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Student Commencement Address: I dare say that I also have a dream

By Katayoun Deljoui
Spring 2004 College of Life Sciences Commencement, University of Maryland, College Park

"[Thanks to everybody: Dean, Faculty, students and family... ]

I have spent the past few days trying to think about what I could share with you today. I also tried to write a funny speech. But, then, I realized that when it comes to my experience at the University of Maryland, there are more important things that I'd like to say.

When I was seven, my parents and I fled Iran during the war with Iraq and moved to France. I distinctly remember my first day of school. I was informed (through gestures) that I needed something in which to carry all my books... Puzzled, I told my Dad what had happened, but he didn't seem to understand either. So, he went out and when he came back, he had a brand new, huge BRIEFCASE (attaché case). The next day, I proudly took my shiny black briefcase to school and was laughed at all day long. I did not quite understand why, but I knew I wasn't ever going to go back to school if I didn't have a bag like everyone else's.

On my first day at Maryland, my third day in the US, my uncle drove me to school and - to my surprise - dropped me (and all of my luggage) off at the "big giant M." From there, I was expected to find my way to the Mitchell building and to my dorm. Apparently, in this country, when you go to college, you are not supposed to show up with mommy and daddy... even if you do not speak a word of English and have no idea where you are and where you are supposed to go.

These two stories are two examples of culture shock that I have experienced, both of which influenced me tremendously. After the briefcase incident, I learned that I had to blend into the French culture. I understood that I had to act like French people, eat like them, and dress like them in order to fit into their society. I had to have a bag like everyone else's if I wanted to avoid being taunted.

Unfortunately, this did not work well for me. I always had a feeling of inadequacy because I could not simply be the person I was. I soon grew tired of this and decided to move to the United States. Of course, I neglected to consider the problem of a language and cultural barrier. I had learned French in 6 months when I was a kid, so I naturally concluded that I would learn English just as easily.

So, after my uncle dropped me off at the big giant "M", I struggled through the orientation, dragged my suitcases behind me and moved in my tiny little room. Before I knew it, I was sitting in BSCI 105. If the professor had not used Power Point and slides, I would not have known whether I was in Biology or Advanced Latin Literature!

Fortunately, things got better... slowly. By the end of my sophomore year, English was no longer a problem and I was able to experience a normal student life. Here, I discovered the most important things we all learn in college. Number 1: there is no such a thing as an available parking space on campus. Number 2: do not ever leave your laundry unattended. Number 3: when calling the Health Center, you will always be greeted by "if you are in a life threatening situation, please hang up and dial 911." : )

But, I also learned that college does not prepare you for the real world as people often say... College is the real world. It is the place where you meet all kinds of people - good people, people whom you admire and who will change your life for the better; and, bad people, people who will deceive you or disappoint you. College is the place where you learn to succeed with class when you strive to earn the coveted A while still helping your classmates. College is the place where you learn to fail with dignity when you do not get accepted in a school or do not get hired for a job despite years of hard work. College is the place where you learn that you have to believe in yourself first before anyone else will. It is also the place where you learn modesty, because there is always someone smarter than you.

But most importantly, college is where I learned that America is not a melting pot. By calling the United States a melting pot, people imply that all the ingredients must mix together and thus lose all distinction to become a new entity. I think America is a salad bowl. The ingredients - many with different flavors and colors - are combined, but they remain distinct. Only the dressing of freedom and tolerance holds them together.

Over the past four years here, I realized that it was okay for me take a day off to celebrate the Iranian New Year with my family. I understood that it was okay to speak French in the street. I learned English and, in some ways, started acting like American students, but I did not have to abandon my culture.

My point is that multiculturalism is an important issue in the United States because no other place in the world has such a diverse population. It is the diversity that makes America what it is and, at the same time, it creates the challenges in its wake. We will all - at some point in the future - be confronted with the beautiful difficulty of multiculturalism, as we will all have to interact with people from different religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds. What we should remember is that being different is never easy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream that one day people would not be judged by the color of their skin, rather by the content of their character. And, our parents' generation fought to end segregation. I dare say that I also have a dream. I have a dream that one day people's capabilities will not be measured by their fluency in a foreign language. I have a dream that one day people will hear the words I say before they hear my accent. I have a dream that one day people will not be laughed at or looked down upon because they dress differently, eat different things, or celebrate different holidays.

You may think that I'm only a dreamer and that drastic changes like these will never happen in our society. But, let us not forget that humanities' greatest achievements started with a dream... I believe it is our generation's duty to take on the torch passed down to us and fight for diversity. I believe it is one of the many responsibilities of our class to make this dream a reality.

Thank you. And, congratulations everyone!!!"

... Payvand News - 6/10/04 ... --

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