Deja' Haley Addresses the Class of 2020
Deja' Haley '20 addressed the Class of 2020 as the Student Speaker at Bennington College's 85th Commencement and first-ever virtual ceremony.
It is very disheartening and unfortunate that we are ending our time at Bennington in a very nontraditional way due to the given circumstances in the world today. We were all waiting for this day, for our moment to happen as we worked so diligently to get to where we are now. Here is a reminder that the work you all have done on this campus has not gone unnoticed. Class of 2020 if there is one thing that I have learned during this time of social distancing is that nothing about our class has been traditional. And in the midst of these times of uncertainty we managed to push ourselves to persevere through the finish line.
So, I am not entirely sure how I can begin to wrap up 4 years in a short amount of time, but let me take a shot at it. A lot has happened in these past years. We’ve celebrated birthdays, ventured to new places, and seen sides of ourselves that caused a great deal of confusion and emotional growth. We’ve shown a great deal of resilience withstanding all of the trials and tribulations we faced throughout our undergraduate years. And boy, what a long but also fast 4 years it has been.
Coming from Philadelphia, the city of “Brotherly Love”, I always faced a huge discomfort when it came to talking about the city that most people only see as a historic site. I carry pride on my back when I think back to the many different odds I beat. Especially growing up in one of the most dangerous cities in the country, I spent much of my life living in fear. I grew up in the Strawberry Mansion section, which is named as one of the top 3 worst neighborhoods in Philadelphia. I suffered from sleepless nights, the ringing of gunshots no matter the time of day, and constant yelling and fighting throughout the streets. This is where young teenagers are becoming more and more prone to dropping out of school due to the neighborhood they live in and their circumstances at home. It is clear for me to see how easy it could have been for me to fall victim to the streets because of the many temptations I faced everyday. But look at me having the honor to share my words with you all on this special night.
So, what does it mean for me, a black girl from Philly, to be attending a school like Bennington College? My senior year of high school I applied to 12 different schools and none of them were Bennington.
My college counselor suggested I apply to Bennington. This quaint, little college on the top of the hill, in the middle of nowhere it seemed. At that point in time, there was no way I was going to be spending these past 4 years here. But, fate has a strange way of switching things up a little.
I came to visit the weekend of decision day and the beauty of this place was astonishing. During my visit, I stayed at the Davis Alumni House and that weekend Janice Pryor, a Black alumna who graduated in 1971, was staying there too. I was invited to sit in on an interview with her that was being conducted by (then) current students. Janice was being interviewed about her experience at Bennington in the early ‘70s. After the interview ended, she and I stayed up talking. She told me many stories about her time here. I thought, if Janice had the ability to persevere through the experience of this place, then I can too. Janice Pryor, as well as my late grandmother, were the two people who helped me decide to commit to Bennington on the train ride back home.
When I arrived for orientation at Bennington College here in rural Vermont, I felt safe for the first time in my life, but soon encountered other challenges I never expected. Never would I have imagined being a student at Bennington College, or having the honor to be the class commencement speaker. Most of my time spent here has been figuring out who I am, figuring out what I want to do in the world, and taking a deeper look into how I take up space as a Black woman, especially in a society where long term oppression is still very present in whatever I do.
It took me a while to fully get a grasp of what it meant to be a Bennington student while also being Black. I often felt like I had to separate my Blackness from being a student at an institution such as Bennington, until I later learned that my experiences as a Black woman are the experiences that needed to be most highlighted in and out of the classroom. It wasn’t until the middle of the summer before starting my senior year that I began to understand that Bennington is the place that allowed me to view my Blackness through a different lens. Growing up immersed in Black culture had its benefits and perks, but while being at Bennington I began to question my identity and what it actually meant to be a Black student here. This is the place where I was forced to look at my Blackness through the lens of the white gaze, something that I have never had to do before. I began to question what it meant to belong to a place that struggles to mend our differences in order for us to better co-exist. This question led me to co-organize Bennington’s first ever diversity and inclusion conference alongside Ahmad Yassir and Vice President for Institutional Inclusion, Equity & Leadership Development, Delia Saenz.
During my first year, I had the pleasure of being enrolled in a course titled Black Spring. This course was a curation class, where we put together a show in the Usdan Gallery. This show displayed the lives of Black students at Bennington in the past. Being a part of the curation was truly enlightening for me, as I saw how Bennington still has a lot of work to do. The greatest thing about the class of 2020 is that I have witnessed how many of my classmates have taken the time to involve themselves in trying to make this place into what it has the potential to be. The administration cannot do this work without the students and the students cannot do the work without them. The building of transparency and a better means to communicate should become a foundational framework to how the work continues.
On Monday, October 14, 2019, I left my senior seminar class and sat at the end of the world and could not begin to process that, “all of this is ending very soon.” Fall has always been my favorite part about being here in Bennington. I watched the trees sway and the sun set. A feeling of not wanting to give any of this up washed over me, but it was time. It is time.
I’m sure most of us have heard the saying, “College is the best 4 years of your life.” There is nothing scarier than thinking that the most fun I’ll ever have was in these past four years. I believe these years in college were everything but the best time of my life. Because the best time comes when you’re practicing what you studied at school in the real world. We didn’t just spend four years at a place that forces you to step out of your comfort zone, to be self-governed, to explore everything this place has to offer in things you thought you had little interest in, just for this time to be the best time of our lives. The point of these four years was to constantly construct and reconstruct different versions of who we aspire to be. I’m sure most of us have spent plenty of time questioning the type of person we want to present to the world outside of this place.
I believe I speak for the majority of us when I say it's been a steady process of growth. It is bewildering to think about how the majority of us were still teenagers figuring out how to live after high school. Now, we are leaving this place as young adults who took the time to explore every part of who we are as well as our interest in various disciplines. We are the young adults the world may have been waiting for this entire time.
If you don’t leave this place and fight like your life depends on it, fight for equality, fight for immigration rights, fight for people of color, fight for Black people, fight to make the world a safer place to live, ask yourself has four years spent here meant anything at all? Class of 2020: give yourselves a round of applause. Not only am I congratulating you on getting a degree, but also cheers to figuring out who you are, fighting through the sleepless nights, fighting through wanting to give up and most importantly fighting for you and getting to this milestone.
I want to give a special thank you to the host of faculty and staff members who have helped me evolve throughout the years. Thank you to those in whom I have found a lifelong mentorship. Thank you to those who have helped me create such amazing work to give to my community. Thank you to the friends I have made throughout the years. Thank you to Stokes and Kilpat for being my home away from home. A very very special thank you to my dearest friends Kaiya Kirk and Ahmad Yassir for making these final moments as a Bennington College student a bit more bearable, for pushing each other beyond our limits, for being there and constantly giving the reminder to not be so hard on ourselves & of course being able to collaborate with each other to produce such amazing senior works.
Mira was someone who taught me to see the value in giving someone I didn’t know a smile or just genuinely asking someone, “how are you?”. She was also a person who carried a different type of closeness with people here on campus especially with us who are graduating today. The closeness that we have been experiencing throughout these years has been among the most vulnerable times where we have allowed ourselves to just be. From term to term, we have taken the time to build our little families that best fits the person we are during that moment, and we also carry with us friendships we have had since starting here, or friends we just made in our senior year. Mira was someone who valued her relationships with people in ways that never ceased to amaze me because she gave herself and her space to many of us so gracefully. For that I’ll always cherish the closeness I built with people even if it was just for a month or term or multiple years.
I leave with you this wisdom: Cherish the people that come into your life even if it’s just for a short amount of time. Always take care of yourselves, even if it is as simple as reminding yourself to just breathe. The biggest aspect of this place that we should all take away is that every single person in this world should try to be kinder to themselves as well as giving love in ways we desire to be loved. I found a love here that I always thought was unobtainable. It was the love around us that carried us through this place whether we recognized it or not. It is the love that lifts us out of the dark. The love that moves mountains and makes miracles happen. Let us all go make miracles happen and hold onto those who shine their love on us.
I just want to say one more time: Congratulations to the class of 2020! In the words of Mira: “Don’t be boring!”