May 12, 2024: Commencement 2024, Remarks by Nadia Sasso ’11

I'm gonna try not to cry here today.

Good afternoon to the dedicated faculty, all the proud parents and guardians, and most importantly, the stars of today — the graduating Class of 2024 at Bucknell University!

Standing here today fills me with both pride and a deep sense of awe. It's not every day one gets to address a group so full of perseverance and strength, poised to shape the future. Your journey to this day has been a remarkable display of your unwavering resolve — facing each challenge with courage and never giving up.

As a Bucknell alum, I feel a special connection to each of you. I, too, have walked the paths of this campus, faced its challenges and celebrated its triumphs, all steeped in the rich university ethos that we all share. Today, as you stand on the brink of new beginnings, I'm thrilled to share journeys of my own Bucknell story in hopes of sparking the same tenacious spirit in each of you as you step into the world beyond these gates.

Since today is also Mother's Day, let's pause to appreciate all the mother and mother figures among us.
Your steadfast love and support have undoubtedly shaped us. To all the mothers here and those in our hearts — Happy Mother's Day! Your influence is an integral part of our journeys.

On this note of appreciation and resilience, I'd like to share a story of tenacity and triumph that resonates deeply with today's occasion. In the late 1960s, my family embarked on a monumental journey from Sierra Leone to America, marking the beginning of a new chapter filled with both dreams and determination. Settling in Washington, D.C., my grandmother — over there, with all her Chaka Khan fierceness, if you know who that is — worked relentlessly to start her own business crafting African dolls. Those dolls were more than toys — they were a celebration of our heritage, and they eventually garnered the attention of the Smithsonian.

My mother, who was just 12 when she joined her family in D.C., quickly adapted to a new culture with a fiery spirit that earned her a reputation of being both tough and tenacious — essential qualities for a young girl making her mark in a challenging environment. She stood her ground against taunts of adversity, displaying a blend of both what I like to call grit and grace that epitomizes the fighter spirit she possesses.

My father, with roots in both Lebanon and Sierra Leone, was a man of deep convictions. From him I learned the art of persuasion, the value of staying organized and the courage to stand firm on my beliefs. His teachings on resilience have had a crucial impact on who I am today.

This story of my family's migration is more than a narrative of moving across continents. It's a saga of enduring spirit, heartbreak, lost connections and triumph — pretty much everything it takes to carve out a path in America.

Drawing from my family's legacy of determination and barrier-breaking ways, I've pursued my own path with a spirit deeply influenced by their courage and tenacity.

As an accomplished academic — and I like to think of myself as a fashionista; see the hair — you might be surprised to learn about the challenges hidden beneath this elaborate graduation robe — a symbol of my journey, which began humbly.

I am both an innovative filmmaker and a protective auntie — every principal and teacher knows my name because I fiercely defend those I care about. Like Jay-Z once said, "I am not a businessman, I'm a business, man." Similarly, I am a businesswoman and the family glue stick. Proudly a Bucknell alumna, my academic pursuits did not stop here — they continued where I got my master's from Lehigh University in American studies and my Ph.D. in Africana studies from Cornell University. As a filmmaker and social entrepreneur, my humanitarian efforts and films like Am I Too African to Be American or Too American to Be African?, featuring Issa Rae, have ignited dialogues on identity across and within the African diaspora. This work has been recognized by icons such as Katie Couric and former President Barack Obama.

But my path wasn't always clear or easy. I've battled the weight of imposter syndrome, questioning my place as I stood backstage, sat at pitch meetings or presented diversity initiatives. It's a challenge many of us face — feeling out of place when we've earned our seat at the table. We all have moments where we feel as if we do not belong. How many of you have felt that way?

This sense of uncertainty isn't new to me. Back in my sophomore year in 2009, right after the housing market crashed, my family faced significant financial difficulties. We lost our home, and with it, we lost a sense of stability. My parents, attempting to shield me from the stress, could not keep the reality at bay for long. This upheaval clashed with a critical time in my academic career, adding to the heavy burden I was shouldering.

Determined to forge ahead, I took multiple jobs on campus to support myself and contribute to my family's needs. By day, I worked at the Career Center, I was a T.E.A.M. mentor, and I worked at the Alumni Relations Center. By night, I worked at the 7th Street Café as a barista. This balancing act was exhausting to say the least, but it taught me the value of hard work and resilience. One day, a routine task of helping a fellow student with her resume set off a chain of events that would lead to an unexpected opportunity. She secured a job, and in gratitude, she returned to help me with a gesture that would open the door to a study abroad trip to the Virgin Islands.

I know you are all probably asking, "Well, how did she help you?" Well, I was struggling, struggling, struggling — I don't know how much more I can say struggling. This was my first-ever failing grade on a progress report. And to give you all context, I remember getting my first B in third grade. I cried so much my parents had to bribe me with ice cream. So I poured so much into the value of that one grade as someone who had just graduated as salutatorian and missed valedictorian by 0.01% — I was that pressed, I counted. I used this D as evidence that I did not belong.

So my angel, the girl who came back to help me, suggested a study abroad trip to the Virgin Islands, focusing on marine biology. Unlike typical classroom settings, this program promised hands-on learning — like the Magic School Bus, I don't know if any of you remember that show. This opportunity resonated with me, offering not just academic credit but a chance to learn in a way that best suited my strengths.

But even working all of those jobs, I still couldn't afford to go. So I approached the financial aid office to plead my case. Does anyone in the financial aid office remember me? Initially, they said no. But I pleaded, pleaded and pleaded, every day, until they finally agreed to help. I managed to raise most of the funds myself, only needing to ask my parents for a small amount to cover the shortfall.

I then remembered I didn't have enough money to eat out everyday. So what do you all think I ate on the trip? I'll help you — I packed my own ramen noodles and oatmeal packets. I'm sure you all can understand how much a life saver that combo can be. I eventually got bored with routine meals and convinced my Posse mates Carmen, Nakea and Bryan to put our cash together and pay the lady in the cafeteria so when one of us would go through the line, she would double, if not triple, the food. We felt like we had won the jackpot.

But this just wasn't a trip; it was a profound lesson in resourcefulness and the power of community support. It reminded me that sometimes, the support we need comes from the community we build, and the strength we possess is magnified by the challenges we overcome.

These experiences of resourcefulness weren't just isolated lessons — they were preparations for future challenges. Just when I thought I had overcome the toughest hurdles, the pandemic struck. All the strategies I had learned during my time in college — like how to be frugal, how to innovate with limited resources, how to keep pushing forward despite uncertainty — came rushing back. I found myself reaching for those familiar packets of ramen noodles — chicken flavor, to be exact — not just for sustenance, but as a reminder of my capacity to overcome adversity.

In early 2020, amidst a thriving career with projects lined up with PBS and Netflix featuring the Beyhive queen reigning over the country music charts right now, my world was abruptly silenced by the global shutdown. I was living in a luxury apartment on Hollywood Boulevard, a stark contrast to my humble student life I once led. Yet here I was again, drawing on my past resilience. The streets below my window, once buzzing with the vibrant pulse of city life, very different from Lewisburg, were now eerily quiet. The emails stopped, the networking ceased, and I found myself facing profound stillness that echoed the isolation I felt years ago.

And then there was George Floyd.

This convergence of both personal and global upheaval brought into focus the enduring lessons of tenacity and community I've carried with me. It reminded me that sometimes, the support we need does not come from the immediate community but also from our inner strength, honed by years of overcoming obstacles. Sometimes, turning lemons into lemonade isn't just about recovery — it's about thriving in the face of challenges.

As we reflect on these significant moments, we see a clear demonstration of the power of tenacity. I want to leave you all with these three key traits to carry on throughout your lives:

Number one, purpose. It's about trusting in that instinct to push boundaries and provoke change, even when it's uncomfortable. It's about the mirror that shows others their blind spots in a way that's unsettling but essential for growth. Being liked is comfortable, but true influence requires us to lean into discomfort. Moving forward, let's embrace the challenges as chances to grow, innovate, and empower ourselves and others irrespective of whether they look like us, speak like us or pray like us.

Number two, forms of expression. Let's consider the various expressions of tenacity around us today. On college campuses, in street marches or even in quieter acts, one thing we know is that tenacity is present. Not everyone will take to the streets. Some might express their tenacity by creating art, preparing meals for activists or leading challenging conversations.

Creating a film, a clothing line or a piece of art that sparks conversation is success in its own right. For me on campus, it was events such as revitalizing the Black Arts Festival or co-founding the Stomp Out. If it's well-received, great; and if not, that's even better — you've ignited a dialogue, perhaps even inspired someone to improve upon the original. The balance of being liked versus being a disruptor is delicate. While we yearn for approval, true change often comes at the cost of comfort.

Last but not least, impact. As far as impact goes, the true measure of tenacity isn't merely about persistence — it's about fostering meaningful change and questioning systems that fail us. Every act of steadfastness, no matter its scale, contributes to a larger narrative of transformation.

So, I urge you today:

How will you trust in and harness your tenacity?

Will you speak out in places where silence has prevailed?

Will you trust your instinctive tenacity to offer innovative solutions to outdated practices?

Which power structures will you challenge?

So as we flex our muscles of tenacity to tackle the world's challenges, let's not forget to keep our antennae up for anything fishy. And that, my friend, leads me to a crucial lesson I picked up while here at Bucknell that I lovingly call the "That Ain't Right Radar."

Just like Shakespeare sniffed out something stinky in Denmark, and Cardi B would straight-up say, "That ain't right," we've all got that built-in detector when things smell fishier than a tuna fish sandwich left out in the sun. At Bucknell, this radar just wasn't useful — it led me to often say "Don't you even try it and don't try me." You gotta trust and sharpen this instinct like it's your life admin's password. So how are you going to use your radar to spot and call out the BS in your surroundings? Keep those sensors polished, because you never know when you'll need to call out some shady business.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been a part of Bucknell's Posse DC3. The Posse program, founded on the principle that many young people leave college because they lack a crucial support network, was instrumental in my journey. Seeing some of my Posse members in the audience, I'm reminded of the robust foundation we built together. Whether it was helping each other with homework, tutoring each other, styling each other's hair, or nourishing each other's mind, body and spirit, our bond was unbreakable. Our mentor, the former Dean Elaine Hopkins, was like a second mother to us, further enriching this profound sense of community.

Without this incredible support system, I can't say for certain where I would be today. I definitely would not have graduated Bucknell without my Posse. Together, we made a pledge that 11 of us would enter and graduate as a college unit. And I'm proud to say that we achieved that goal — and that accomplishment speaks volumes about the power of community.

Now, as I ask you to consider how might your achievements create ripples of empowerment around you? What community will you uplift and offer your expertise to?

But enough about the future — let's talk about the now, and how you got here. You began school in a pandemic, a national trauma that impacts and impacted the ways we learn, hold and shape knowledge. You studied and persevered through a pandemic and graduated in spite of a pandemic. Look to your left and look to your right, congratulate the people beside you because throughout it all, you made it!

Navigating this new terrain required a resilience and ingenuity that not many generations can claim. You, the Bucknell University graduating Class of 2024, found new ways to forge connections across digital landscapes. You created virtual study groups, attended online social events, and supported each other through screens that both connected you and stood as barriers. Your adaptability in these circumstances had been nothing short of remarkable.

Now graduates, I want you to take a moment and recognize your own strength, your own grit. Let's channel some of that energy right here, right now. And repeat after me:

I want to thank myself for believing in me.

I want to thank me for all the hard work I've poured into my studies.

I want to thank me for skipping those Netflix binges to hit the books.

I want to thank me for pushing through, even when finals felt endless.

I want to thank me for giving my time, my energy and my coffee to my friends in need.

I want to thank myself for making good choices — well, more good choices than bad — even if it was a close call sometimes.

And this is the last one, I promise — I want to thank me for staying true to who I am, through every late night and early morning.

You've earned a moment of self-recognition, so let that confidence and pride carry you forward. You did that, and you should be proud!
As we draw this ceremony to a close, I invite each of you to pause and reflect on the journey that brought you to this pinnacle moment. Today, as you prepare to leave the gates of Bucknell University, ponder deeply on who you wish to become. Audre Lorde once said, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive." Let this powerful sentiment guide your steps, and trust that in the future you will handle everything.

One more thing before I forget.

Just like I had my Posse at Bucknell, I must mention Frank Arentowitz, Class of '69, and his wife, Sara Nichols. After graduating, they generously opened their home to me in L.A. by a connection made by the late Walt McConnell of the Class of '53. Living with them placed me next door to none other than Steven Spielberg. Yeah, I said Steven Spielberg. I seized every chance to "accidentally" bump into him, aiming to ignite my film career while interning at Nielsen. Spoiler alert: I'm still chasing that big break!

I share this story to highlight a vital truth: Building a supportive community is key. With the right people around you, any challenge can become a stepping stone to success. So go out there, find your Frank and Sara, and who knows? Maybe you'll end up living next to a legend. Imagine the possibilities!

I encourage you to view your upcoming transitions not just as steps along a career path but as chances to define and refine your values, your goals and your dreams. The uncertainties of the job market are real, people, but so are the opportunities. Embrace the complexity of this time. Lean into discomfort. And through it, hold onto the knowledge that you are not alone on this journey. If any Bucknell student has ever reached out to me, I have answered, and I will continue to do so.

As you go forward, remember that it's not just about the destinations you will reach, but the legacies you will build. So, graduating Class of 2024, what bridges will you construct, what barriers will you break, and how will you lift others as you climb?

The future is not just something you enter; it is something you create. Congratulations, Bucknell University Class of 2024! 'ray Bucknell!