When now-alumna Caroline Holyoak addressed her class in a valedictory speech during Commencement last May, she recounted the lessons learned in her English 112 class before 3,000 UP graduates, faculty, staff, and family. With an English and Spanish double major and Psychology minor, Holyoak managed to find time to work as a Writing Assistant in the university’s Learning Commons, as the Student Coordinator of the First-Year Workshop Program, and as an intern for the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature (NUCL). Still, Holyoak remains the only one of her classmates to have graduated summa cum laude, and is traveling abroad this year to utilize her bilingualism and passion for helping others by teaching English to high school students in Madrid, Spain. Read what advice she had to give her class last Spring:
Hello faculty, staff, family, friends, and of course, the University of Portland Class of 2019! My name is Caroline Holyoak, and I’m honored and excited to be speaking in front of you all today. It is astonishing to think that it’s been four years since we were sitting here as wide-eyed first-years at Orientation; people weren’t joking when they said college would fly by!
Today I want to tell you all about one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my time here at UP. But first, I would like to back up a bit and start by saying this: I love the color gray. My friends call it an obsession; I have painted the walls charcoal gray in two different bedrooms, and I am famous among my friends for my dressing in gray head-to-toe, in what my classmates will probably know as a “groutfit.” Bear with me, I promise I’ll come back to this in a moment. I am an English major, so of course I’m going to try to turn this into a metaphor. And so I’d like to offer up one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned throughout my time here about what the color gray might be able to teach all of us gathered here today.
This lesson initially came up in my very first semester here at UP, when I was an undeclared first-year in an introductory English class. On the first day of the semester, my professor had written on the board in all caps one phrase: “SEEK UNCERTAINTY.”
Initially, the idea confused me—wasn’t college the place you were supposed to come for knowledge, for clarity, above all, for certainty? And wasn’t my professor supposed to be the one helping us find those answers? But I soon came to understand just how much comfort and strength there was in that idea. “Seeking uncertainty,” at least in the context of that literature class, empowered my classmates and me to search our texts for examples of ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction, rather than trying to find “one right answer” within the books we read, which led to much more interesting discussions and analysis. Somehow, it was this lesson that sparked my curiosity and gave me the confidence to declare an English major, despite my parents’ (loving) warnings that I would be making lattes for the rest of my life in one of Portland’s famous coffee shops. And outside the classroom—as I was navigating living away from home for the first time, new academic pressures, and trying desperately to make friends—hearing that it was not only okay, but encouraged that I had more questions than I had answers was exactly what I needed to hear.
This idea of “seeking uncertainty” has proved valuable far beyond my English 112 class, and it has only become more clear to me over the last three years. In fact, just as that lesson proved so comforting during my transition as a first-year, I’m now finding myself encouraged by its message as I look towards my gray, uncertain future and my transition out of the home I’ve made here at UP. For those of you who don’t know what you want to do with your life—which I think, if we’re being honest with ourselves, is most of us—I hope that being encouraged to lean into that uncertainty will provide the same comfort for you as it has for me.
But aside from this personal lesson, I think that “seeking uncertainty” is valuable far beyond our life transitions. It seems to me that we live in a world that deals in and profits from strict, hard binaries—between men and women, between liberal and conservative, between black and white—in short, between those who we consider to be “like” us, and those who we consider “other.” Of course I don’t mean to say that thinking in these sorts of dichotomies isn’t occasionally useful, or that I myself don’t often think in this way; after all, we’ve been conditioned to do so throughout our lives. What this does, however, is keeps us from seeing other people as individuals. We begin to think of other people based on their membership in a few imposed categories, rather than as people who are multifaceted and complex. I would argue that this binary mode of thought is how the slow, dangerous process of dehumanization begins, leading to division, to polarization, to hatred, and sometimes even to violence.
My suggestion, then, is that we should all try to actively embrace the lesson I learned way back in that English 112 class. Seek uncertainty, value ambiguity, celebrate multiplicity, and we can start to reverse some of these systems. And my hopes are twofold. On the one hand, I think this idea of “seeking uncertainty” allows us to move beyond convergent thinking, where any question only has one correct answer, and instead helps us realize the value of divergent thought, where multiple paths can lead to the same end, where process is just as important as product, and where there are a number of “correct” solutions to any given problem. As we step into the crazy world after graduation, Pilots, I think that this sort of flexible, pluralized thinking will be invaluable for many obstacles we face.
And on the other hand, by looking for the places which seem unclear, foreign, or confusing to us, whether that be in a book, in political discourse, in the career paths we believe need to be obvious from the start, and most especially in the assumptions we make about other people, I believe we can expand our worldview to account for the messiness, the ambiguity, the twists and turns—in short, the inherent grayness—of the world as it is, rather than the limiting black-and-white dichotomies of the world as we have been told that it should be. As one of my professors once wisely told me: be amazed at what you can get accustomed to. Question the sureness and certainty of what you’re comfortable with. Be wary of how complacent we are about imposing and inhabiting strict categories, and, even more dangerously, condemning those who dare to exist anywhere outside them.
In short, then, to my fellow graduates, I hope that you will find comfort in seeking uncertainty as you leap into the next exciting stage of your life. Long after you’ve shed your black caps and gowns, I hope that all of you will leave here remembering the color gray. Remember what you’ve learned here at UP—that we can see multiple solutions to a single problem, that we can move beyond binaries to account for spectrums and pluralized ways of beings, that we can see other people as individuals who are worthy of our time and respect—in hopes of creating a world that celebrates difference and is all the more loving for it. Thank you.
See the entire commencement ceremony below: