Tufts University

Baccalaureate Student Address: Anjali Nirmalan (A'09), Wendell Phillips award winner

May 16, 2009

Commencement 2009

Four years ago, I came to Tufts pretty damn self-assured. I got in with an essay on personal identity; I thought I knew my place in the world.

I enrolled in a little-known dual-degree program between Tufts and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. I convinced my parents to let me do it by telling them it was like getting two degrees for the price of one. My parents, both engineers, held their tongue at the idea of a degree in fine art. Their only stipulation was that my Tufts major be something concrete, and hopefully profitable. So, I majored in Sociology.

The combined-degree program appealed to me by its suggestion that a person could be more than one thing at a time: a scholar and an artist. I thought I had things figured out: I could slip on Converses on the way to the art school, and I could pop my collar on the way back to Tufts. But as I would eventually discover, the experiences that shape and bind us are hardly so convenient and predictable. In fact, they are much more unsettling.

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The summer after freshman year, my mother - desperate to turn that art degree into something involving a paycheck - got me a job as a photojournalist for the Schenectady Gazette in upstate New York. Every day I would drive my dad's beat-up Chevy Blazer down the backcountry roads, seeking out front page stories: the aggressive competition at the 4-H sheep fair, or the latest scandal at the carpet factory. However, over time assignments slowly turned into faces, and I found myself fascinated by the people I met: the teacher organizing a book exchange between her class and students in Uganda, or the elderly Vietnam vet who saluted before every game of darts he played. Surely if anything was art, this was: not a static object behind glass, but a wide breadth of ideas and experiences being provoked and exchanged. Somehow, in my car on the tail of one story or another, the journey's ultimate destination had become irrelevant.

Although I was lucky enough to have the Associated Press buy a photograph I took of a young girl grooming a lamb, something felt wrong. The photo seemed superficial, and the caption told you nothing about the girl's story: the cutbacks in her school's funding, or her parents' struggle to buy health insurance.

My doubts became abruptly clear one sweltering week in July, when severe flooding prompted the federal government to declare a state of emergency in 13 upstate counties. In the small town of Canojoharie, two residents offered to take me out in their raft to photograph the flooding of the local factory. After about ten minutes of paddling, we began to realize that our dubiously seaworthy vessel was sinking. Our yelling quickly brought FEMA out in a speedboat to save us. As I tried to keep $2000 worth of camera equipment dry by balancing it on my head, I looked up at the FEMA officer having to waste his valuable time on saving a photographer in a sinking raft, and had an epiphany: this wasn't who I wanted to be. I didn't want to be the one taking pictures of things being done; I wanted to be the one doing them.

My insistence from then on that an artist could be someone doing things, not just recording them, took me to a very different place the next summer: a political internship at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I did not have had any idea what I was getting into, and for that I blame a lifelong denial of the importance of personal history. After fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka, my parents had made the choice to raise me outside of their own culture. Resolving my own conflict of identity has not come easily, and it has required the acknowledgment of difficult histories kept swept under the rug, before I could even begin.

It was my first visit to Sri Lanka, and I wanted to understand what my parents wanted to forget. But nothing could have prepared me for how it would feel to sit across from officials representing the same government that caused my family such pain, and watch as American diplomats promised them military aid. How after my first interview of a torture victim, I went home and threw up.

As it turned out, "doing things" wasn't always as clear-cut as it seemed; pain and diplomacy can be inextricably bound. However, our struggles - as difficult and troubling as they might seem - are also necessary. Since my time on the military-patrolled streets of Sri Lanka, I have learned that if we all find ourselves a little more uncomfortable, then that's a good thing. The history books call 19th century orator Wendell Phillips the "Great Agitator." A staunch abolitionist when it was not a popular position, he said, "the best education in the world is that got by struggling."

Four years ago, we walked onto this campus with our own histories, the products of many past decisions, not least of which was to come here. Those stories were ones we shared with our freshman year roommates, our lab partners, our teammates - and we listened to their stories too. Now we carry them as surely as we carry our knowledge of macroeconomics or comparative lit. The realities lived every day across this country and this world - from the harsh to the joyful - are no longer abstract issues in news bulletins; they have faces: the ones sitting next to us here today.

We may ask ourselves, how different are we from when we came here four years ago? Instead, look at the person next to you, and ask yourself how have you changed them in the last four years - and how have they changed you. Now and in everything we go on to do, our legacy is carried by others. Our generation may differ from previous ones, who graduated into times of prosperous complacency. We enter a world of turmoil with gritted teeth, secure in our belief that if ever there was a moment for making change, it is now.

A few weeks ago, I went down into the University Archives to poke around and found some moldy boxes of old Commencement exercises. I discovered that, in 1934, dire financial straits crippled academic programs right here on the hill. But the university president at the time, John Cousens, boldly defied the clamor of both students and faculty who wanted increased professional training in the classroom. "The objective of education is this," he said. "That the individual life may be a work of art."

I think of my mother, who graduated into a troubling time of her own - forced to leave her country because of a civil war that still rages 30 years later. Today she is a civil engineer, building the infrastructure of our own futures. Bridges - not only physical ones - are the strongest when rising out of conflict, tension, and uncertainty.

Today is no end, or beginning - just a moment for us to catch our breath, look around and say: this is where I am. We find ourselves irrevocably bound by shared experiences: enlightening, because they were unsettling. I found my initial self-assurance at Tufts to be rapidly deflated; my experiences - in rural upstate New York, on the streets of Colombo, and with all of you - taught me to learn from what I did not know. It is that embracing of the unknown, the difficult, and the challenges of our time, that will be our greatest strength.

Congratulations, Class of 2009.

Photo by Alonso Nichols, University Photography

This story originally ran on May 17, 2009.