The Mac Weekly sits down with Lisa Hu ’15, this year’s student commencement speaker, to reflect on her time at Macalester and talk about her upcoming speech.
TMW: Can you tell me about your personal background and where you’ve ended up at Macalester?
LH: Both of my biological parents are immigrants from mainland China — my mom’s family is from Beijing, and my dad’s family is from rural Hunan province. I was born shortly after the two of them came to the U.S., and spent most of my younger years in Connecticut. I lived briefly in China as a kid with my extended family.
I mostly grew up outside of Boston in Cambridge and a few other places. After I turned 18, I moved to California; that’s where I currently call home and live with my godparents.
I very recently saw the essays I wrote to get into Macalester, and that has recalled so many of these memories of the kind of person I was before I even stepped onto this campus.
At that time, I believed I would be a geology major, maybe international studies, and I’m actually graduating as a geography major. However, I have dabbled in a lot of different departments, and I think Mac, being a liberal arts school, has encouraged that kind of wandering and building from one academic discipline to another.
How were you selected as the student speaker for commencement, and what has that process been like?
I think the entire senior listserv received an email months ago, about February 1, from Ann Minnick, Director of Academic Programs, which was essentially a call for seniors to email [their] peers that they thought could speak for the class. To me, it’s [having peers nominate their classmates] a lofty and unfair task that is inherently problematic and unrealistic.
From that process, I believe she also took into consideration GPA, which is riddled with its own complications. Who are we to say that how you perform academically has anything to do with your character or how you speak? From there, 19 seniors were contacted and invited to create speeches. We were given instructions from Adrienne Christiansen on hallmarks of what a good commencement speech looks like, and given advice on common errors to avoid.
It’s a really weighty task, the idea of speaking to such a big crowd that’s also gathered for a specific reason, and yet everybody’s stories and experiences and emotional turmoil are so different. How can you take one voice and say that it will do justice to yourself, let alone to the entire crowd? A lot of us were baffled by the challenge, but saw it as a cathartic experience, as a writing exercise, as a way of reflecting on and giving cohesion to our time at Macalester.
After some people submitted pieces, four of us … were selected as finalists. The finalists are invited to perform their commencement speech for the selection committee, and the committee decides, based on that, who they’d like to proceed. The process itself was pretty challenging. Crafting the piece itself was a difficulty that all of us wrestled with in a different way. Figuring out what this meant to us was really difficult as well. Several were asking questions about who gets to go the podium and whose voice gets to [and] should go to the podium. Having heard the speeches of the other finalists, I am extremely, extremely humbled and a little heartbroken that the three of their speeches won’t be heard in the same venue. There will be other spaces for them to speak, and there are a lot of different venues for student speakers to tell really beautiful, engaging, necessary and passionate personal stories — that’s exactly what the other finalists offer. I think their speeches are brilliant.
What are you post-graduation plans?
At this moment in time, I’m really in love with the idea of staying in the Twin Cities this summer. I have stayed in the cities for two summers already, and did really different kinds of things. I did grounds crew one year, and after my second year, I juggled lots of different jobs and lived in the Lily House. I have come to really love my time here in the summer, and there are a lot of recent alums and graduating peers who will be around — I’d love to do that.
Perhaps in the fall, I’ll look at opportunities here or back in the Bay Area. One big pull for both the Twin Cities and the Bay Area is not only do I have a very personal attachment to both of those geographies and communities, but they’re also really wonderful powerhouses for NGO growth, NGOs that work in a lot high need communities in very different ways. Environmental justice NGOs in the Bay Area is definitely one sector I’m looking into; health care here in the Twin Cities is another possible venue. I’m really interested in continuing to hone my writing and communication skills for a few years, and then enter a graduate program in public health and public policy.
How would you describe your personal growth at Macalester?
I walked into Macalester with a good sense of self, and that is something that has stayed true during my time here, but the different directions I’ve been pulled in academically, personally, spiritually and in all these other ways have been really formative. But at my core, understanding myself has been constant.
I came to Macalester after two gap years, which [was] a really great decision for me — a time to grow, learn and deal with disorientation outside of an academic setting, so when I got to campus, I really thought I had my stuff together and thought I knew certain kinds of things.
Part of my time at Macalester has been being able to admit all the times I’ve been wrong. I think an important hallmark of growing is how you move past mistakes and how you work within systems and communities despite hurt and transgressions.
I think my growth has manifested in a lot of different directions, but is perhaps best seen through both the direction I want to go in and the kinds of communities I’ve been involved with here at Mac. Even though we have a small school, carving out those small communities that are collaborative, mission -driven and very honest about failure has been a really big hallmark of my growth.
What kinds of challenges have you faced at Mac?
I think for all the good things that Macalester does, we still have a lot of work left to do. Two challenges that immediately spring to mind, but are by no mean the biggest I’ve faced in my time here — the transition back into Mac after study abroad, but also my experience of being a domestic student of color on this campus. In the first example, what that brought to mind is — this is a critique that has been raised again and again of Macalester — is that sometimes in our privileging, normative discussion of study away, and how it is so iconic or necessary for internationalism/global citizenship and our time at Mac — I think that excludes a lot of the stories of folks who don’t study abroad. When we iconify the study away experience to be this wonderful, wonderful thing, we erode the really careful decisions of those who are not able or choose not to study abroad for financial reasons, familial reasons, or are international students, whatever the case may be.
At the same time, I think by propping up study away experience as being this iconic cornerstone of a Macalester education, we try to sweep under the rug those study away experiences that don’t go as planned. What happens when your program isn’t as well structured as you’d like?
What happens when your host family isn’t an inviting, welcoming or supportive space? What happens when you feel alone or when you can’t connect with the folks on your study abroad trip? All of these other kinds of stories about that experience, then, drop by the wayside.
Because my study away was a good one, but really marked by some disappointing and painful realizations and disappointments, reintegrating was a lot more challenging, because the expectation is it was a transformative, incredibly positive experience. There’s a way to spin it as being incredibly positive — that’s how you push through. You find things that were challenging, and you realize how they make you better or push for something more, make you passionate about doing something else.
Macalester is trying to make more of a commitment to this [the experience of domestic students of color]; of course, assuming that all DSC have the same experience is incredibly false. I largely went to school with fairly privileged students, and my experiences as a DSC were of isolation and essentially of ‘passing’, whereas that’s absolutely not what a lot of my peers have gone through. And so reconciling that for myself, reconciling what it means to wear those identities, because those are signifiers that others attach to me, that people use to presume certain things about my experiences, has been really important, but also challenging on this campus, because sometimes there’s that privileging of the international over the domestic. It’s hard to acknowledge that there are such gross inequalities inside our country, but also within communities of color themselves.