This past May I was asked to give the commencement speech on behalf of my MBA graduating cohort from the Class of 2020 at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. In my reflection I shared my journey from Colombia to Queens, NY, and eventually to The Berkshires. It was a cathartic experience recalling my father’s last words prior to his passing as well as the single parent commitment my mother made to providing a path for my education through her hard working ethic in cleaning apartments and providing child care for others. The people along the way that have pushed me forward, from middle school/high school counselors and teachers to the confidence my partner has instilled in me to pursue my goals form part of the community that has brought joy and shared in the low points of my life.
The past four weeks were transformative as they provided an intimate lens into the lives of alumni in their homes and local communities. I was humbled by the quick trust that many of them felt in sharing the passion of the work they do and also the struggles they’ve faced, ranging from mental health issues to finding themselves in professional transitions to beating cancer. Hearing their stories nourished my soul and brought points of connections that at times led to endless hours of reflection and at others outbursts of tears with various emotions. The notion of home and food are powerful aspects of bringing people together. This is something that I remember vividly from my undergraduate experience as a joyful scene with sights, sounds, and smells in coming together to fellowship with one another. Thank you. I am deeply grateful for the extension of home you offered us in this crazy adventure.
As a first generation student, immigrating from Colombia, grappling with his sexual orientation, and a low-income household, I struggled to find a space where I belonged at my time at Williams. In addition, the transient nature of my childhood made the prospects of developing long-standing friendships difficult. Hence, much of my own journey has been shaped by the need to survive, with very little time to reflect and listen to my spirit. Ephs on the Mooove has been a place where I’ve wanted to create space for the countless others who have felt alone in their own struggles and the notion of not fitting in. Take it from me. It took me nearly a decade and lots of encouragement from loved ones in my life to pursue my postgraduate degree. My undergraduate experience was shaped by lots of academic failure as well as grappling with depression and in the latter part of my life anxiety disorder.
There’s a lot of vulnerability in sharing these details in such a public forum but that’s the threadline that connected me at great depth in the spaces we shared with countless Ephs. We are people. We are human. We are not perfect. And that is a notion we hope amplify in the coming months as the narratives we collected are released. We are complex beings, in various states of transition. That veneer of effortless perfection shaped in large part by societal expectations and how we compare ourselves to each other, keeps us from pursuing true joy and happiness. If there’s a pattern we noticed in a majority of our conversations is that we need to pivot, either professionally or personally, in order to find something you are passionate about.
It feels weird I have to admit. After being 30 days on the road, the mind and body struggle to find their ‘normal’ rhythm. But perhaps, it’s also important to think about such moments in our lives as opportunities for reevaluating what really matters and how we can implement changes from what we learn. The amount of intellectual and personal stimulation this project has brought has yet to be fully debriefed in my mind. Yet, I hope that in whatever way this moment in history, moment in your life finds you, you are able to prioritize what’s really important.
There’s a lot of beauty out there but there’s also a lot of pain and a world that needs our love and commitment. This was clear at a personal level, as we encountered Ephs we spoke with, off-the-record. Some have been in personal and professional transitions and others are fighting the good fight trying to bring acknowledgement and reconciliation to the indigneous lands we occupy. Our land is talking loud and clear, as we traversed areas in great droughts and witnessed wildfires destroying the landscape. While the task ahead seems insurmountable, what gave me hope were these same encounters where alumni are involved at different layers of their communities trying to make a dent and bring others along.
I’m grateful. I am grateful for all of the people that have brought me to this point today. All of the people that have believed in me. I feel grateful for my co-pilot, Mike, who took on the plunge into this crazy idea and has been a colleague, friend, and sibling. I am grateful for our loyal followers of this project, the alumni who opened up their homes and snippets of their lives. I am grateful for those Ephs (parents, students, alumni) who showed us love at the stops despite the location and time. I am grateful for the colleagues back at Alumni Relations who kept the work at bay in my absence. Thank you.
As I always say, until the next time we meet,
Juan Baena ’06