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Convocation 2013: Speaker Megan Brown’s Republished Speech

Megan Brown, a candidate for MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in prose, delivers her Convocation speech.
Megan Brown, a candidate for MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in prose, delivers her Convocation speech.

MFA student Megan Brown was chosen to be the speaker for Convocation in celebration of the 161st anniversary of Mills College, which was held on Friday, September 27 at 10:15 a.m. at Holmgren Meadow.

To find out more about Brown, you can also read The Campanil’s profile story on her.

Read the full version of Brown’s Convocation speech, which has been republished with permission, below.

Best Wishes for a Year of Growth: A Convocation Speech

Good Morning to our alumnae, especially the Class of 1963, to Mills College President Alecia DeCoudreaux, to the Board of Trustees and President Kathleen Burke.

Thank you, Provost Phillips, for inviting me to speak today. I am honored to welcome all of you, faculty, staff, students, families and friends, to another great year at Mills.

I’d like to begin by congratulating the Class of 2014. Yes, already! How appropriate that the color green has been chosen to represent you. It makes me think of good luck, growth and creativity, all of which are needed for college and beyond.

This is my second year of graduate school at Mills and it’s hard to believe that a year from now, thesis advisor willing, I will have joined the ranks of the alumni. Before that rite of passage, though, I have a brief confession to make. I had to skip last year’s Convocation to do homework. Yes, homework. Perhaps some of you can relate.

For our first assignment, we’d been asked to interview someone unique and take their photograph. A few blocks from where I live, there is a house between two huge PG & E towers. For a long time, I’d wanted to walk up to it, to knock on the door, to learn what it’s like to live in such a place. But I didn’t know the residents, and a friend urged me not to enter the home alone.

In short, though the professor really liked the essay I composed, I fulfilled none of the original requirements. With time running out, I’d come right here to Holgrem Meadow to sit and think of how to make a good grade despite my failure. Where better to seek inspiration than our splendid and verdant campus?

What’s that, Eucalyptus? I can’t write an essay in two hours? Hush.

The day the assignment was due, the cameras turned on a woman with a child in her arms. And I knew immediately that I would write about that woman with this new life, this new mystery she carried. In many ways, it is a big rhetorical leap to talk about an education and a new baby in the same sentence but one connecting thread, I think, is the inevitability of minor failure. There are certain things that guarantee success: feed a child, love and comfort them, see to their medical care. Go to class, study, take good notes. There are countless books on how to succeed in school and career, how to take care of a child, how to do almost anything. We consider the advice of experts holy and final.

Yet so much is unknown or circumstantial. What works for one person may feel limiting to another. And let us not forget that some of the greatest achievements in art and science have been preceded by failure. Indeed, there is no line of study that doesn’t require hard work. We may spend years in one discipline only to change course.

As I was writing this speech, I remembered that when I was a young girl I thought my mother had become a venerated social worker because she was a genius and a demigod. Not so, she later told me. She’d wanted to be a nurse but struggled through chemistry. She’d always known she would help people for a living. And so she does.

Recently, she has helped me negotiate my own career change. The last time I sat facing a stage like this one, I’d just earned a master’s degree in political science. Though I learned a great deal from my subsequent career in campaigns and research, I’d silenced the refrain from my childhood. But, I want to write, I’d always told my mother. It turned out she’d listened, and when I said I was unhappy at work she echoed back my earliest hope for myself. It is with her support, with the courage to jump into the unknown that I stand at the podium today.

As you begin this year’s journey, know that you hold new life in your hands. Understand that you will not always know what to do and you shouldn’t. Change your mind a lot and be okay with it. Help one another through the process. Give your friends counsel even if you haven’t tried it on yourself. Be authors of your lives but be willing to collaborate. Whatever you do, don’t make it all about the grades. Parents, let us talk about this after the ceremony.

Before we go off to enjoy the day and one another, I’d like to share some advice given to me by an English professor here at Mills. Like most writers, her pupils desire validation, which she isn’t quick to offer. Instead, she gives the same advice over and over again, surprising us every time. She says: Play. Mess around with the words. I take this to mean that all writing is an experiment; it is through trial and error that we succeed. I hope you will agree that this five-time author is onto something. By the way, she also went to Mills.

To the class of 2014, the class of green, and the entire Mills community: I wish you good luck and freedom to try and fail. But Seniors, do write that thesis, the first of many things you will produce in your lives, and Juniors, please choose a major, knowing it is the start of your journey and not its end.

Thanks, everyone, for being such a wonderful audience. I look forward to seeing you around campus.