My daughter graduates from high school this week. As I struggled to craft a meaningful message to share with her and her classmates, I revisited a speech I gave exactly two years ago, to Asian students graduating Columbia University in the beginning of the pandemic. I was struck by how relevant it still is for a generation contending with deep uncertainty. I share edited excerpts here, with my deepest congratulations to the Class of 2022.
My fellow Asian Americans and my fellow Columbia graduates, I am so honored to be with you.
Congratulations to you. Congratulations also to your parents and families and friends, who are likely key reasons you have gotten this far.
It has been 20 years since I wore the blue robe for my own graduation from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. We threw CD-Roms into the air. I will not compare my experience to yours. What you are going through and are about to enter is unprecedented in every way. (And also, you might be asking: What’s a CD-Rom?) It would be foolish to pretend I have a script for this time of great uncertainty.
But perhaps our ancestors do. As Asians, our arrivals and stories vary, but one common thread emerges: Migration is uncertainty. The challenges we complained about when the pandemic began—not being able to travel, not being able to see friends and family—are challenges my Indian immigrant parents endured for years, partly a result of starting out with little, partly because their thrifty ways then stuck. Perhaps this is your parents’ story. Perhaps this is your story.
I’ve thought often about what defines immigrant families, our love for each other, our determination, our failures and successes. I think it starts with the act of leaving itself. Most people say migrants come to America for education or opportunity. I have interviewed literally hundreds of folks on this subject, and that is simply not true. Most are escaping something: debt, addiction, abuse, a bad breakup, brothers, sisters, thin walls, nosy neighbors, a scandal, political movements, betrayals, themselves. Immigration, and America specifically, represents the chance to be a new person.
This story, this fraught history of ours in America, is oddly reassuring right now. It is as if our ancestors really embody the sentiment of Maxine Hong Kingston, who said: "In a time of destruction, create something."
But how can we embody it ourselves, right now? How can we create at a moment when everything feels so unstable?
I thought it might be helpful to offer 10 practical tips as you set out on your journey:
- This first year after college is tough. Perhaps the toughest of your life. You might not want to hear that. But even pre-Covid, this would have been true. You know how the first year of college felt like you were out of your element? You had to pretend all these new people you met were friends, and, well, you weren’t friends. It’s like that, only worse. Again, you’re leaving what you know—but this time, you have to figure out the ways of the workplace, which is undergoing the single greatest disruption since the Industrial Revolution. You have to forge new relationships with your parents, especially if you are living back at home and will be for the foreseeable future. Accept that this upcoming year will be hard.
- It’s okay to have a life. Actually, you must. I started working on my first book at 23 and it published a few years later. I wrote another soon after—and then spent 10 years feeling inadequate that the next one is taking so long. Yesterday, my daughter wanted to go fishing, and I thought about how sometimes, you just need to stop working and go do nothing. In fact, doing things that have nothing to do with your job might help you do your job better.
- Go abroad. It’s an interesting time to say this, as the future of travel seems to change by the day. But to be insular is at odds with the possibility and opportunity afforded by travel and technology. You will work for businesses that no longer see growth in the US. We are contending with the end of the US as the global superpower. Going overseas might leapfrog your career and challenge why we do things the way we do. It forces us to explain ourselves to other people, which is never a bad thing.
- It’s never a good time. To go overseas. Or move. Or take a new job. The thing about opportunity is that it’s rarely on your schedule. So when you find yourself confronted with an amazing job or gig or fellowship and you say, “it’s just not a good time…” check yourself. Will it ever be a better time than now? I think this is especially true during the uncertainty of a pandemic.
- Prepare for opportunity. I don’t believe that 80% of life is just showing up. I think you have to prepare. And rehearse. And make mistakes. And learn from them. But please do not just show up and expect things to happen to you. Oftentimes, I will be in meetings and marvel at how other people just sound better. The answer is rarely to take a speech class; it’s to read more and actually do the work.
- You are actually quite confident in your 20s. Use that to your advantage.
- Someone, at some point, will ask you to do the wrong thing. It is in those moments you must figure out what you stand for. Who are you willing to speak up for? To fight for? What are you willing to quit over? It helps to find someone or something that centers you. In my case, it’s my family—my kids are my moral anchors. They cuddle up with me in the bed in the morning and I never want to do anything that compromises the purity of that moment.
- Be vulnerable. Success, in many ways, is based on a series of relationships and how meaningful they are. I worry that we have become so transactional and clinical with one another that we aren’t letting our guards down—that’s a terrible way to work and live life. Let people in. It’s okay to show vulnerability. If Covid shows us anything, it’s that we all need to get a little more real with each other. It is the ultimate sign of showing confidence.
- Everything will change. We know this to be true. Our institutions have not been the best at prepping us for this, and I say this as a journalist speaking via videoconference to Asian graduates of Columbia University. Think of these institutions, media and higher education, and the drastic upheaval they have seen in the last 25 years, 10 years, five years. Even just the last few months. Everything will change. Your ability to survive and thrive is entirely based on two things: how strong your foundation is, and how well you can adapt.
My fellow Asian Americans, the coming days will be far from perfect. You are entering the next chapter of your lives at an historic time.
Your days will be filled with change and challenges, but I hope they are also purposeful. I have faith that you will rise to the occasion. I have faith you will continue to do your families and our community so proud.
And this brings me to my tenth and final tip: Keep learning. I don’t know how many of you have read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, but if you have not, please go do so right now. There’s a scene where a father tells his son, “Learn everything. Fill your mind with knowledge—it’s the only kind of power no one can take away from you.”
The son realizes that his father has been telling him to learn, not to study—and that there’s a key difference.
With these ceremonies, your studies have concluded. A lifetime of learning is just beginning. Congratulations.