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Doctoral Address: Alexandria Volkening ’17 Ph.D.

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Doctoral Address: Alexandria Volkening ’17 Ph.D.


Thank you Dean Campbell Dr. Zuber, deans, faculty, staff, family & friends, and fellow graduates, it’s a joy and an honor to celebrate with you today. And a special thank you to the Grad Student Council for the opportunity to speak today. Before I say anything else, I want to recognize that I don’t think anyone can speak for the diversity of experiences and obstacles overcome by those in robes today. I know my experiences in applied math are going to be very different from the day-to-day of a social scientist or even an engineer – maybe similar to a physicist’s But despite our different fields and diverse PhD experiences I think there are a few things that tie us all together. The first is hard work. It has been immense hard work sustained over many years that has brought us here today. And for that persistence and diligence, we don’t need anyone to speak. These robes speak for themselves But it hasn’t just been our work that has brought us to today. Graduates, let’s take a moment to look around us at the other people in this tent. Our family, friends, our support network have been behind us throughout this degree and earlier. And kind of fittingly, they’re behind us again today. And our mentors, teachers, our advisers have been beside us, and there they are beside us again today. Or just an email away. So it has been our diligence and passion that has gotten us these PhD degrees today; but it has also been the camaraderie and support of our community that has helped bring us to today. So what has all this hard work gotten us? Because of this persistence, we have an opportunity and a privilege to be leaders. In this tent today we have future leading research scientists, leading writers, philosophers, teachers. What this degree and this university, what all our hard work, has given us is a special opportunity to have a voice, to be heard. So this is the soapbox portion of my speech, and I’m going to suggest we consider challenging ourselves to use this voice in a few different ways. And since this is a community that likes hard work, a challenge seems fitting. So first, we could commit to challenging ourselves to use our voice to talk about the difficult subjects. To put our voice behind those matters that are crucial, but hard, to talk about. So one difficult subject I want to bring up is mental health. Mental health issues are incredibly prevalent in academia, and also in our broader communities. Some studies report roughly 50% of their grad students or academics experiencing mental illness. Because many of us will go on to be future leaders and teachers, this will likely impact our future students and co-workers. It is also something that has touched the Brown community very personally. We have lost students and postdocs to mental illness during our time here. We need to remember this and speak for that loss. to challenge ourselves to bring up mental illness, so it becomes less difficult to talk about and more acceptable to ask for help. To make it less prevalent and less destructive in our communities by putting our voice behind it. Another way we could consider challenging ourselves to use our voice is to amplify the voices of others, especially those that are underrepresented in the room. This was a tactic the female staffers in President Obama’s White House used. the women there made a commitment to echo and acknowledge the voices of other women in the room. And if you have ever been fortunate enough to have someone acknowledge your contribution by name, you know how good it feels to have someone else reaffirm your voice. Let’s commit to doing this: to raising up and reaffirming others by amplifying their voice. And the final way I suggest we consider challenging ourselves to use our voice is to step back and shut up. So I’ve been fortunate to have a PhD advisor who has been a great source of advice, but he’s also been a good listener. and maybe the hardest way we could challenge ourselves is to emulate such mentors, and to choose when to not use our voice so that others have the opportunity to be heard. I’ll step off my soapbox now, and talk about the most important thing that ties us all together today, and that’s gratitude. So just briefly, my mom did not go to college, but today she is getting a PhD. And that PhD is me, right? So each of us here today in these robes is getting our degree, and this PhD belongs to us. But there have been many people behind and beside us who have helped bring us to today, and this degree is also theirs. We have this special opportunity to have a voice because they have amplified us. So on behalf of the graduating class, to our mentors, our family, our friends, our community, we say thank you, but we also say congratulations, because you have been on this journey with us. it’s been your hard work too, and we are so happy to be sharing in this collective joy and celebrating this community accomplishment with you today. Thank you again, and congratulations.

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