Speech by Emily Vincent at the 2020 Graduation Ceremony of Yenching Academy


Dear Dean Yuan Ming, Associate Deans, Professors, Laoshimen, scholars, and loved ones: good afternoon!

We are gathered together today in a world that is unimaginably different from the one we sat in on a warm fall day two years ago when we celebrated YCA’s opening ceremony for the 2018 Cohort. While none of us could have imagined that our graduation would look quite like this, there are some important similarities between where we were at the beginning of our YCA journeys and where we find ourselves now.

Firstly, we are again teetering on the edge of a new adventure, full of uncertainty and yet hope about what is to come. Two years ago, we were physically close to one another but emotionally still distant, while today we are physically apart but emotionally connected. And perhaps least important of all, yet most important in terms of the framework that I am attempting to set up for this speech, both then and now, we are all dressed up to celebrate.

There is a concept in my home country, the US, of the “Skype interview”. Perhaps for our situation, “Zoom interview” would be more appropriate. Most often used as a party theme or the premise of a joke, the concept of the “Skype interview”  or “Zoom interview” implies that the upper half of your body is dressed up, so that you look nice through your computer camera, while the lower half of your body is in sweat pants, pajamas, or even nothing at all. I bring up this idea not to check who among us is actually wearing pants right now. No, I bring up this idea because I think it has a fair amount in common with our time at YCA.

Many moments over our past two years have seemed picture-perfect – the visible half of our interview, if you will. Our tireless Yenching Global Symposium team pulled off an incredible international forum. Our classmates published illuminating research from their China in Transition field studies in top-notch academic journals. Our athletes represented dozens of countries to the wider PKU campus, winning the men’s basketball Beida cup and taking first place in our division on Sports Day. Our talented performers showcased the beauty of dance and music from cultures across the world.

I had my own “picture-perfect” moments of winning unexpected games with the Salwomen, being named an RA, and landing a second-year internship at a well-known Chinese company. Certainly, our picture-perfect moments are important. They are something to celebrate and be proud of.

But they are not what I want us to take away from our time at YCA.

What I want us to take away from the past two years is the bottom half of our “Zoom interview” – the  times when we weren’t put together, the times when we didn’t have the right answers, the times when we struggled – the times where it felt like the rest of the world was all dressed up, and we didn’t even have pants on. It’s not easy to show these parts. It’s embarrassing to think back over the times when we weren’t at our best, whether it was having our worldviews shaken up by a classmates’ new perspective, or not having the words to explain ourselves in an everyday situation, or just feeling particularly vulnerable in a new place away from our home city, province, or country. I’m willing to bet my last monthly stipend that every single one of us had times where we felt like we just couldn’t do it, and we certainly didn’t want other people to see us like that.

Those times, though – our challenges hidden outside the view of the camera – are the most valuable lessons that we can take from this degree. Those were the times when we needed other people. We needed a friend to help distract us with a game of ping-pong on the sixth floor, or a phone call from home, or a particularly patient ayi to just listen kindly as we tried to explain our problem. I needed thoughtful classmates who brought me back a stuffed camel when I was too sick to join my class’s field trip to Dunhuang. I needed teammates who reminded me that the fun is in playing the game, not just in winning it. I needed friends who helped me talk through my own thoughts over a steaming bowl of malaxiangguo. I didn’t necessarily need my lovely ayi to “knock-knock, fuwuyuan!” into my room every morning, but I sometimes did need the reminder that a new day always arrives, no matter how difficult the day before seemed.

If what we take away from these past two years is the memory of messing up and having someone else help us, it becomes infinitely easier for us to be that person who helps someone else. If we come away from this experience with a heart that has grown as much or more than our Chinese vocabulary, then every bit of the struggle was worth it. That is what I want us to take away from this experience: we have all had our “pantsless” moments, we have all benefited from the kindness of others, and we can all be the source of that kindness to someone else.

We are graduating today into a truly frightening world. I say this not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also because of the extreme inequality we see between and even within our own countries. So I leave you today with a challenge: be recklessly empathetic. Remember every ounce of challenge that you have faced. Remember exactly how it felt to struggle. Remember those who helped you overcome those challenges. And then go be that person for somebody else.

Our world doesn’t need leaders of only the powerful, the rich, or the privileged. It needs leaders who care about everyone, and who use the experience of their own struggles to help other people. Embrace the world with empathy, and we will be more than just a smiling face at the top of a list of impressive achievements. Embrace the world with empathy, and then we will be true global leaders.

Thank you, and congratulations to the cohort of 2018!

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