Chancellor Telfer, honored
guests, distinguished faculty members, and dear graduates. I have three academic degrees
but I have never attended any of my own commencements so I do
not have an intimate sense how a student may feel on this
happiest of occasions. And so I hope you’ll forgive
me any missteps. For my PhD, my adviser would
have had to walk in the procession with me and he was
in poor health and I decided not to imposed on him. For my first years teaching
schedule and low pay at UWM, prevented me from traveling
to Indiana to get my MA. And I could not scrape together
the $15 for renting the gown for my BA. So on an overcast Saturday
morning a week later, a secretary in an otherwise
deserted registrar’s office at Indiana University struggled
to pin this epaulet saying highest honors, on the shoulder
of my sleeveless blouse, shook my hand,
said congratulations, and that was it. I’ve never worn this in public
but here my chance has come at last. Which leads me– [APPLAUSE] Which leads me naturally to the
first of my three points. It is not too late. If you try to do something and
it doesn’t quite work, you can always do it the second time. Or you can always do it later. My mother [UNINTELLIGIBLE] had a very privileged childhood,
with governesses, and ballet lessons,
and servants pulling off her boots. So that when she arrived at her
private school at age 10 she did not know how
to tie her shoes. This way of life was destroyed
by the Russian Revolution, World War I, and the death
of her father. Although she was as smart as her
brothers, it was a given, in the 1920s that education for
girls was not as important as for boys. Her dream had been to go to the
University of Latvia but instead she had to attend the
Teachers Institute and get a job so that she could help her
two brothers get their degrees in Medicine and Theology. War disrupted her life
a second time. She had to leave her comfortable
home, her possessions, and her
country in 1944. After five years in displaced
persons camps in Germany she came to the United States. She did hard and humiliating
work, handling burning hot tomatoes at the Stokley’s
cannery and washing dishes LaRue’s Supper Club. Well past midnight she walked
home alone through the dangerous neighborhood
where we lived. She taught herself English by
reading newspapers, listening to the radio, talking to her
coworkers, who include the now famous jazz composer, David
Baker, and by taking courses at Indiana University. Amazing people are probably
washing dishes and cleaning toilets somewhere
right now too. In the 1950’s, students of
nontraditional age were very rare and she was regarded with
suspicion and even derision by some students and
some faculty. She graduated as a Phi Beta
Kappa, received her PhD in comparative literature
in 1975. A much more difficult
to agree to achieve that my PhD in English. And I thought mine
was hard enough. It was more than 20 years after
she started her first course and she was
70 years old. You are graduating in a time
of economic hardship and political upheaval, but
to not lose hope. If your first job is not exactly
what you want and deserve, if the one you’re in
love with marry someone else, if your application for a
mortgage is turned down because of your student loans,
with persistence and patience you will achieve
what you want. It is not too late. There is a second chance and
more chances than that. The second idea I want to leave
with you is that reading and books open doors
to the world. I lost my childhood paradise,
a parsonage in Latvia, and experience war firsthand
in Germany. I was seven years old. In a camp circle by barbed wire,
I saw Nazi soldiers beat other inmates. Later Russian soldiers shoved
women and young girls onto [? muddy ?] floors and rape them. They forced us to watch as they
executed the Lutheran minister who had protected us. They marched to the very same
spot the next day to show us the corpse of Heidi. The little girl who
sat next to me in school, and her mother. They dragged away first my
father then my mother and left me and my eight-year-old sister
alone without any protection. I came to the United
States at age 12. I suffered from nightmares,
blushed and trembled, and assumed disaster would follow
my smallest mistake. I was ashamed that I was alive
and I felt guilty about those who had died. About Anne Frank especially. In the 1950’s, concepts like
post traumatic stress were not in use, and counseling or
special services for newly arrived immigrants
did not exist. On top of all of that, I had
long gray strange clothes, and worst of all, I did not
know any English. It was June, I was in
Indianapolis and I was terrified of school starting
in September. From previous experience in
Germany, I expected that the teachers would punish me for
not knowing how to answer questions and that the other
children would beat me because I was a foreigner
and different. As millions have done with
dramatic events before me, as many of you have done also,
I compartmentalized. I tried to put aside what I
could not change and to concentrate on what I could,
which was to learn English. A Latvian woman who had been
here for three months and was therefore considered an expert
on America, took me to the public library, one of the great
and effective American institutions. She knew little English but
mostly she pointed to words in her dictionary and waved
about her arms. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Oh, the librarian said,
and returned with Gone With The Wind. In the displaced persons camps
in the British zone, we had inadequate food, but we did
get American cigarettes. My parents, non-smokers both,
and my grandmother received packs of Lucky Strikes and
Camels, which we exchange for food and a few other
necessities. Other necessities
included books. My parents had acquired a
Latvian-English Dictionary, but only the first half of Gone
With The Wind which has been translated into Latvian and
published in four separate small booklets. There’s nothing like Gone With
The Wind for 12-year-old girl. I began comparing sentences
in English and Latvian and looking up almost every word
in the dictionary. I know now that Gone With The
Wind this full of racism and sexism and other flaws,
but I was enthralled. Love. Romance. Scarlet O’Hara, Ashley
Wilkes, Rhett Butler. Gone With The Wind is also
about war and the aftermath of war. And that part of the
story drew me too. By the time I had worked my way
through the novel, I could read English. Though it took some months
longer to work up the courage to speak it. I was on my way to more
books, more education. Teaching English literature to
American students and finally, to writing books myself. So I hope that you
too continue to value books and reading. Essential public institutions
like libraries and schools are currently under attack by misinformation and under funding. But you can support them by your
votes, your voices on the internet and elsewhere,
volunteer work, and donations no matter how small. My third and final hope is that
you keep open your heart. When I look back at war times
horrors, the least dramatic, but by far the most damaging,
was starvation. When Russian soldiers occupied
the institution where we were sheltering, they smashed
hundreds of jars of preserved fruit, vegetables, and meat. They dumped barrels of flour
and sugar on the floor and they defecated and urinated
over everything. They would have starved
themselves, but they could mine lakes for fish and seize
a few cows the farmers have kept hidden. We, on the other hand, ate
the carrots and potatoes overlooked in the ground
the fall before. The leaves of linden trees,
and the thin red skin of rose hips. We watched the soldiers spill
precious milk on the ground. My mother taught me some
children verses in Russian. Pinned a small wreath of flowers
on my head and pushed me towards the soldiers. I have to control my trembling,
keep my voice steady, recite and beg. There’s something inexpressibly
damaging about starvation, even more
so than violence. To see that others are eating
and to be shown that you are not worth feeding yourself,
damages the soul. Millions are desperately poor
and starting today in, this country and elsewhere. Thousands of soldiers are
returning from wars with physical and psychological
wounds. Which are harder to admit
to and treat. Such massive suffering is
impossible to take in or try to alleviate. I’m overwhelmed by despair
when I see fly-tormented, skeletal emaciated children and
I often turned off the TV. But even the smallest
action counts. As I wrote in A Woman in Amber
even the briefest human connection can heal. We have to believe that matters,
otherwise, life is unbearable. So voting for someone who will
work for peace, mentoring a floundering colleague,
volunteering in a community center, spending a little time
with that boring Aunt or a disgraced teenager at the family
gathering, all of it adds to the goodness
in the world. There three ideas, it is not too
late, love of reading and books, and keeping an open
heart, are of course related and nourish each other
in countless ways. Just as one example, if you
continue to read, will know what to do when the second
chance comes. You will understand others
and the world a better. And you will be more
compassionate. “No act of kindness, however
small, is ever wasted,” said Aesop in the sixth century BC. “My religion is kindness,”
said the Dalai Lama in the 20th. happy, If you want others to be
happy, practice kindness, if you want to be happy
yourself, practice kindness. The Dalai Lama added more practically in the 21st century. So armed with persistence and
patients, with the love of books, and with compassion,
you can, and you will, change the world. I wish you every success
as you go forward. Congratulations and thank you.