Angela G. Subulwa, geography department chair, delivered the following faculty address at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s 2019 midyear commencement ceremony:
Thank you, Chancellor Leavitt, Provost Koker.
Welcome, faculty, staff, families, friends, community members, and, of course, graduates.
It is an honor and a privilege to be here today to share in your accomplishments and to celebrate your successes at UW Oshkosh. So, graduates, on behalf of the faculty and staff from across all three UWO campuses, congratulations.
You made it. To arrive at this moment, you successfully balanced the demands of classes, jobs, student organizations, family and friends. And although the diploma will only have your name printed on it – it is an achievement made possible by many. To the parents, partners and children of the graduates – congratulations as well. You have supported your student throughout their journey so it is fitting that you share in this celebration of their success as well.
As the introduction mentioned, I am a geographer–which means that No. 1 yes, I do in fact know where in the world Carmen Sandiego is; and, more seriously, No. 2 I tell stories through places. I study places–how we make them, how we break them, how they make us, and how they can break us. It also means I think and talk about my life (and others’ lives) spatially, geographically.
I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, where South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa meet the Missouri River. I traveled about 200 miles south of Sioux City to pursue my undergraduate degree at Northwest Missouri State University–a university that shares a lot of characteristics with UWO–it’s a regional, comprehensive state school with a similar commitment to student access and success.
In preparing this address, I’ve thought a lot about my own commencement. I do not remember the faculty commencement address at my own graduation (as you will likely not remember this one), but I do remember how I felt a mixture of excitement and relief, anticipation and uncertainty. In short, lots of messy stuff. On that day, I would not have ever imagined this day. Yet, it was my undergraduate experiences that gave me many of the tools I needed to remap my life and to navigate new places in unexpected ways.
Likewise, your time at UW Oshkosh has done the same. You may not know today where your life’s map may take you, but you have the tools to plot your course, reroute your paths, recalculate your destinations, take side roads, and imagine entirely new places.
As you leave UWO, you are different because of your experiences here–on this campus, on the Fond du Lac campus, on the Fox Cities campus–and these places have been made different by having had you there. As you move onto to new places or return to familiar ones, you yourself are changed.
I know you will take a great amount of knowledge with you from your time at UWO–but I know you will also take some wisdom. The difference between those two is important. Knowledge is powerful information, but google-able information; wisdom is an understanding of how to use it. If you are not wise in how you interact with the world, it likely won’t matter how much you know. So today, I want to give you a few additional pieces of wisdom to guide you.
In between the clichés and geography-nerd references, I hope you find a few pieces of practical advice.
No. 1: Use your compass
A compass is an instrument that can be used for navigation but also for orientation. Your own internal compass is calibrated from your own life experiences–the things that set you on particular paths, or caused you to readjust your bearings, or turn around to head a different direction. For many of us, we are calibrated to the people and places that we love or that have loved us–the people and places that inform our ground truths. In the words of the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate degree, the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize, and fellow temporary-Kansan, Wangari Maathai:
“A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all of us who have had success that we cannot forget where we came from…our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remain unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand”
This room is full of soil and roots and trees. Remember this. Whether you are someone’s soil or someone’s tree, you are a part of something bigger than yourself, your successes are held steady by the foundations built by others, and you have an obligation to build foundations and hold open doors to those that come after you. It’s not easy work, you need to know yourself well to do this well–so use your compass, get your bearings, find your ground truths. And then start moving.
Before you start moving though, it is advisable to have an idea about where you might be headed which brings me to my second piece of advice:
No. 2: Plot your route–AND then get lost
When you have clear ideas about where you want to go in life, it is essential to plot your route, make a plan, do the things that will set you up to succeed. You have already done that by pursuing and attaining a post-secondary degree. You had to set goal posts, use mile-markers, calculate timelines, read road signs that provided warnings and direction, recognize how to know when you got off course and find your way back–you analyzed all of this info in order to get here in this place today. You’ll need all those strategies to arrive at your next destination as well–and the one after that and the one after that.
BUT the geographer up here is going to tell you to get lost once in a while, if not frequently. Make mistakes–take that U-turn or better yet take the smaller, less-expected roads (even when your GPS is scolding you not to). To get lost is to take risks, to do the scary things. In my own life, I ventured down numerous unsuggested paths–and the choice to do so fundamentally changed my map and expanded my world.
I graduated from Northwest Missouri with a degree in geography and minors in Geographic Information Systems and computer science–prepared and trained to be successful in my post-graduation job at a little company called Garmin in Lenexa, Kansas. But something stopped me, told me to get off that well-traveled road. My compass redirected me. My internal GPS recalculated and I disrupted expectations. I found myself pursuing graduate studies in geography at the University of Kansas, studying refugees and African development. This was, geographically, a small recalculation – after all Lenexa isn’t far from Lawrence but it set my course for an even bigger recalculation in the future.
In 2005, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to spend a year studying displacement, refugee hosting and development at Ukwimi Refugee Settlement in the southern African country of Zambia. A place I had never been. Talk about getting lost. I spent the next year and a half in Zambia, getting and feeling lost nearly daily but in doing so the entire scale of my map readjusted to include a place (and people and ultimately a partner and family) that was never on my radar, but that has now become my north star.
It’s in the getting lost, taking unexpected, even ill-advised turns, that life really happens and you discover new things.
Which bring me to my third point:
No. 3: Switch to the satellite view
When you open up your map app on your phone, what is at the center? Usually a little blue dot that represents you, right? My challenge to you is to de-center yourself–seek out a different perspective than the one in which you are the center.
Make use of multiple maps. Use the satellite view to shift your perspective, to get some distance from your own sight lines. Use the principles of remote sensing to guide and challenge your perspective. Remote sensing, or the process of obtaining and interpreting satellite images, teaches us there are multiple ways of seeing.
For example, to the human eye a recently burned forest appears dark, dull, not particularly special. But if we use satellite technology and view it with a thermal imaging sensor, the area becomes bright, illuminated, signifying heat and energy.
Use this approach when you make new connections. Never discount a person because of how they seem on the surface–view them via multiple sensors and discover how surprised you can be at what lies below the surface.
My fourth point:
No. 4: Remember that people make places
So be nice. Wherever you go, be sure to see who is following behind you and clear the path when and where you can. Be generous –share your snacks with your fellow trail mates.
While today is all about you (and that’s great, enjoy it, relish in it), most days are not so you’ll need people. Which means you have to talk to people, really, actually audibly, talk to people–feel free to continue to text, snap, tweet but not instead of actually talking.
When I lived in Zambia and I needed to make myself a place in the community, I had to talk to people, which meant learning entirely new languages, speaking to people in ways they can understand. In any new place, it takes conscious effort to build rapport, to build relationships. You have to show up. You have to be willing to stumble, to be vulnerable, to recalculate.
And you don’t have to go to Zambia to do this work. In fact, you must do this work here as well. It’s not just far way places that require you to display intercultural competency and knowledge. You need that right here, right now–in this place, in this moment.
For example, if I thought learning chiNyanja or siLozi to navigate Zambia was an important demonstration of respect for the communities I work with, then I also need to embrace the ‘bubbler’ (I’m still working on this one).
It’s not just simple or small or frankly weird things like “bubblers” that I’m talking about though. I’m talking about the hard stuff too. I’m talking about having real conversations about big structural obstacles like racism and persistent inequities and about big interpersonal struggles like mental health or trusting in relationships.
I challenge you to have real conversations, even the tough ones, especially the tough ones. UWO has equipped you with the analytical and empathetic skills to navigate these conversations. As you go out to new jobs, new cities, new places, look for organizations and allies that can provide resources and continuing education for hard conversations. And then go out and have those conversations.
Once you do, my fifth and final piece of advice is short and simple but crucial:
No. 5: Contribute
Contribute more to the world around you than you take away from it. You don’t need to save the world, but you do need to make a difference.
In conclusion, as you leave one place (UWO) for another, don’t forget your ground truths, have a plan, plan to deviate from that plan, seek out different perspectives and people, and make your mark. Patty Dye, author of Life is a Verb, writes that our lives are atlases of experience. So make those maps for your life’s atlas. You’ve been equipped with the components essential for life after UWO–ensure that you are applying those tools to create the best map that you can–it will lead you to some pretty unbelievable places.
Thank you so much. Once again congratulations, graduates.