Dearest Graduates of the Class of 2020,
You have graduated from school, and now the world is your oyster. Live every day as if it’s your last. And remember: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. While you’re making lemonade, please also take a few minutes to solve all the social ills and inequalities created by previous generations, and make sure you do us all proud….
We, your parents and grandparents, screwed it up for you. But now we’re counting on you, so don’t mess it up! I’m sure you’ve heard many of these clichés before – perhaps more often over the past few months. But that’s not why I’m here today. I’m not here to suggest that I have all the answers or that my “pearls of wisdom” will guarantee you a lifetime of success. I’m not here to gloss over the immense uncertainty and anxiety you might be experiencing right now or to place the weight of the world on your shoulders. What I am here to do is embrace the uncertainty with you, help you process and grow through it and let you know that you’re not alone. This is the anti-graduation graduation speech.
I think we can agree that we’re facing a lot of unknowns now. But this isn’t the first time we’ve faced uncertainty; nor will it be the last. Uncertainty is a part of life. The good thing is it’s something we can learn to cope with and grow through. And so I’d like to tell you a bit about my own experiences with uncertainty.
School: For some of you, it was a time of great happiness, popularity and growth and a total haven from the big wide world; for others, it may have been much more challenging. For me, school was a roller coaster. On the one hand, I was fortunate to have a supportive family and a close circle of friends. I had copious amounts of fun and was blessed to find a passion for theatre, something that still gives me great joy to this day. On the other hand, I was extremely shy and insecure about almost everything. I’d watch from the sidelines as certain friends flourished in social situations, all carefree and glowing, while I quietly hid my insecurities and internalized my shame.
I, like many others before me (and there will be many others after me), never felt as if I fit in. I wasn’t white enough; nor was I Black enough. Boys weren’t into my braids, so I conformed, painfully relaxing my hair, which didn’t win them over either. According to school standards, I wasn’t academically strong – an added pressure that was only made worse by my dyslexia and the multitude of exams I failed. I wanted so much to conform, to be like everyone else –something that today would be a massive detriment to my career but at the time was my deepest fantasy. I had many questions but felt like there was so much taboo around talking about certain issues, especially as a young mixed-race girl. In a lot of ways, it rendered my experience at school – a boarding school, for that matter – extremely lonely. My self-doubt and insecurities were paralyzing and prevented me from trying new things. The masks I wore for different people left me continuously exhausted. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to do, and then it was all over. As I prepared to graduate, I remember thinking “What next?”
I left school with a lot of baggage, but I was determined to put it all behind me and use university as a chance for a new beginning. When I started receiving more attention and external validation, I hoped these superficial markers could carry me through. “If I can just put on a facade and keep the messy feelings inside, they’ll magically disappear,” I thought. Instead, they followed me into adulthood, compounding over time and pushing me to a breaking point. What brought me to the other side was learning that I wasn’t alone. Once I was able to connect with others over shared experiences and voice what was bothering me without judgment or shame, everything changed.
Looking back at my mental-health journey, I wondered why I had to hit rock bottom before I got help. Why did I feel so much loneliness and shame about having messy feelings when they are so common and natural? If only I’d had the tools and language to communicate with those around me. And so I founded my mental-health organization, Gurls Talk, to provide a safe and supportive space to go to, no matter how big or small the problem, so no one ever has to reach a breaking point. Without being too preachy, I want to share some things I’ve realized throughout my journey – things I wish I could tell my younger self.
Uncertainty is natural. Sometimes school, and those around you in school, can make you feel like you should already know exactly what you want. I didn’t. So let me be the voice that tells you that it’s okay if you don’t know exactly who you are or what you want. Uncertainty leads to periods of growth, and it’s incredibly important to sit with yourself and your discomfort so you can learn who you are.
There is no “one path.” Life doesn’t move in a linear way; it takes time, and we are always growing. I’m still learning now –often from all of you! You can and should feel empowered to be a combination of things and pieces. You are not just one identity, and you can take unconventional routes after graduating. Fitting in isn’t as important as you may currently think.
Protect your self-worth and boundaries. Stand up for yourself. I’ll say it again: Stand up for yourself. Refuse to let people walk all over you. Every time I didn’t say anything and tried to fit in, I felt so heavy and minimized, making it near impossible for me to grow. I urge you to trust yourself, ignore the external perceptions of who you should be and form your own personhood. Explore your passions, and be curious about what brings you joy and meaning. Don’t let feelings of insecurity or a need to conform hold you back. It’s okay and completely natural to fail sometimes. Actually, it’s important – we learn from failure. Also, be patient and kind with yourself – always, but especially now. And ask for help when you need it.
Find your community. Find your people and nourish your relationships. You do not have to go through all of this alone. I used to feel isolated, but finding a community with shared experiences helped me see that I wasn’t alone, and it normalized those experiences. Find people who share your values. They are out there. Speak up and find spaces that let you do so without judgment or shame. I did the opposite. I learned to not talk about things – the fears I had, that we all have. I wasn’t able to articulate them. If I had opened up back then, I would have realized that these things are natural. Take care of yourself, but also take care of others. Listen, and encourage others to do the same. Whatever you’re going through isn’t trivial.
Between a global pandemic and the fight for racial justice, these are unprecedented times, and I am floored by the strength and resilience that I’m seeing from your generation. You have been unapologetic and fearless leaders in the quest for equality and have stood up for the most marginalized communities, demonstrating that, indeed, All Black Lives Matter.
Gen Z, you have accomplished so much and continue to set the example of what leadership and change look like – but please know that it is not solely your responsibility to solve everything. It is our collective job to create the future that we want to see, and it’s essential to tap into our own individual strengths to create meaningful change.
As you embark on a new chapter, I encourage you to open up, lean into your communities and let them carry you through the uncertainty. Now, likely more than ever in your lifetime, people are showing up and illustrating how our fates are interconnected. But the onus is not on you individually—it is on society as a whole. And as we all know, we are far more powerful when we work together. Thank you and good luck.
Adwoa Aboah is the founder of Gurls Talk, a community-led organization dedicated to promoting the mental health and well-being of adolescent gxrls and young womxn.
Stylist, Beth Fenton; makeup, Celia Burton (JAQ Management); hair, Ali Pirzadeh (JAQ Management); manicure, Loui-Marie Ebanks (JAQ Management); production, KO Collective; styling assistants, Lois Adeoshun and Julia Harve.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of ELLE Canada, available on newsstands across Canada and on Apple News+. Subscribe here.
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