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Williamson Medalist Remarks: Leilani Ly '21

Thank you, Dean Hazlett, for that kind introduction. Thank you President Altmann, members of the Board of Trustees, F&M staff, and faculty. Thank you to my family, friends, and peers, who have pushed me, inspired me, and held me up in my four years at F&M. And most importantly, thank you to my mom, to whom I dedicate this award—the woman who single-handedly raised me, and who first cultivated my love for learning in our after-school trips to the library. Your tenacity, generosity, and sheer strength is the reason I am able to stand here as the Williamson medalist today; and so this medal belongs to you, too.

As a low-income, first-generation, woman of color, there were many moments throughout the past four years when it was hard to imagine transcending the barriers I faced at a college like F&M. I constantly felt like I was one step behind, struggling to figure out how to navigate our demanding academic culture after attending underfunded public schools for my entire life. I worried about money as much as I worried about my grades, burning myself out working two jobs to support myself on top of a full course load. I fought to have my voice heard in class and to be taken seriously as a female academic, surrounded by male peers and faculty who often used their power to silence and belittle me. And I was always acutely aware of how I stood out as an Asian American on campus, forced to learn how to manage my academics while my very personhood was being challenged by the racial injustices in our community and country.

I know that I have not been alone in these struggles. And so today, I celebrate all of us, but I want to celebrate, especially, my peers who are also low-income or first-generation college students, students of color, women, nonbinary, or queer, who have had to overcome a million things to get here. I never want to reduce any of us to a set of identities, but I do want to acknowledge, that in light of our identities, standing here today is an enormous feat, and we owe it to ourselves to recognize that. This is what makes me most proud to be the Williamson medalist, and I hope all of you can feel the same pride in yourselves, too, for what you have accomplished.

I know that this past year was nothing close to what any of us imagined our senior year would be like. Many of us looked forward to this year since we were first-years, excited for the day we would have finally found our place on campus—only for the spaces we have made for ourselves to lie empty in the shadow of a global pandemic. There are no words to encompass how truly strange and difficult it has been. I hear you. And I mourn with you over what we've lost. It's okay to mourn that loss even as we balance the privilege we have to be graduating anyway, and the responsibility to move forward; to use what we have gained here to work toward things beyond ourselves.

And as we balance that grief, privilege, and responsibility, I hope you can also make space to hold gratitude. Gratitude for the relationships we've formed and the people we've become, but also, a profound sense of gratitude for ourselves. Sometimes it felt like surviving was all we could do, and so we survived; and that is worth celebrating.

Class of 2021, what a furnace, what a dumpster fire of a year we have been through. As much as I sometimes want to throw it all away, along with all of the pieces of myself I feel I have lost, what I want to hold onto in the hours and days and weeks after this ceremony, as our lives continue—what I want to hold onto is that we have made it. YOU have made it. It doesn't matter what you weren't able to accomplish because of the weight of the thousand things upon your back, or that half of the year was spent surviving, and only that. What matters is you are still here. You have transcended. And you have made gold of the wreckage in the best way that you could. And I know that some days that gold looks like the dusty metal of a trash can, but one day the sun will be shining, and you will hold it to the light and see in your hands gold, pure gold. And I hope for you that day comes soon.

Class of 2021, congratulations. I am so proud of all of you.

Williamson Medalist, Leilani Ly '21, speaks at the 2021 Commencement

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