The Loh Life

The Commencement Speech: Part One, The Set-Up

The first part of Sandra Tsing Loh's series on delivering a commencement speech.

So it came to PASS that yours truly was ASKED to give a commencement speech this year to the fine young graduates at UC Irvine. While I was delighted to be asked, I was also NERVOUS, because COMMENCEMENT speeches are things you REALLY don’t want to screw up.

Nightmare Number One was that I might SOMEHOW get confused and, on that magical DAY instead of driving to UC IRVINE I might mistakenly drive INSTEAD to UC RIVERSIDE or Cal State Fullerton or even end up mysteriously in Pomona, because those PLACES all feel the SAME to me. This is not about SNOBBERY, but as a 20-year DENIZEN of Van Nuys, certain locations conjure for me palm trees and haze and freeways like the 110 and the 170 and the 55 and the 22 and one I saw the other day called the 73!

That said, the freeway I fear the most is the FIVE. And Google Maps to Irvine did INDEED indicate. . . The FIVE. So, to ENSURE not being late to commencement, which somehow holds that same dreamlike metaphysical TERROR as sleeping through a final or turning up at your high school reunion with no pants. Even though Google Maps suggested an hour and a half with traffic, for a speech at 6 p.m. Saturday, I left at 4 a.m. on Tuesday. Two weeks before. An EXAGGERATION, but not much.

The NEXT thing you don’t want to mess UP is being clear on what KIND of graduates you’re addressing. In the genre OF commencement speeches, which I’ve STUDIED a lot-- one does not make the same speech to a WOMEN’S college--whose graduates will MOSTLY be women--as one does to an engineering school--whose graduates will MOSTLY be Asian.

I welcome the LATTER case, as it gives me an opportunity to use my hit LINE about my OWN Shanghainese dad. I’ll say: “Graduates? Never worry about pleasing OTHERS. Look at me--I’m a former physics major who went into the liberal arts, which to a Chinese father is like pole dancing.” Never fails to bring down the HOUSE, or, in the case of COMMENCEMENT speeches, the LAWN.

The commencement speech REQUEST came from the UCI School of Physical Sciences-- Which I learned is made up of an AMALGAM of scientific disciplines: chemistry, math, astronomy, physics-- GOOD, having gotten my OWN BS in physics, I can use my physics jokes like: “Higgs-Boson? Don’t worry--I found it. It was in my other purse.”

Done and done. What could go wrong? The answer, next week.


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