Congrats to Our Spring 2018 Graduates!

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Congratulations to our grads and families who braved the weather to attend the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony and Reception.


Commencement Address

Colton P. Seigel, BA 2018

Good afternoon graduates, faculty members, families, friends, and all who have come to support alike.

This is a very special place.  This is a very special place because I would argue there is more passion, here in these rows, than nearly anywhere else on campus.  Studying the liberal arts and humanities, we face our fair share of adversity…  “You’re studying French?  What are you going to do with that?” …or, my favorite… “That’s not even a real major.”

It’s funny though – because language, well, language is sort of what the world thrives on.  Without it, we’ve lost our code to unite.  Language is the connective tissue for societies to interact and flourish.  And the liberal arts, the humanities?  Well, those are things that make life worth living.  Don’t get me wrong – I seek not diminish the importance, value, or prestige of other fields of study.  They are all admirable and vital disciplines.

But the arts.  The humanities.  They speak to the soul.  To the intrinsic human need to explore and understand our surroundings.  Joy, despair, anticipation, regret, love.  These are the expressions, moments, and encounters in life we never forget. 

We parse the power of the human experience.  We embody empathy to the highest possible extent and view the world with more depth.  We are the ambassadors for those without voice.  Agents of change who cross boundaries big and small, extend helping hands—in policy and in practice, who better the world around us.  Authors, editors, translators, diplomats, educators.  These are just some of those professions that connect the dots.

That’s why I agreed to speak here this afternoon—to hopefully incite in you a desire to take the toolkit you have worked so diligently to assemble here at Maryland and apply it to a beautiful repertoire of engagement with the world around you—professionally, personally—wherever life takes you.

I am a product of what I truly believe is a superior department that not only facilitates language acquisition, but more importantly—encourages us how to derive meaning from this often-senseless world around us—a skill too many, I fear, severely lack.

Among many lessons I’ve learned over the past four years, big and small, in and out of the classroom; there are three main themes I feel resonate most in defining what it means to be an engaged citizen and human.  I’d like to touch on each with you here this afternoon: the powers of strength, story, and simplicity.  I hope to show you how these principles, in concert with one another, can inspire and cultivate a fruitful human experience.

Strength.  There’s this thing called life, and I’m going to let you in on a little secret—it doesn’t get easier.  And that’s okay.  Because you just get stronger.

There’s no doubt that, objectively, the work load and expectations from your environment increase.  But as time passes, you become better armed with the skill and wisdom endowed through experience to overcome any challenge or oppressor you might encounter.  I’d wager that in many ways, if not every way, you will never experience as much relative stress as you did during your years here at Maryland.  This, here, is a powerhouse of academia and ideas, enriching the minds I’m truly convinced will take on the most pressing matters we face, both nationally and globally.  I can say that—because I’ve seen it. I’ve watched many of my peers do just that; they’ve worked in translation, diplomacy, research, education, advocacy, and nonprofit outreach all over the D.C. metropolitan area.

But, on the day of my interview, my boss instantly—and much to my surprise—switched to French to gauge whether I had fibbed on my proficiency reports.  We continued the conversation for 10 minutes until it was clear that my comfort with the exchange surpassed her expectations. 

Hone your tenacity.  Channel your grit.  Remind yourself constantly that one year from now, no matter what the goal is, you’ll have wished you started today.

Second, the power of a story. 

Everyone has a story.  Be open to those that differ from your own.

The most useful and eye-opening piece of advice I ever received was as simple as this: “every accent is a story.”

When I spent my semester abroad in Nice, France a friend from Madrid came to visit.  As you might assume, he spoke Spanish and English.  We had tickets to a show and had ordered an Uber to get there.  On the drive, I was having a casual conversation in French with our driver.  I noted that, while his French was flawless, it also had a bit of distinctive tone.  He told me all about his favorite things to do in the city, and the restaurants I absolutely must visit.  Eventually, I asked where he was from—Barcelona. Upon learning this, I turn to my friend, tell him our driver is from Barcelona, and the two of them proceed to jab back and forth for 10 minutes in Spanish—fighting over which city tops the other: Madrid or Barcelona.

Now, I can understand Spanish with varied success, but I can produce next to nothing.  It turned out our driver’s wife is French and they started a family in the South of France.  Here we were, the three of us in this car, a language shared by any two, but not a single code shared by all three.  Each conversation was rooted in an entirely distinct context.  There was something so simple but beautiful about that to me.  If I had never engaged the initial conversation, I never would have registered the value that this story, like countless others, would bear on my memory of time spent away from campus. 

Finally, simplicity. 

Often, the simplest solution is the best solution.

One summer, I lived abroad and taught English in a small nation called Mauritius.  For those who may not know, Mauritius is a beautiful African nation with a vast array of cultures, religions, and rich history.  Each day after school, I’d walk back to my host family’s home and pass kids bouncing around playing soccer in the field, throwing a ball on the side of the street, or running and playing tag in and out of the water.  I’d then pass communities of tin huts, hundreds piled on top of one another, misshapen and worn by the elements, teetering on the brink of falling into themselves, thinking to myself, “how can my world [our world] here have everything, and still “not have enough”?

One day, during class, I was really struggling to get through to my students, and my ability to disguise my frustration was diminishing.  A young student of mine, Yuhvan, came up to me, and said, in broken French, (but I’ll translate)

“Monsieur... Everyone’s acting so crazy today.  I’m sorry for them.  Why don’t you take a breath and go get a drink of water?  I’ll watch over everything here.”  Here is a 5-year-old kid with more self-awareness and empathy than most you’ll ever meet, telling me to just get out of my head and go for a walk.  And somehow, just like that, the stress was gone.

Over the summer I spent there, I learned to gain such a feeling of security from having my pen and journal in hand, or the fact that oh shoot, I left my phone at home and won’t be back till tonight—but that’s okay.  In fact, that’s great. 

Very, very little is needed to make a happy life.

In our world of speedy and global communication, there is an ever-present need and push to become more connected with the world around us.  But, in my opinion, the more we share and like and post and tweet, the more of what it means to be human is lost.  Fostering discussion and engaging with parts of the world dissimilar to your own is a first step.  But to embrace a culture through its own maternal language is a whole new level of coalescence and humility.  A whole new level of human experience.

We have recently seen – in our own lifetimes – how ideological conflicts have manifested in grave disparity and war between and among nations and groups in conflict...  Charlemagne said that to speak another language is to possess another soul.  Why not begin to breach the disconnect with one of the most fascinating and unique aspects of what it means to be human – language itself?

I know that over the years to come, these experiences will always be with me as I try and do my part in making the world a better place for others.  My peers and mentors who study language are some of the smartest people I know; these people are the ones who get the big picture, who discuss ideas instead of checking Facebook & Instagram, who spend money on experiences instead of stuff, and who understand the world in a humble way.  These people understand what it is to be human.  Not a number or a resume, but human.

Congratulations to the Spring 2018 graduates of the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures within the College of Arts and Humanities for your invaluable achievement.  I wish you nothing but the best of luck in the future of your endeavors as we embark our own next adventure.  Jane Goodall, the anthropologist once shared something quite profound that I do my best to live by.  She said: “What you do makes a difference… YOU have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Whatever path you pursue, my hope for you is this: seek to nourish and share your own unique piece of humanity.  Enrich the lives of those around you.  Put others before yourself.  Connect with anyone and everyone you meet.  Find the power of strength, story, and simplicity in your own life.  Above all, take a moment every now and again to stop and ask yourself,

“What am I doing to make someone else’s life better?  Am I being human enough?” 

The rest, I promise you, will fall right into place.

Photos from graduation can be found here.


Video of the ceremony can be found here