2021 Commencement Remarks: Audra Wilson ’94

Delivered at Bucknell University's 171st Commencement, May 23, 2021

Good morning everyone. Good morning, graduates and Bucknell community! It is such an honor to be here with you today. And it's even more special because we're able to celebrate in person, despite the challenges of the last 15 months. 

But as you well know, your lives as Bucknellians started long before 2020. And they will continue, in perpetuity, as alumni.

I was so honored to be invited back to my alma mater to give today's commencement address. And up until this point, I'd always thought that commencement speakers fell into one of three categories: some really amazing A-list celebrity, like Oprah or Sheryl Sandberg; a high-profile figure in a particular field; or, in the numerous commencement addresses that I've attended over the years, a wonderfully stuffy old trustee, which I've now become, or distinguished-but-not-famous alumnus spouting the obligatory platitudes and clichés meant to be inspirational, but that only inspire eye rolls and muffled yawns of boredom.

Now, I'm not an introvert, but I've always found myself more comfortable behind the scenes. I'm someone who has found strength and power in being the architect, the fixer, the shot caller, the person who everyone knows is the one to call. So, being asked to stand center stage and to impart some kernels of wisdom that you may or may not remember was both flattering and a bit unnerving. But you all chose me, so here I stand. 

So in preparation for today, I agonized over commencement themes, profound words, witty quips, catchphrases of the moment (that probably should not be uttered by anyone over the age of 25) and any other motivation that graduates can take with them as they move on to the next chapter of their lives. 

And then, I thought, "Well, stop trying to write the perfect speech. Just share with them your reflections from your time at Bucknell, what you've learned over the past two and a half decades since college, and what you can appreciate now more than you ever could have imagined at 21 or 22 years of age." So, here I go!

So as an alum, I am going to use a frame of reference with which everyone — Bucknell students, faculty, parents and staff alike — are very familiar: the infamous Bucknell bubble. It refers to this special environment of our own making and can reference many things, including the caliber of students, the pedigree of students, or our beautiful campus tucked away off the beaten path. However you think about it, the Bucknell bubble is a curious phenomenon that has transcended generations.

Coming back here after 26 years, I could almost feel myself stepping back inside. In some ways, our physical isolation is like a cocoon, a safe place from which we feel shielded from external pressures or influences. It's a place from which we can observe, dissect, analyze the events of the world in a controlled setting and in a protected environment.

Conversely, it can be a place where we try to shield ourselves from discord or unpleasantness, or a place where we try to surround ourselves by people who look, feel or think similarly so as not to have to deal with difference or dissent that makes us uncomfortable.

Now in reality, the Bucknell bubble is not impervious to the world around us. Its protectiveness is illusory. We are just as vulnerable to the realities of the outside world as anybody else. Some of you may have even felt trapped by the bubble, living in an environment that scarcely resembles the communities from which you hail.

Admittedly, 2020, and part of 2021, has felt particularly disruptive and tumultuous; your senior year was disrupted by political turmoil and great racial unrest, punctuated by a global health crisis. But the truth of the matter is, no matter how difficult the last year has been, we've been here before, in some way, shape or form. By no means are you the only ones to have experienced some turmoil in your college careers.

Our predecessors have had college life interrupted by World Wars, lived through assassinations of presidents, civil rights leaders and other prominent figures. They've endured disruptions in their education from the draft.

And they've either witnessed or even participated in major social or political movements, including anti-war and civil rights protests.

When I reflect back on my life as a student in the early 1990s, I see very distinct parallels or instances of history repeating itself.

Before there was George Floyd, there was Rodney King. In 1992, at the end of a police pursuit and ordered to surrender, he was then dragged out of his car and kicked and beaten with batons for over 15 minutes, resulting in skull fractures, broken bones and teeth, and permanent brain damage. And this savage beating was caught on video and shocked the nation. But the ultimate acquittal of the officers involved caused the city of Los Angeles to erupt into five days of protests and riots, and ignited a national conversation about racial justice, as well as the use of police force, a conversation that clearly is still being had today. 

The horror of Sept. 11 was not the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center. In 1993, when I was a junior, a terrorist attack was carried out on the World Trade Center where a 1,300 lb. truck bomb detonated below the North Tower. Though it failed to take down both towers as intended, it killed 6 people, injured over 1,000 and resulted in the evacuation of 50,000 people. 

Before the Capitol Riots of Jan. 6 was the Waco Massacre, a 51-day siege initiated by the FBI and U.S. military against the Branch Davidians, a cult led by a charismatic leader, David Koresh, that ultimately led to the death of 76 of his followers, including 25 children.

There was certainly no shortage of natural disasters, including the 6.7 magnitude earthquake in Northridge, Calif., that killed over 70 people and injured thousands.

And at that time, there was much happening outside of our own borders, including the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe. But we also witnessed the official end of apartheid with the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first Black president, in the first election where people of all races were allowed to vote. 

There were even some historic moments in pop culture. I actually remember where I was when I heard about the death of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, which, in 1993, stunned the world.

For all of you, there have been many significant moments over the past four years. During your time at Bucknell, there has been a horrific spate of mass shootings, including the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, or the rampage in Thousand Oaks, Calif. You saw graphic displays of hate like the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., organized by a host of white nationalist and antisemitic groups that ended violently when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters.

You've lived through an extraordinarily contentious confirmation of a Supreme Court justice, the release of a massive 400-page report on extensive foreign interference in the American presidential election, the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two planes crashed within five months. 

From Brexit to #MeToo, there was no shortage of life-altering events during your college time.

So just as the bubble does not protect us from the events of the outside, it also does not keep things from escaping.

Even for me, attending Bucknell before Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, before smartphones and prolific texting, when email only began to be more mainstream, I learned then that the walls of our Fortress of Solitude were actually quite porous. And the foolish acts of young, headstrong, intelligent, opinionated but not always level-headed students managed to leak out to the public. 

I heard this through a frantic call one night from my mom asking why she was hearing about Bucknell in the local news and seeing images of hordes of students congregating on the steps of the Langone Center, hosting our own riot over, of all things, beer.

Yes, my friends, notwithstanding all that was happening in the outside world, inside the Bucknell bubble, we were protesting the inconsistent treatment of underage students by campus security when busting parties.

For the record, this was not one of Bucknell's proudest moments. In fact, it was embarrassing and ridiculous, but fortunately, the buzz around the story came and went quickly.

But nowadays, in this age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, our transgressions don't just make local news, they go viral and make national news instantly. And as our society has evolved over time, what might not have raised the collective ire of the public in the past can now cast our community in a very negative light. 

Our students and community at large continue to evolve, and subsequent generations of graduates have become even more civic-minded and conscientious. Our graduates are increasingly diverse, engaged and enlightened.

But even as we continue to grow, that doesn't always guarantee that there will not be lapses in judgment, breaches in protocol and outright hurtful acts.

So, the question is not whether you'll make mistakes, but how you'll learn from them. That's where living in this bubble actually works to your advantage. This is an intimate place, a place where you are not one of thousands on a campus.

A place where you've been able to establish close relationships with faculty. 

This is the place where you've been allowed to make many mistakes and missteps from which you can learn. 

This is the place where you've done some things that were cringeworthy, regrettable and in some instances, reckless. 

But rarely, if ever again, will you have an opportunity to test your thoughts, theories and arguments without the fear of serious repercussions if you're wrong. 

The Bucknell bubble is not impenetrable, nor should it be. But, in many ways, it has enabled you to grow and develop in unique ways. It is the place where you've learned to find your voice. It's the place where you've learned that silence or inaction is complicity. 

It's the place where you've encountered viewpoints and perspectives to which you may never have been exposed; life experiences that you've never encountered and met people who, under different circumstances, you might never have interacted with otherwise. Even within this bubble, you've learned that there is much life outside of it. And you've learned all of this within the confines of our safe, protected environment.

Graduates, you're not the first to experience what you've experienced, and you will certainly not be the last.

That's why it is so important to put things into context, so as to make better sense of what you've experienced.

Use the context that I've given you, from my own experiences at Bucknell, as a reminder on whose shoulders we stand, as you prepare to graduate from this prestigious institution. 

And, as a happily middle-aged Bucknellian who has been able to capitalize off of all her college experiences, positive or otherwise, believe me when I tell you that this is not an ending, but the beginning of your next great adventure. 

The best truly is yet to come. Congratulations, graduates.