Paola Ramos ’09, Remarks as Delivered
It feels completely surreal to be here; I can literally barely stand straight right now!
President Beilock, members of the Board, professors, parents, families, but more than anything, students — I am so deeply, deeply honored to be addressing you today. Is everyone feeling good?
Before I get into all the serious stuff and the heavy words, I have to tell you that, as I was driving here, I was remembering the fact that in my very first week at Barnard I was actually placed in an English as a Second Language workshop because my English wasn’t proficient enough then. What that meant was that I couldn’t start my First-Year English Seminar on time. And so I remember being on campus that first week, the whole month, and really wondering, “Did Barnard make a mistake? Why am I here? I can barely speak English.” And so, obviously, Barnard believed in me. They knew that I was supposed to be on campus for a reason. And so I just say this because, more than 10 years later, here I am, facing some of the very professors and leaders that led me to this place and addressing you. All this to say that it truly only goes uphill from here.
I really don’t expect many of you to actually know who I am — specifically the parents, I’m a millennial — but do know that the only reason I am standing in front of you today — with a little bit of wisdom — is because of the way that Barnard has taught me to see myself and see the world. Yes, I’ve had all these “fancy” experiences: I’ve worked at the White House, I’ve worked on two presidential campaigns, I went to fancy Harvard, I wrote a book, and I now get to travel the world as a journalist. But it is the lessons that Barnard taught me that continue to keep me grounded in my self and in my work.
Barnard has taught me to always take a step back and make sense of the world, to examine the world. Barnard taught me to see things that aren’t always in plain sight and, more than anything, Barnard has taught me to find change when the prospect of change seems completely implausible. So in this moment, when I do that, when I do that exercise, what I see is a nation that is unwinding, truly, a nation that is unraveling, but in that image I also see a country that’s battling with itself to become that version of America that we all know, at least in this room, we all know has yet to be unearthed. And that’s where we come in.
And that is honestly one of the reasons why I’m so humbled to be addressing the Classes of 2020 and 2021 because you are about to embark, and you are already embarking, on what I believe will be one of the most consequential journeys of your lives and in modern American history. And I think that’s the key. Those two things go completely hand in hand today in this moment. There is no separating you from the impact that your journey is about to have or is having on history. That’s the reality that we’re in.
I wish, truly, that these remarks were more fun and less serious, but that is the exactly the reality of where we are right now. Because the thing is, in this very moment, all eyes are on you. All eyes are on you, the students, as the nation is relying on people like you to hold us together, to help us move forward, and to protect our most fundamental rights, which, as we know, are hanging by a thread. That is the country and the world that you’re stepping into — a country that is in transition, a country that is stuck in the middle of a dance — stuck between two forces, two sides, and two stories — all of them trying to answer one fundamental question, and that is: What type of country do we evolve towards? Where do we go from from here?
And truly, this isn’t about politics, it really doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on, it doesn’t matter how you’re viewing these political issues, because the reality is that now we have these tools to come together, and we have to come together, to address that question, which is: Which type of country do we evolve towards? So let me tell you a little bit of the things that I’m seeing out there.
What’s today — today is Thursday, Friday? Monday and Tuesday, I was in California, and that is a state that is gearing up to become a national safe haven for abortions as the country starts preparing for the reality of a post-Roe America. So, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and if these red states continue to criminalize abortion and and continue to create these abortion deserts, then the reality is that California will end up housing almost 30% of the nation’s abortion clinics. Thirty percent. That’s the future that we’re in.
But what I saw in California are so many new clinics that are popping up in the state, mostly from Planned Parenthood, because they’re getting ready for this massive influx of out-of-state patients that are headed their way, and I also heard stories of people from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, Arizona, stories of people that are already literally on their way, and are crossing state borders and state lines — crossing the entire nation — just to get to California to get the care they deserve. But in the middle of all of that scene — in the middle of the anxiety, and the confusion, and the loneliness that millions of people are feeling in this moment as their constitutional rights are about to be taken away from them — what I also found is this amazing group of resilient people that are doing everything that they can to fight for their dignity, fight for their dignity at all costs, and they are choosing a different story for themselves.
And when I think about it, that’s the same exact scene that I’ve been walking into time and time again ever since I left Barnard. At the U.S.-Mexico border, I’ve seen the desperation that migrants carry with them, but I’ve also seen the way in which they hold onto hope the very moment that they step onto U.S. soil. I’ve been in Texas, where I’ve met parents that are full of rage because the state is criminalizing them only because they are giving their transgender children gender-affirming medical treatment, but what I’ve seen is the way in which that courage of theirs, and that bravery of theirs, pierces through the fear. I’ve met countless families across the country that have become awful victims of of mis- and disinformation, but what I remember, what I see, is that one person in the family that has never given up on finding that truth.
You see, many of these people’s lives are hanging on that delicate balance of transitions I was telling you about. There are millions of people in front of you, next to us, every single day, that are caught in the middle of that dance, between two forces, two sides, and two stories. We know there are times in which it’s easier to stay on the other side of the border than it is to cross it; sometimes it’s easier to stay in the shadows than it is to walk openly with pride; it’s easier sometimes to turn that car around than it is to keep driving and driving miles and miles and miles and miles away, across the country, just to get the care they deserve. That is easier.
But in every single one of these moments, what I’ve encountered, is that the end decision has always been to keep moving forward. To keep pushing through. To keep rising. And that’s because all of these people ultimately believed that there would be someone on the other side of the line that would help them build on that courage and help them choose a different story for themselves.
And whether we see it or not, in this room, and frankly whether we want it or not, that is the type of responsibility that we carry with us as Barnard graduates, that is something that we carry with us the very moment that we leave this room, and you’ve already done it, the moment that you leave those gates, and that responsibility tells us that we always, always, always have to tilt that balance of power towards justice, always, and that is a story, that we’ve been taught, is always worth fighting for. Always.
Now, you have to understand that — as I said, this is so heavy, but it’s true — you are literally carrying the weight of the country on your shoulders — and I wish it was an exaggeration, but you are. And you also have to understand, as they’ve already told you, that there literally is no better class as prepared to take on this task than yours, the Classes of 2020 and 2021. There really isn’t, and I mean this completely.
Barnard has prepared you for this exact moment. In fact, you’ve already proven to be extraordinary. For some reason, beyond us, history has chosen to test you, history has chosen — truly, think about it — to place you in the eye of the storm and at the center of these historic moments of transition.
And think about everything you’ve done so far.
If you want, close your eyes, I’ll walk you through, but think about it: You walked onto campus in 2016 and 2017 during one of the most tumultuous times in American politics, as this country proved, one more time, that this whole notion of a post-racial America was always an illusion to begin with. You went in and out of your classes, in and out of your seminars, in and out of Butler, as the streets outside of you were changing with you: #MeToo, the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter — they all became movements that suddenly were completely intertwined with your academic growth.
When you were asked to think critically in class and to ask hard questions, kids were being separated at the border, travel bans were being put in place, Black and Brown kids were being shot by the police, and racist massacres from Pittsburgh to El Paso were taking the lives of dozens of people — and you, too, absorbed that. You, too, grew with that pain.
And then, suddenly, after all of that, when your lives became completely disrupted by the pandemic, and death, and trauma, and pain became completely normalized around you, what did you do? Like everyone that I met in my stories, you kept moving forward. You kept pushing through. And you kept rising, because you knew that you wanted and you deserved a different story for yourselves, and the beauty is you are just getting started.
Don’t ever underestimate the immense privilege and power that you’re holding in your hands right now. When I think of who I was when I was 18 and could barely speak English, now I see myself, so truly do not ever underestimate the immense blessing and privilege that you hold in your hands. Six or seven years ago, Barnard saw a leader in you. They saw something in you and here you are, fast forward, that’s exactly what you’ve become: extraordinary leaders.
Of course, I can’t help but think of myself, now I’m having this deja vu moment where I’m seeing myself in your seats, and when I was sitting right there, it was May 18th, 2009, and I was graduating at a time when President Barack Obama had just walked into the White House, and “hope and change,” we remember, were these principles that many people in my class went searching for. And again, it wasn’t about politics; it simply was the chapter of history that we were part of.
So what does that mean? That meant that many of us became journalists and political staffers, but also environmental activists, costume designers on Broadway, doctors who saved thousands of lives. We became gun-control lawyers, sanction lawyers, editors at fashion magazines, professional dancers, dentists. In fact, yesterday — TMI — I got three fillings, and my dentist is literally, my freshman-year neighbor. Reid 431! She is the best dentist; I will give you her information later. But that is your future! For real. Everyone in my class, some of my friends are there, everyone’s amazing, but many people in my class, what we did and what you will do, is that we took Barnard’s foundation, and I believe this, and we are creating the change that we want to see in our communities.
And of course, when I see you, I see myself reflected in you in a way, because we do have similar tasks at hand, but your task is even way more urgent because of that delicate balance of transitions that I was talking to you about: I see you not just as these guardians of democracies and protectors of democracies but I truly see you as the vessels that are going to keep propelling us forward during these very difficult moments of transition.
So what does that mean? What it means is that you will dream bigger than ever before; it means that you will search for the answers people are scared to face; it means that you will challenge norms. It means that you will create beauty in the middle of nothing, in the middle of obscurity, it means that you’ll innovate when others stand still, and it means that you will remain humble — and that is so important — you will remain humble when you’re holding on to power, when you are standing in power. And all of that, you will see, all of that, pieced together, will slowly unfold into the question that history for some reason is calling on you to answer, which is: What country do we evolve towards? Where do we go from here?
But I also want you to remember this: In these moments of unwinding, in these hectic moments of history, it’s almost as important to run fast and move forward as it is sometimes to stand still and to take it all in. And I wish I would have known earlier, I wish someone would have really told me that when I was sitting where you are right now. Three months ago, one of my closest friends passed. Betsaida Alcantara — she was just 36 years old. And she passed from cancer. Like you, she was an extraordinary leader. Like you, she literally had the whole entire world in her hands. She worked at the White House, we worked on Hillary’s campaign together, she worked on many more presidential campaigns, she traveled the world — literally, this woman was incredible. But in those last moments of transition, in those last moments of her life, transitioning from life to death, when asked what Betsaida’s biggest lessons in life were, she told us, she said:
“We are stronger than we think, and life is sweeter than I ever imagined.”
And then, before Betsaida passed, she asked us all to remember to slow down. And she said, “Find your dance — the movements will set you on course.” And I love that. She said,
“Find your dance — the movements will set you on course.”
And so I hope you all find that dance — the slow one and the fast one. And I know you will. I’m sure you will. And amid all of this unwinding, we will all be looking at you, we’ll all be cheering at you, we’ll be watching you, as your movements set the course this country takes in the next years and years to come. And so I typically know endings of the stories, because I’m a journalist, and so I sort of know what I’m looking at. In this case, I don’t know how the ending goes. But I do know that we could not possibly be in better hands than in yours.
Congratulations. Thank you so much.