Dear Provost Coatsworth, Executive Vice President Madigan, Dean Alonso, faculty, and administrative staff; dear families and friends, but most important, dear PhD Class of 2017:
I feel extremely honored to deliver the student speech today, and would like to start by thanking my two advisors in the Political Science Department, David Johnston and Jack Snyder, as well as Lasana Harris from [University College London], and my other committee members, Robert Jervis and Helen Verdeli from TC; as well as my parents, husband, son, and friends who are sitting in the audience today.
I am here today to talk about what Columbia means to me as a place—as an enigmatic place of arrival and possibility, as a place that marks my intellectual biography, as a tangible place in which a multitude of my identities found a space to speak to each other.
On one of my first lush summer evenings on campus seven years ago, when I was sitting with a newly made friend on the steps of Low Library, we were watching how the lights of Butler Library opposite of us were beginning to pierce brightly into the soft, darkening sky, one small window after the other. My friend and I talked about how for our hypermobile generation, places and locations are often piled onto each other without clear order, whereas recounting specific years provides more structure and clarity. For this generation, the memories of places that we travel to and from, and that we leave behind and immerse ourselves in anew, can quickly become a jumbled and bewildering collection of facts. Instead, specific years begin to structure us—almost as if they light up in front of our eyes, like the row of bright windows of Butler Library, into the darkness of the sky.
Yet today I want to make the case that our memory of Columbia is especially precious for a hypermobile generation like ours, because it is deeply etched into us as a memory and experience of place, above all.
I came to Columbia from having studied political philosophy in the UK, I grew up in Germany, was born in China, and thus arrived at Columbia with many question marks about my cultural and intellectual belonging.
I wrote an interdisciplinary dissertation that employs the social neuroscience on prejudice, stereotyping and dehumanization of others, to build a neuropolitical theory of how we can live together cooperatively in hyperdiverse and divided societies. Columbia’s campus, its winded corridors in the prewar buildings, the seminar rooms, the libraries, and above all, its people became a physically tangible and contained place where I could draw connections between my conflicting identities.
Academically, it became a place where in my quest to create a new neuropolitical language and interdisciplinary theory for today’s identity politics, I could literally cross disciplinary boundaries by walking over to the offices and seminar rooms of different departments and library rooms on the Morningside campus, within a matter of hours, within a whole long day. As I was contemplating during my graduate years what impact the brain has on politics, and how politics reflects in the brain, I crisscrossed campus and connected the disparate intellectual fields in my mind—neuroscience and political philosophy—by walking across the campus space.
But just like any physical place that is able to grip our imagination, Columbia is a place that at once attracts our most daring visions and yet most vulnerable longings. If, like me, you have ever wondered and despaired about who you are, how you are supposed to think, and how you are supposed to talk about yourself in light of the often conflicting cultural, racial, linguistic and gender identities that you carry within you, then you will know that words such as belonging, home and liberation are not just abstract concepts but powerful and enticing sounds that compel you to explore them with an almost irrational yearning and resolution.
When I arrived at Columbia, I wanted to understand the force of social identities such as race, culture, and class, in determining political outcomes in our post-Cold War world order. I was motivated by my upbringing by Chinese parents in post-War, unified Germany: I was puzzled how identity politics could lead to such disastrous outcomes such as the Holocaust and the Cultural Revolution, but at the same time, how it could also lead to empowering triumphs such as the Civil Rights Movements and desegregation in the US, as well as the Feminist Movement and postcolonial liberation. Why did identity politics in the twentieth century lead to such disastrous and yet triumphant outcomes? And how are we to learn from this for the identity politics of the twenty-first century, in our increasingly hyperdiverse and divided societies?
But of course, as is so often the case, the deepest and most hidden, but also most desperate and powerful, drive behind these questions came from my own Self. They came from my own experience as an intercultural minority woman who did not know whether she belonged to the West or the East. From my experience of being rejected as too Western by fellow Chinese and as too foreign by fellow Western colleagues, professors, and friends. From my experience of not knowing which history was truly writing me, and which history I should help writing. From yearning for a place that I could call my intellectual home, where I belonged without being put into set identity categories, where I could ask questions and try to answer them in a crispness and unfussiness that allowed me to focus completely on the question itself.
A place where the beginning of each day was not marked by that stinging sense of shame that still too many of us who move from identity margins into the center allow to wash over ourselves. I was looking for a place where it did not matter so much who you once were but where what you said, thought, and responded to in this very moment in a seminar room, a research lab and a lecture hall, took on importance and reality. Columbia as a campus and New York as a city became that place where the words belonging, home, and liberation could be uttered completely anew.
However, I am not trying to idolize Columbia: My memory of Columbia is also marked by contestation of its place, and by who is represented and allowed entry here. I am thinking back of my time as student senator, when I engaged in heated debates about Columbia’s global identity in light of ROTC’s return to campus, about Columbia’s responsibility to invest ethically, low-income students who confessed about their struggles with food stamps and finances, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as well as the historic erection of a plaque that honors the Lenape people in 2016.
Therefore, when I think back, my time here at Columbia is marked both by the liberation that the space offers to intercultural people like me, but also by the constant awareness that this space needs to be continuously contested, reclaimed, and transformed by a diverse assembly of voices.
The meaning of a place also comes from seeing it through someone else’s eyes. I would not be the person I am today without the undergraduate students that I have taught—to consider the identity challenges of our time through the perspective of this youngest generation on campus has been deeply humbling for me, giving me true joy and purpose. Likewise, our parents and family who are sharing this special moment with us today carry within them the knowledge of other continents, histories and political eras—which is why seeing us on stage today, in this place, in this city, at this moment, is deeply touching and meaningful to us, but perhaps even more so to them.
Dear Class of 2017, I leave you with this image of Butler Library’s lights lighting up like the years that are to unfold before us after our graduation, but also, with a visceral sense of place connected to Columbia—of that period in your life where the fractured identity parts within you found enlightenment and meaning, and a true sense of belonging in a single haven of time and place.