike Schroeder; and above all, my mentor, Karin Edwards, who was my sounding board as a fellow SIS and training/program design alumna. She was the person who relentlessly advocated for me to push harder and see my worth as a person with hyphenated identities and lived experiences that were as crucial as my skills and qualifications.
I think it’s important to express gratitude for those who advocate for and support you, because I truly believe that between our work and our studies, it takes a community to achieve your goals. None of us can just do it by ourselves. Whether it’s networking, getting a referral, or taking a course, our support system is critical to our success. And we should pay it forward for the next person.
SIS held a commencement ceremony on May 7 for our current graduates. With the benefit of two years of experience post-graduation, do you have any words of advice for the Class of ’22?
Yes, I have four takeaways that I shared with the undergrad students on an alumni panel earlier this year:
Practice and balance humility with knowing your worth. Have transparent conversations with your future colleagues regarding pay, professional development, and skills training, and know your skills and what makes you valuable. And practice humility when you get feedback on your areas of growth—feedback is an important skill, both giving and receiving, and remember: we all have things we can improve on!
There are many ways to stay debt free—or relatively—like getting school paid for by working for the university full-time or working for companies that provide education assistance or tuition support. I learned this lesson the hard way—when it was already too late!
From my experience, the best way to succeed is to build authentic, genuine relationships with people. Keep creating meaningful connections.
And lastly, pull up the next person when you get to go up the ladder. We all need help in this life, and success comes from your community. As you rise up, make sure you have a hand extended back to bring the next generation of leaders with you.