Dean Begg to Class of 2021: “At the toughest times, think back to today and take pride in what you have accomplished”
The following is the text of the opening remarks delivered by Dean Melissa Begg at a virtual commencement held by Columbia University’s School of Social Work for its 2021 graduates, on Friday, April 30.
Congratulations to the Columbia School of Social Work class of 2021. You’ve studied harder than you ever thought possible, tested your ability to serve others with compassion, and pushed yourselves beyond your own expectations to get to this point. You learned from and collaborated with your instructors and your peers. And you are so much more than what you learned in the classroom and in field.
You are ready to share your enormous gifts with the world based on your own learning, your own lived experience, and your own perspectives on the world around us. And finally, you have in your hands your graduate degree. It is now yours, and no one can ever take it from you. It is an achievement that will last a lifetime.
You are an outstanding class of 489 grads from 39 states in 22 countries having pushed through the last 14 months, which may well have included some of the most difficult times of your life. In spite of multiple pandemics, you have reached this point, probably overcoming more challenges than almost any class before you in the school’s 123-year history.
We are all too familiar with the loss and pain that has been brought to us by COVID. So many have lost family, friends, and loved ones. Let us remember those we lost and lift up their memory never to be forgotten. May they remind us also to hold closer those who are still with us whom we love and hold dear.
Throughout the past year or so, I’ve carried with me a story I read in the newspaper. It was from very early on in the epidemic, at the end of March 2020. I would like to share it with you now. It was an interview with an EMS worker on the impact of COVID on their experiences.
They’d responded to a call to the home of a man and woman, both health care workers, who courageously worked through the pandemic. The woman contracted COVID. The man had had to go to work that day because of short staffing, leaving the woman alone resting in bed. When he got back home, he found her unconscious.
As that man waited outside, the paramedics worked relentlessly for over 30 minutes, but they could not save this woman. She passed away. They then had to go outside and tell the man that his partner was gone. Unbearably, they had to do it from six feet away. The paramedic told how they wished to comfort the man with a touch or embrace, but that this was impossible due to infection risk. They watched from afar as the man began to grieve.
Here’s what the paramedic finally said. “I’m sitting there beside myself. And I can’t do anything except be at this distance with him. So we left him.” That paramedic cried on the job for the first time in their 17-year career. There is so much pain in that story not only because of the loss of life, but because of the distance and isolation. It affects our humanity. And it reminds us how much we will need social workers to help address the damage we’ve sustained.
The story also reminds us that like so many of society’s ills, the pain and price of COVID was not borne equally. Our neighbors in Black, brown, and Indigenous communities have been affected more and suffered more and lost more to this pandemic. It’s a story that seems to repeat itself endlessly.
On top of that, we’ve borne witness as our friends and family and colleagues of color have endured terrible threats and experiences of racism and violence, especially among those who identify as Black or Asian. As the nation seems at last to finally shift its gaze in unison to the tremendous suffering and inequities that have persisted not just for a year, but for decades and for centuries, we are left to ask, will this time be different? If so, how? And how can we make sure?
You are very aware of these challenges. And I suspect it’s one of the reasons you chose social work as a profession because of its significant roots in social justice and racial justice. Just as you have borne witness to pain, you will be borne forward by the tide of compassion that brought you here to begin with. You leave us with the skills to comfort and empower others with incredibly difficult and complicated stories.
You are prepared, persistent, and powerful. But you never have to feel like you have to go it alone. Use your voice and your heart to call out the sources of injustice and root them out with dedication and compassion. I can’t think of a harder task. I can’t think of a more important task. And I can’t think of a better way to use your considerable talents but to craft a new vision for society and to pursue it with all your strength.
Without a doubt, you will need courage and conviction to face these challenges. I know you have both, or you wouldn’t be here today. I know you are brave enough to be vulnerable when you least want to be, but I want to add something.
We’re talking about incredibly tough work, and it will take a toll. Remember that you need to take care of yourself. Like they say on the airplane, affix your own oxygen mask before attending to others. You need to make sure you take the time to restore yourself periodically. Otherwise, you will not be able to continue to serve others effectively.
To this end, I want to share a few strategies I’ve learned from others much wiser than myself:
Rule number one: Do believe in yourself, and don’t compare yourself to others. There’s always someone smarter in the room, but they don’t sit where you sit or see what you see. You always have more to offer, so do it.
Rule number two: Do expect to be wrong sometimes, and don’t insist on being right. As is often said, the only person who hasn’t done anything wrong in the past year is the person who hasn’t done much of anything in the past year. Live with failure. Forgive yourself, and learn from it.
Rule number three: Do allow yourself to be afraid sometimes, but don’t let it paralyze you. If you’re not worried about your next steps every now and again, then you have to wonder if you are pushing yourself hard enough. Never settle for comfortable.
Finally, rule number four: Do give yourself permission to be sad and frustrated at times, but don’t ever give up hope. As we all know, life can sometimes be brutal. Author and social worker Resmaa Menakem in his beautiful book, My Grandmother’s Hands, notes that healing and growth take place on a continuum with innumerable points between utter brokenness and total health. Life is the patchwork of those points along the way.
At the toughest times, think back to today. And remember how it felt to complete this degree. Remember your talent and tenacity. And take pride in what you have accomplished to overcome the odds. Remember the faculty, field instructors, and classmates who inspired you. And remember why you chose a life of caring and service to others in pursuit of justice.
As I close, let’s take a moment to give heartfelt thanks to your family, friends, and loved ones, those who encouraged you, sustained you, and sometimes even sacrificed for you to reach this point. It’s their achievement too. Know how proud they are of you.
There is so much work ahead. In the remarkable words of Amanda Gorman,
We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be.
If you can dream of a better future for everyone, you can make it happen. Class of 2021, I extend my sincere congratulations again and all best wishes as you change society with compassion, courage, and creativity. The world needs you and is grateful for you.