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Have Faith in Yourself

Philosophy studies shape BU student speaker’s address

Leila Belmahi was eight years old before she could read a single word. A learning disability made reading and writing nearly impossible. “I hated it,” she says. But she slowly learned to master both, and once she did, she “just fell in love with language.” The attention of a doting grandfather helped, too.

“My grandpa—even though he lived very close by—was like a pen pal to me. We used to send letters back and forth, and that was the moment when I was like, wow, this is really cool that I can express what is going on in my life to someone else,” Belmahi (CAS’12) says. Her grandfather, Daniel Baldyga, was a writer and used to take her to writing conferences. “They’d just be bouncing ideas off of each other and explaining how they get inspiration from things,” she recalls, “and that was just the most amazing experience—I loved it.”

Belmahi, who completed her undergraduate studies in just three years, has been selected to deliver the student address at Boston University’s 139th Commencement on Sunday, May 20. The graduating philosophy major says she’s honored to have been selected from among this year’s five finalists.

“I just thought it would be a really great experience to be a part of the history of BU and to be able to do something to contribute,” she says. “I just wrote down some of my reflections of my time at BU and sent it in. I didn’t actually think I was going to get it, and when I did, I was really floored.”

In January, an email was sent to all graduating seniors, inviting them to submit a potential Commencement address to a faculty committee, comprising Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), dean of students, Joseph Bizup, a College of Arts & Sciences assistant dean and director of the Writing Program, Alicia Borinsky, a CAS professor of romance studies, Gene Jarrett, a CAS professor of English and department chair, Charles Merzbacher, a College of Communication associate professor, Robert Wexelblatt, a College of General Studies professor of humanities, and Nancy Baker, special assistant to President Robert A. Brown.

The five finalists auditioned for the committee one at a time in March. “They were trying to distract us a little bit, just to see if we could handle distractions,” Belmahi recalls. She says she was “so in the zone” during her audition that she didn’t even notice the efforts to draw her attention away from her speech.

As a freshman, Belmahi enrolled in the School of Management, but an introductory ethics class with Allen Speight proved to be a turning point. “I just loved it,” she says. “Philosophy was just a way for me to make sense of the world around me.”

“I’m not surprised she’s a Commencement speaker choice,” says Speight, a CAS associate professor of philosophy. “She’s poised, well-spoken, and has a mind for larger things.”

“Leila has things to say,” says Kathryn Burak, a senior lecturer in COM’s Writing Program, who taught Belmahi in her Introduction to Communications writing class. “She’s given thought to big ideas, and often what she says is disarmingly fresh. She’s definitely an independent thinker.”

Belmahi says that her address will urge classmates to voice their ideas, to be unafraid of whether their ideas will be accepted. “The speech is about having faith in yourself,” she says, “and that you can have an impact in the world around you. The best ideas are often misunderstood, so we have to have our own filter for what we believe is a good idea. If we believe our idea is great, we must pursue it with confidence and passion, because that idea could be the one that changes everything.”

Asked if she’s nervous about standing before a crowd of approximately 20,000 on Sunday, Belmahi says she’s more excited than anything else. Having acted in a stage troupe as a child and in plays all through high school, the Suffield, Conn., native says she’s used to standing in front of audiences. During her freshman year at SMG, a lot of her classes required speeches, an experience she says she’ll draw on in the coming days as she hones her address.

Elmore plans to put Belmahi through her paces throughout the week to make sure she’s ready for Sunday’s speech. “We’ll spend several hours rehearsing in a variety of situations and locations,” he says. “We will put her in stressful situations, with a lot of noises, ringing phones, lights in her face, and in a variety of auditoriums,” so that she can practice focusing on her words without getting distracted. Finally, Belmahi will do a run-through at Nickerson Field so she can get acclimated to the vast setting.

Belmahi flies to London the day after Commencement, where she’ll enroll in BU’s study abroad program. She plans to take an international branding course and find an internship there. Upon her return, Belmahi, who has worked for several start-up firms in Boston, hopes to land a marketing job.

“No matter what kind of business I go into, I want to make sure that it’s socially focused and really self-sustainable,” she says.

That, says Belmahi, is a trait characteristic of the Class of 2012. “We are a highly socially minded class that puts an emphasis on getting involved with meaningful work that makes a difference. It seems to be the most profound common ground we share.”

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john o'rourke, editor, bu today
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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