Commencement Address by Nazik Youssef (CAS ’03), May 16, 2010
Thank you, Boston University and the philosophy department for inviting me today. It’s truly an honor.
And I would like to congratulate all the graduates on your tremendous accomplishment, and your parents and family. As a relatively recent graduate, I know how heavily you parents are relied on for moral and financial support; so thank you parents.
Today is the day you enter into the real world. And I suppose I am here, to give you a few pointers on what that is. As someone who started working fewer than three years ago, I have loads of wisdom about the real world to offer; so much so that when preparing this speech, I resorted to Googling “the real world” for inspiration. This is what came up on Google’s predictive search:
The real world sucks;
The real world is stressing me out;
CT from the Real World Paris is hot;
And my favorite:
Reflections on the real world – my job is sucking the life out of me.
But here’s the good news. The real world doesn’t have to be like this.
I graduated from BU, also majoring in philosophy, in May 2003. At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do after college. I was content, because as you all know, college is a pretty good deal – I lived in a city I love, made lifelong friends, travelled abroad, studied subjects that truly interested me (if the class was scheduled after 11am), and did all this with few responsibilities and best of all, with a summer, spring, and holiday break.
So after I graduated, I took a year off. I moved back to Seattle; actually, to Bothell, a north Seattle suburb to live with new roommates, mom and dad. It was crazy. I watched lots of sub-par movies from Hollywood Video. I slept until noon. I struggled with having to constantly tell my parents where I was going, who I would be with, what time I would home, and that yes, I would be safe. And it didn’t stop there . . . As some of you lucky ones may soon find out, when you return home, your relationship with your parents reverts, and not to the days of high school, to the days of grade school. You will be told that you must eat breakfast before leaving the house, to put on a coat, to take vitamin C, and that you don’t meet nice people at bars.
And you will suddenly be ready – even eager – to embrace responsibility. For some time, I had been debating between going to graduate school for philosophy or political theory, or going to law school. I had talked with professors about both choices. I had researched programs. The following year, I moved to Madison, Wisconsin and began my first year studying law.
Law school was not as enjoyable as undergrad. I enjoyed the study of law, but the emphasis on class rankings and landing a job at a big law firm was off putting, especially because I wasn’t interested in corporate law and wasn’t at the top of my class.
But by my third year, I discovered a love for employment law – discrimination, wrongful discharge, wage and hour abuses.
Unfortunately, finding a job in plaintiff’s side employment law was difficult, and when I graduated in May 2007, I was without a job. To normal people, this seems typical, but in the law school world, graduating jobless was sort of like receiving a participation ribbon at the local swim meet.
I again moved back to Seattle, this time getting my own place with my future husband. It was a classy duplex. It shared a wall with Trader Joe’s, and outside of our kitchen window we had a prime view of the nightly dumpster divers. Our neighbor had an awesome ankle bracelet that beeped whenever he drank or left his apartment; a fact I was alerted to early one morning at 4 am when had apparently forgotten about both of these restrictions and attempted to outsmart the police by jumping through his apartment window. I was moving on up.
I studied for the bar and I applied to every job available. By the time I found out that I passed the bar in October, I was still frantically applying. I was convinced that I would soon be on late night commercials on basic cable, promising people easy divorces, quick money, and no jail time if they dialed 1-800-GET-CASH. I would call myself the ENFORCER, the VINDICATOR or maybe the HAMMER, anything that sounded more like a professional wrestling name than a proper legal title.
Work weeks were excruciating. Everyone I knew was gainfully employed. I, meanwhile, passed the days watching the entire series of the Wire.
Eventually I was offered a job with the State Human Rights Commission, but the work wasn’t what I wanted to do – I wouldn’t be litigating or lawyering. I chose to stay unemployed and keep looking. It was an unnerving decision.
Finally, after seventh months of frustration and doubt and incredible boredom, I was hired at an employment law firm; and I was able to do exactly the kind of work I wanted to do.
Today, 95% of the time, I know that the decisions I made worked out. I enjoy my work. I’m suited for it. And even though I wasn’t at the top of any class, I’m a successful, effective lawyer. But as an undergrad, a recent graduate, a law student, and an unemployed lawyer, I wasn’t sure about my decisions. In fact, I was often convinced that I made a huge, expensive mistake.
So what do I know about the real world?
While college does have its benefits – and I don’t mean to downplay this because there are a lot of them – the real world, in many ways, is much more exciting. College is scripted. By your second semester, you figured out the exact formula for success. You knew how long you could procrastinate before starting a paper, what classes to take to cushion your schedule, what to expect on an exam. But in life, there are no mandatory credits, no script. The options are limitless. Nor is measuring success as simple as perfecting your GPA. Rather, how success is defined for the most part, is up to you.
There are some certainties though in life after college. You will miss your friends. You will miss Boston. You will be envious of undergrads, and their seemingly carefree lifestyle, surplus of time, and ability to go out until 2 am on a Tuesday night. You will think about your professors and the theories and concepts you learned, the books you read, and you will miss being immersed in learning. As perverse as it sounds, you will even grow nostalgic about cramming for exams and pulling all nighters.
Also, within the next month, or perhaps it has already happened, BU’s Alumni Association will call you and ask you for money. You may tell them, hey I just gave you $150,000 and I am currently unemployed. It won’t matter. They will keep calling you.
And the last thing I’d like to say is how valuable your philosophy degree is. It’s hard to articulate how a degree in philosophy has informed my life, but I know it has. I draw on it all the time. I know my education at BU and in the philosophy department has made me a better thinker; a more rounded individual. I learned how to write, a skill that cannot be overvalued. It gives me an edge in arguments with my husband. Or I like to think it does.
It also helps me during that 5% of the time – usually when I’m tired or overwhelmed – when I am doubting my career path, and dream of selling t-shirts and hotdogs on the beach.
Let me give you an example. During one of the many Sundays I was spending at the office, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I was frustrated working yet another 65 hour week. And my husband, who teaches high school English, was with me grading papers; and he was also frustrated that he was reading terrible high school essays, with thesis statements like “Romeo and Juliet is a book about Love.” And together, we pouted and sulked, and wondered why we were putting ourselves through such misery; why we just didn’t move to some island and spend our days lounging and consuming fancy boat drinks.
And I had a flashback to my philosophy classes. I didn’t think of the Highest Good or of the Categorical Imperative, but I remembered in a vague – I haven’t studied philosophy in seven years type of way – how important working was to all the great minds we studied at BU. And it’s true. While your job doesn’t necessarily define who you are, becoming good at something and doing something you care about, is critical to your happiness. And it will only take you a few months of being unemployed to realize that you want to work, not only for the money, but for yourself.
So if there’s any advice I can give you it’s this:
Realize that there’s going to be a lot of uncertainty. Be patient. Stay picky. Trust that your education here, in the philosophy department and at BU, has prepared you well for the future.
You can love your job. You can find work that really satisfies you. You can become really good at it. It may take time, trial and error and it doesn’t mean it will always be perfect or fun, but if you’re patient and work hard and listen to yourself (not your peers, not your parents, not society), you’ll eventually find your right path, with perhaps a few detours back to your parent’s basement on the way.
Thank you. Congratulations. Best of Luck!