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Commencement Speech from Dr. Damián Fernández

The following speech was given by Dr. Damián J. Fernández at Warren Wilson College’s 2024 Commencement ceremony.


Dear Class of 2024,

Congratulations. We are proud of you.

You are my first Warren Wilson graduating class. I feel that I am one of you. Perhaps because of that special connection, I will keep it real. This is it: I am not sure what to share with you this morning. You who have experienced so much during your time at the College–from a pandemic to a War in Gaza. What can I say to you who are witnessing the horror of violence, the degradation of our planet, the persistence of poverty and racism, our democracy in peril—a sad state of affairs. So much to say. Yet, I am tempted by silence as much as I am tempted to scream. I will resist.

You expect something else from me. A president’s remarks should be witty yet wise; heartfelt but not sappy (I do have tendency towards melodrama after a childhood exposure to telenovelas– Spanish soap operas–, from which I learned that we are born to suffer). Hip without mentioning Taylor Swift; timely and timeless; breezy but deep; relatable yet commanding; personable but not egocentric; inspirational but not trite, and, above all, brief—500 to 600 words. In sum, impossible. Indeed one was born to suffer…

What topic should I address? I considered speaking on the philosophy of meliorism—are you not glad right now that I moved away from that exciting topic? Meliorism holds that things are neither the worst or the best they have ever been, but always capable of improving. Although I am convinced that things are can get better, if we make them better, I realized that some things are worse than they have ever been—climate, for example, our democracy (with the exception of the civil war). So I discarded that topic.

For a moment I planned to speak in praise of discomfort– until I ran into a young man wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed in block letters Seek Discomfort. Once something is printed on a t-shirt it becomes a cliche to avoid. So there went that topic. Might as well once I realized that discomfort will always find us even if we do not seek it.

So, what to do? I was running out of time—desperation was around the corner… like in all telenovelas– so I asked several of you. Your classmate Sophia Huang in all her wisdom tried to reassure me: good things happen at the last minute. Ok, Sophia, not helpful. I shared my tribulation with Senior Marlene Marsh and three friends outside of Glad last week. I told them that I prefer less talk, more music. They agreed. Sing and dance, they said. Thanks, but no thanks. I refuse to spoil your ceremony.

So I decided that I would show a music video that voiced what I wanted to share with you. Perfecto—that’s it, I thought! But, when I asked Tacci Smith our Dean of Students and Juliana Caldwell who orchestrate this event I was told: “no can do.” The video would be washed out by the light reflecting off the screen. That didn’t stop me. I came up with a brilliant idea: a QR code on the program; I would ask everyone to get their phones out, scan the code and let the music play—loud! Perhaps I would ask Aria Hansen to join me on stage and the seniors in our chorus would stand up and sing and dance. Now we had a fiesta. I like that.

But the QR possibility was another dead end. I was told: Not everyone would have their phones, not everyone would be in sync even if they accessed the music. It would be a mess. And I would risk upsetting the Chair of the Board of Trustees—and I do not want to do that ( I am afraid of him). So no. Here I stand in front of you with a deconstructed commencement speech. An anti-speech. A speech in progress. Like all of us: works in progress. We figure it out in the process. Rings true. Doesn’t it?

The one big thing that I have learned this year is that at Warren Wilson we figure things out. In true Warren Wilson spirit, you, Class of 2024, have figured this out during your time here—dealing with a pandemic, remote learning, social movements demands justice, in addition to the demands of academics, community engagement, and work. Not to mention, HVACS that at times don’t cool or heat enough or cool or heat too much, or a random encounter with a bear as you walk across campus. You have figured it out, Class of 2024. That is a lesson for life. An invaluable one. Figuring it out is a skill that you will carry with you beyond our campus. It will serve you well. I have learned this from you: adapt, make it work, continue, solve it, do it, face the challenge, speak up, onward, unscripted, get up to feed the piglets even when it is cold and raining, show up for each other as each tries to figure it out– and yes in figuring it out we can and must make things better. Is that not the essence of human experience—figuring it out? That is the Warren Wilson promise, our hope, our way… I will sing and dance to that (but not in front of you).

Some might be wondering what song did he want to play for us? Could it be Lady Gaga? “Edge of Glory?” Not “Bad Romance.” Or Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love?” Or one by the omnipresent but not-to-be-mentioned Taylor (may she be happy with Travis), but no, not any of those songs…

This is it:

I know you’re fed up
But life don’t let up for us
All they talk about is what is going down?
What’s been messed up for us?
When I look around I see blue skies
I see butterflies for us

‘Cause there is beauty in the world
So much beauty in the world
Always beauty in the world

Shake your booty boys and girls for the beauty in the world

All together now!

(Macy Gray, “There Is Beauty In the World”)

Class of 2024, as you figure it out, don’t you forget that there is beauty in the world.

Congratulations, Class of 2024!