Gathering in Gratitude: My Commencement Speech

The College of Information Studies selected me as the PhD student speaker for yesterday’s commencement ceremony. The recording of the ceremony is below; my speech begins a few seconds after minute 7. The text of the speech is below the video.

Hello, fellow graduates of the Class of 2021. What a year. But we’ve made it through and we’ve earned our degrees. Congratulations.

We’re at commencement, which means we’re at the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. But for the next few minutes, I’d like to reflect on what brought us here. To the iSchool. And to this moment.

Can you remember when you first realized that you wanted to pursue a degree in information? Maybe a course caught your eye when you were scrolling through the catalog. Maybe a friend or mentor said, “Hey, you should check out the iSchool.” That’s what happened to me.

It was back in the Fall of 2010, a year after I’d finished undergrad. I was working as an internship coordinator here at the university but itching to pursue graduate study. The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I looked at programs in journalism, law, public policy, education, cultural studies, creative writing, and while they all looked interesting, I kept feeling like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

One evening after work, I went to see a beloved advisor and mentor from my undergraduate days, Olive Reid. We spent hours catching up and I told her about my frustration trying to figure out my future. I loved writing; I loved research, and I was fascinated by how social media was changing entire industries, like journalism and raising questions about important societal values, like privacy. But where could I study those things? Olive told me not to worry so much. She was right about that. But she also asked if I had looked at programs in information.

“What?” I asked, “You can study information?”

“Yeah,” Olive said, “UMD has an entire college for it.”

The next day, I searched online and came across the iSchools, a consortium of information schools from around the world, including ours. “The iSchools are interested in the relationship between information, people and technology,” its website said. “The iSchools take it as given that expertise in all forms of information is required for progress in science, business, education, and culture.”

Finally – a square hole for my square peg self. I had found where I belonged. Since then, I’ve earned a master’s, and as of today, a PhD, in information.

Someone once told me that iSchools are like the Island of Misfit Toys, the place where we go when we realize we don’t quite fit in any other discipline. I understand that metaphor. But I don’t see us as misfits. Instead, I think of us as shape shifters, moving fluidly within the web of people, information, and technology.

We help people navigate a datafied world. We preserve information and cultural heritage for future generations. We design new technologies. We advocate for accessibility, security, equity, and justice. We are librarians, archivists, data analysts, developers, designers, policymakers, programmers, artists, educators, and yes, writers, and researchers.

That conversation with Olive 11 years ago changed my life and set me on the path to this very point. Who did that for you? Who sparked a new idea? Suggested a different direction? Made you feel welcome? Encouraged you to persevere? You might not even know the person directly. Maybe someone wrote a book that fascinated you or produced a podcast that changed your perspective. What big or small thing did somebody do to inspire you to study information?

As we celebrate our achievements over the next few days, I invite you to reach out to that person, or those people, to let them know they made a difference to you, to thank them for helping get you to this momentous occasion of earning your degree.

I’ll start. Thank you of course to Olive, for that conversation, and also to my incredible PhD advisor, Dr. Jessica Vitak. Jessica, you nurtured my ideas, patiently listened to all my rambling, cheered me on when I felt stuck, and reminded me not to take any of this too seriously. You are the kind of mentor that I strive to emulate.

Alright, Class of 2021. Now it’s your turn.

Congratulations again to all my fellow graduates. We made it.

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