Senior Orator and Joan Donovan Speech Contest winner Brian Uceta delivered rousing remarks at Commencement. Here, he shares his remarks, with additional reflections on his journey.
Over 1,370 days. That is the number of days it has been since many of us left our homes and ventured to a new chapter in our lives. For some, St. Lawrence was practically in your backyards, for others, it was a drive up from cities and states away from the North Country.
If you’re going from my home to campus by car, it takes about six and a half hours. But I took the bus, and with multiple stops, it took between eight to 10 hours. I didn’t have a choice, so I’d deal with it.
For many, you traveled from around the globe to come here. Regardless of what you consider home, we all made our way here. After so long, we are here, Class of 2023. I’d like to tell you a bit about my journey. I am the youngest of three boys and the son of a beautiful Dominican woman by the name of Dulce Veras. She’s probably standing beside one of you in the crowd (Hola mami, te amo). I grew up in a low-income household in Washington Heights, surrounded by a neighborhood of people who look a lot like me. When I first arrived at St. Lawrence University, I speak honestly when I say that I did not find a home here. The days were short, the nights were cold, and the rural village of Canton was unlike anything I grew up around.
I remember counting down the days until breaks, taking any opportunity I could to go home. And then when it was time to leave home and go back to campus, the feelings would come all over again. I kind of kept these feelings internally and only told a few people.
To be quite honest, I wanted to leave—but then I remembered the opportunity I was given. For those of you who do not know, I am a member of the Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), a program that provides scholarships to economically and educationally disadvantaged students.
I got close to people in my HEOP class and I was fortunate enough to do a theatre production in the fall that was directed by my professor Angela Sweigart-Gallagher. And I realized that even if I never got too fond of living in Canton, as long as I had a home in the people I was with, then I was OK.
To people like me, this was a chance to move past the circumstances of my upbringing. I know there are many others who have the ability but lack the opportunity I was given, so I decided I would not waste it. So, I continued my time at St. Lawrence. After all, I know better than to come home to a Caribbean mother without a degree in hand. To those who share my story, you are my people, and you played a massive role in the reason why I stand beside you on this day. Today is a victory you and I share, and I would not have it any other way. A college education means different things to different people. To some, it is merely a stepping stone into a successful career that was outlined for them since their conception. To others, it is so much more. It is moving up the social class, it is getting your family out of their circumstances, it is the thing that will guarantee a ticket to what we are told is the “American dream.” So through a pandemic, we persevered. Through the stresses of each final exam, through the winter storms, we persevered.
After spending the spring semester of my first year at home, I found myself thinking about all of the people I’d met at St. Lawrence and was excited to get back.
We founded clubs, we planned events, we shared food, culture, laughs, and tears—we made moves to create a home away from home, and find a community in spaces we thought were not made for us.
Events hosted by the Black Student Union, the African Student Union, La Sociedad, and others are important because they not only allow a space where people who relate to those identities can find a piece of home, but they allow others who aren’t familiar with foods and celebrations from Latin America and the African diaspora to see what these things are really about.
I say that to acknowledge that some of you may feel like you do not belong. You may feel like there truly is no space for you here, even after all the time you have spent here. However, as I look around and see the faces in the crowd who resonate with my story, I know I have never been alone. We have never been alone. To my first-generation, Caribbeans, children of immigrant parents, international students, Black students, non-native English speakers, HEOP students, mi gente de la Republica Dominicana, I see you. We are here, we always have been. As I have said before, and I will say it again, we may be lower in number, but we have never been lower in impact.
I’m particularly proud of my work as secretary for the Black Laurentian Initiative, because I believe the work of the BLI has special significance as an organization dedicated to institutional change, which I feel is essential in higher education. Besides that, my work in University Theatre and being a recipient of the Jeffrey Campbell Award are also accomplishments I hold close.
Some moments before, I mentioned the fact that it has been over 1,370 days since we first stepped foot on St. Lawrence’s campus. But there is another number I want to mention: 1,154. That is the number of days that have passed since we opened our emails and saw that our lives and the lives of many worldwide would change forever. We expected it to be over soon, but the world grew distant and families were torn apart. It was a terrifying time for so many of us—especially as we entered this new chapter in our lives full of uncertainty. But we continued. Through every single COVID test and every online class, we continued. We counted down the days until we would see our closest friends and families again, and for many of them, we did. For those we were not able to see, for the ones we lost—this day is for them just as much as it is for you. I know they are looking down at you with smiles on their faces—and I assure you, they are proud.
I want to mention another number to you. The number 100 [100th night]. The moment we realized that our time here was slowly but surely coming to a close. Everything suddenly feels different. Talks with your friends suddenly feel different, walks to get food are not the same. And now, as I stand with you, we are down to one. I mention these numbers not to make you feel old or ancient, but to remind you that time is always fleeting. Life is a constant string of and highs and lows. I have seen some of it in us. The long nights trying to cram that final paper. The times when you miss class because you just can’t do it that day. The meals you skip, either due to work, stress, or several other reasons. That’s right, we have all seen each other and ourselves at our lowest. But as I stand here today, and I look at all of you, surrounded by friends, family, and loved ones, dressed in your beautiful caps, gowns, and sashes, I’m reminded of one thing: the worst of times, and the best of times, they come and go. None of these moments last forever.
So celebrate your victories when you can, you deserve that, and I mean more than a job, a raise,
a great grade, a graduation, or a degree. No, I mean in every victory. Sometimes, a victory is just getting out of bed one day. Eating a meal. Talking to people. Running a successful club meeting. Raising your hand and speaking in a class of 25 people. All of these accomplishments are victories, no matter how big or small they may seem.
I wish I could say it is going to be easy. I wish I could stand here and tell you that everything is going to make sense, that the pieces are immediately going to fall in place like you want them to. But the reality is, they’re not going to, at least not immediately. There are going to be challenges, there are going to be roadblocks. There are moments when you may feel like life cannot get any worse than it will be in those instances. But let me tell you—you have been to those places before, and you made it out. And here you are now. Are you the same person? Maybe not. After all, time changes people. I understand you are probably not the same person after all this time. But you are still here, and I know—that is something worth celebrating.
I have a position as a theatre instructor for little kids at a school in the Bronx. I really want to give back to communities of people that look like me, and I want to be for young students what other people were for me— a helping hand, a shoulder to lean on, and an ear to listen.
So like many things we have done over these past several years, let us celebrate—together. Congratulations to us, Class of 2023.