PhD Commencement Speaker: Andréa Harris, PhD'21

May 24, 2021

Andréa Harris, PhD'21, in a black graduation robe and glasses
Andréa Harris, PhD'21

Thank you Dean Weil. It is an absolute honor to share a few personal thoughts and reflections with you today, on our day, class of 2021. 

It’s ironic that I’ve been asked to speak to you on behalf of Heller’s doctoral program today. My story actually started out with a voicelessness. You see, I was selectively mute and had a physically limited ability to speak until I was six. That is, being prompted to use my whisper-like voice around people I didn’t really know – teachers, classmates, or pretty much anyone outside of my immediate family – brought on a series of nerves and unease so great that  I simply chose silence, unsure of what could be held on the other side of the raspy whispers my mouth emitted.  But this wasn’t a tragedy for me. Instead of ringing my words across classrooms or playgrounds, I unleashed my thoughts and dreams in other ways. I expressed myself in dance, used my fingers on ivory keys to express everything I had in my head and heart, and eventually, developed my song and later sentences. 

Sometimes, we enter into new spaces with our own kinds of voicelessness. Instead of screaming, we paint an abstraction of all of our hopes and dreams onto the world’s canvas with ideas of change vibrantly alive in the center. I know when I arrived at Brandeis, full of hope for the world, that I wanted to make real a vibrant dream from an impactful and important center – painting forward the blessings of ancestors, brushing the canvas as I took each new step and blazinged a brand new and impactful path. I knew that while each color was important – each movement I made, and each step along the way –  so, too was the stillness. The white space, I learned, held all of the hope, revitalization, and recovery that brought the painting together. 

Many of us have been fundamentally changed by the events that we’ve experienced while sharing in this space. While we have brought together our times, thoughts, tears and talents to share in a transforming world, we have also brought to bear the truth of our creation. And while many of our paintings and pathways, our dances and homages have adjusted along the way – our visions refined – we are still living our dreams and creating our legacies. 

As you leave this place, remember a few things:

Remember the friendships created here: the people who sit up with you, check on your writing, remember your good days and your bad, and cheer you on when you have nothing left in your tank.

Remember the mentors who inspired you with new ideas, who offered conveniently-timed nudges to bypass procrastination, or who dropped “just thinking of you” emails with articles matching your interests. 

Remember the conversations with people who challenged your worldview, gave you alternative ways of thinking, and reminded you of your growth edges. 

Remember the grit in your belly – and the beautiful ways you’ve twisted and danced and reached to make it something beautiful. Look back on the unmasked determination and resilience in which this journey was born, that will continue to carry you on your way. This is the beauty in the spirit of progress leading us through the darkness. 

And in your painting and trailblazing, embrace the gaps in between. This white space, stillness and silence serves as a reminder of the importance of your song – of your dream. Each and every second spent there has made you just as wonderful as you are at this very moment. 

Thank you, again, for providing me the honor of sharing my personal reflections with you today. If no one told you today, you are beautiful, you are powerful beyond measure, I am so incredibly proud to stand by your side, and I look forward to seeing each of you shake the world.

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