Welcome graduates, family, friends, faculty, and loved ones to this important day of celebration and recognition of your hard work and success. It is an honor to be here to speak to you all today and to commemorate your achievements along with those who are most proud of you. I join you today from Tongva and Gabrielino land in what is known today as Los Angeles, California. It is truly a blessing to be able to speak with you all no matter where you may be today, and deeply humbling to have been asked to speak at this ceremony and to represent UConn, a place I am proud to have called home.

I prepared this speech while “working from my current home”, a concept many of you are familiar with now, which proved to be more challenging than I originally expected. This at-home-office setup largely consists of readjusting my chair every 10 minutes, waking the cat from her afternoon nap, and warding off the unfulfillable urge to work in a crowded cafe and flippantly smash my keyboard.

I know many of you have also been struggling with difficult work and home situations, which in my case have now somehow amalgamated into one giant, never-ending circus. I am blessed to be self-isolating with my partner, Avery, and though I’m grateful for her company, I can’t really remember what ‘alone time’ feels like anymore. We are all simultaneously navigating mandated physical distance from our loved ones, with seemingly constant demands for online connection and correspondence. I mean, does anyone know how to hang up the phone when you have nothing to do and nowhere to go?! Just as the unraveling narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper wrote, I too have become  “positively angry with the impertinence of it, and the everlastingness” of quarantine.

So, I will do my best to try to keep this speech brief and lighthearted, and in its preparation sought out a variety of perspectives to do just that. In this process of sorting through meaningful quotes and graduation prank compilations, I found an article that included quotes from some current seniors at my former high school.

One of the students lamented that, as a result of COVID19, they were going to miss some important and sentimental HS traditions: among them, college shirt day, where students pursuing further education would rep the merch of their future school; the senior barbecue send-off comprised of food donated by local businesses; And my personal favorite: they were going to miss senior skip day, where, you guessed it, the senior class simply doesn’t come to school. I’ve been finding myself, like this student, missing some things I didn’t even know I was looking forward to, like skipping class just for the sake of tradition, and doing my best to allow myself to feel these feelings.

Thus, while I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity to celebrate your graduation virtually and hope to bring joy and laughter to your special day, I recognize I would be remiss not to acknowledge the grief many of us may feel in this moment. I want to acknowledge that this ceremony is likely not exactly what you pictured when imagining your commencement, and would further like to affirm that feeling as valid and reasonable.

For many of you, myself included, the change to a virtual graduation ceremony was gutting. I finished my Masters of Public Health in the final week of March, just around when we began to realize the rapidly growing threat of COVID-19. Unfortunately, many of us had a sinking feeling that things would get worse before they got better. And sure enough, about a week later, my university’s Chancellor declared that in-person commencement would be cancelled, but assured us that quote “the day does not define the journey” unquote of our college experience.

This statement shocked and initially angered me and many of my classmates. It initiated what we now recognize to be a slow, repetitive grieving process. Many of us felt that this comment, this willful and seemingly flagrant dismissal of Our Graduation Day, robbed us of a formal celebration to commemorate the struggles we had endured to earn our degrees.

At first, we felt labeling commencement as just another day glossed over of all the late nights we spent studying, reading, and researching; dismissed the trudge of the long commutes we took every day to our campus, the daily hassle of finding food on the go or or a parking spot close by or a meal between classes; it laughed in the face of the extra hours we worked at our jobs to meet our basic needs, and didn’t truly lend credence to the concerted efforts and sacrifices that allowed us to be at the University in the first place.

Now, I think I have understood a piece of the truth in the statement that “the day does not define the journey.” This came in part by asking myself the question, “What moments of my college experience do I hope did define my journey?” All the late nights, midterms, big papers, lab reports, and everything else seemed endless in those moments. But now, I felt they all made up my college journey, and without them it wouldn’t have been what it was in sum.

Take a moment to consider this question from where you sit now “if not today, what days do define this journey for me?”

I’ll share a few important days I remember from undergrad: the day I got my acceptance letter to UConn; the day I moved into North Campus and ate myself sick with Dairy Bar ice cream on Fairfield Way; the day I told my family I’m transgender; the day half the campus was destroyed after a double national basketball championship. My very own WGSS graduation (!), the feeling that it wasn’t real, and that I’d be seeing everyone soon despite the goodbyes and see-you-laters.

I can recall the defining days in graduate school, too; the day I met my cohort of students from all over the world; the days spent advising undergraduate students through failed classes, mental health crises, and family breakdowns; my last day of class before social distancing where my peers and I shared pizza the professor bought for us.

After finishing this emotional walk down memory lane, I thought more about the way our minds work and create memories around important events. Indeed, our brains work better in remembering memorable “scenes” or specific important moments. We become caught in each moment as it comes to us, and sometimes lose sight of the larger picture. After reflecting, I can’t really say any one of these days defined my journey. In fact, at times, I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. As the great poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, I couldn’t always remember what I or others’ said or did, but I will never forget how it all made me feel.

Celebrations like the one we are sharing today help us find closure in these moments, the many transitions of life, and help us feel accomplished by reflecting on how we have changed since we began a particular journey. I felt justified in my grief, in feeling robbed of the opportunity to step back and look at everything I did, even though I now had the degree to prove it.

You may be at a different point in your grieving process over your final year at UConn, and this, your graduation day. I shared all of this in the hopes of showing that life has a funny way of bringing things to you right when you need them, though we cannot always appreciate these gifts in the moments they are given. And indeed, many of these moments will eventually fade into a larger lesson or goal.

Many of us feel panicked at this time because we see the precariousness of life, and the particular ways in which we all depend on one another for survival. The veil that has long shielded the world and even our local communities from the widespread injustices of greed, inequality, and disregard for human life has been lifted. And while no one could have predicted this crisis, I am reassured given I know you all are uniquely equipped as WGSS-involved students for the inevitable changes yet to come.

On that note, some of you have probably questioned what this major has equipped you for. In fact, many of you may have had it generously and hastily questioned for you– “You’re a WGSS major?!” and “What can you do with a gender studies degree?” or my personal favorite– “What’s gender studies?”. We all know our short answers to these questions, but we’ve all sat with what the “long answer” might really mean. We’ve considered other majors, added a minor, or even doubled up to prove our worth and academic rigor.

I’d like to remind you of a few of the important skills you have acquired here as WGSS-involved students, to both honor where you come from and to reassure you of your preparedness for the future.

First, you know that for the most vulnerable of our society, things have always been in a state of crisis, even on the edge of total destruction. You hold the historical and anecdotal knowledge of how these resilient communities persisted and survived against all odds. You know that top-down approaches that seek quick fixes and blanket solutions will always leave out those who need the help most. You know your silence will not protect you, and that this knowledge is both a tremendous gift and responsibility, as you know you must play your part to give a voice to the voiceless. You are equipped to imagine new futures, new ways of being; a reimagined world in which we can thrive and flourish together. These great imaginings come with great responsibility, and a tremendous capacity for love, understanding, and admittance of failure. I am certain this vulnerability, this opening up of yourselves to the uncertain possibilities of the future, rather than acceptance of the world’s confirmed shortcomings, is a force to be reckoned with and that will serve you and the world well.

Additionally, as WGSS-involved students, you know how to navigate major change. You have seen tremendous shifts in politics, dozens of world crises, and several technological revolutions. While surely these transitions have not been easy, it is your ability to adapt that I believe to be the key to bridging a multitude of generational, cultural, and ideological gaps. We must remember that each so-called generation has something to offer the other, and that while we have very different life experiences, we do indeed have one another’s best interests at heart.

The ‘way we have always done it’ simply will not work anymore, and it is indeed likely that a multitude of proposed “new ways” will fail. So–as your parents, coworkers, or slightly older peers may struggle to figure out how to unmute themselves in Zoom, try to remember time when you too needed their valuable experiential knowledge. It is your ability to bridge these spaces between “old” and “new”, of tradition and innovation, that will help us see the end of the current crisis, and will serve you lifelong as you navigate this complex world.

Perhaps most importantly, your WGSS education has taught you the value and importance of community. Your education in the social sciences has shown you the rich history of creating radical, long lasting change that serves those who need it most. Your knowledge of community will bring unique compassion and understanding to all your work; After all, it is this community and love for one another that has allowed all of us to survive and flourish up to the present moment. Your education has laid the foundation for you to act from a place of shared knowledge and therefore success, and that we must begin by listening to what others have to say.

I am reassured by your class’ vulnerability, your ability to gracefully accept change, and your profound community ties and values. I hope you too can see how these traits manifest in yourself, just as clearly as everyone in attendance today does, and trust that this will carry you to wherever you need to be in life.

Now, if I may offer a few pieces of wisdom from my own repertoire of sage advice.

First, I hope you will all remember that in this present moment you are exactly where you should be. For me, this manifests in the form of a useful daily mantra from the text “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. I first saw it in a NYT comic, where two Buddhists appear sitting side by side, peacefully meditating, and one flatly says to the other, “Nothing happens next, this is it.”

This simple phrase encourages acceptance of the beautiful, pure unpredictability of life. And while it doesn’t tell you what to do, it helps you to let go of the past and the future, reminding you that simply recognizing where you are and who you are in this moment is enough.

There will always be a million other things you could have done; things you may regret or wish you had accomplished, but you must remember how fate has unfolded to give you this precious moment and try to receive it with grace.

Second, each of you has a voice inside of you that loudly and clearly speaks your inner truth. I implore you not to stifle this voice, though it may not always be harmonious with the voices of others; do not ignore its constant whisper though it may be soft and uncertain; and if you have grown not to trust it, find a way to first try to hear what it has to say without judgement. It may surprise you how often what we call “gut feelings” are correct. This voice is your truth, your compass, your heart. Let it be your guide–listen to it.

Third, practice forgiveness whenever possible, as you too will inevitably make mistakes. Remember that forgiveness is an act of great strength taken for oneself,  and requires a commitment to giving up all hope for a better past. Forgiveness requires an honest, open acceptance of the past and how it has led to the current state of things. It may simultaneously bring closure to a painful chapter in our lives while urging us further into healing. Forgiveness is the first step in allowing for change, and imagining a better future.

Finally, surround yourself with people who are driven by love, and who remind you to first extend that love to yourself. You may find that you, among all others, are the hardest person in your life to love, but extending this love to yourself is a vital first step in extending it to others.

There will not always be a logic to the way the universe unfolds before you, and having this foundation of love and care for others will support you through whatever gifts and challenges come your way. You deserve this affection from yourself and others, and those who love you will constantly reaffirm the things they know to be good and virtuous within you.

In sum, I hope that each of you will always remember your special place in this world; that you will listen to your inner voice, even if it shakes; that you will practice forgiveness when able; and that you will always remember to do all things with love.

I will close today with some words from the late Oliver Sacks, a physician and author of many brilliant books on the human brain and psyche, and moreover someone with many great insights about what it means to be human. This excerpt comes from his final written piece, titled “My Own Life”, written shortly after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He says,

“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Congratulations to the class of 2020 on your many tremendous achievements these last four years and for making it to the finish line. We are privileged to be a part of your life’s adventure, and know you will make us proud!


Matt Gray Brush (pronouns he/him/his) received his Bachelors of Arts degree from UConn in 2017, double majoring in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Human Rights. After discovering the beautiful city of Los Angeles while working for UConn Admissions, Matt decided to leave pursue his Master’s in Public Health in Community Health Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles.

His work focuses on addressing the sexual and reproductive health needs of trans and gender non-conforming people by improving health systems structures and standards. His goal is to ensure culturally competent, gender-inclusive care for all that is also accessible, inclusive, and patient-centered. He served as an intern for Essential Access Health’s Learning Exchange, where he assisted in creating a family planning training that includes no gendered language. Matt strives to work directly with the communities he cares about most, and though no longer officially a student, considers himself a lifelong learner.


Cover Photo by Evie Shaffer from Pexels