'Reach out'

DATE: Tuesday, May 30, 2017

"You deserve to celebrate your own persistence, but do not forget whose shoulders we all stand on."

ESL professor Vivian Leskes addresses the Class of 2017 at HCC's 70th annual Commencement May 27 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

Earlier this month, English as a Second Language professor Vivian Leskes was awarded the 2017 Elaine Marieb Faculty Chair for Teaching Excellence. On Saturday, carrying the ceremonial mace, she led the procession of graduates, faculty and staff into the MassMutual Center in Springfield  for HCC's 70th annual Commencement. Below is the full text of her address to the Class of 2017:

Good morning! Trustees, President Royal, administrators, faculty, staff, parents, and 2017 graduates of Holyoke Community College.

Welcome to this wonderful day. Bienvenidos a todos. Добрый Поджаловать , As-Salaam-Alaikum, Ramadan Mubarak!

It is my great honor to be here, to join you in celebrating this special day. It's time for us to congratulate you and for you to congratulate yourselves for your effort, your persistence, and your achievement. Each one of you graduates has a story to tell about your journey, how you reached this day.

Give a shout-out if you always knew that you would get to this point and always knew what you would study. Or maybe, your route to this day was a long, winding one. Let's hear a shout-out from those of you who had to start again and again. How about a shout-out if you changed your field of study?

Both as a professor and as an adviser, I have heard many students' stories. I teach English as a Second Language, and I have witnessed what seems to be superhuman determination and persistence on the part of students. One student has trouble getting her essays in on time because she is caring for an autistic son. One student falls asleep in class because he is working 60 hours a week at a convenience store to support his parents and siblings. Another student has excessive absences because he has to translate for his ill mother when she goes to the hospital. Some students have been through war and refugee camps. All of them have left family, friends, and familiar places behind, and they come to be transformed in this new country. And I know that some of these stories are your stories as well.

Even if you have lived in this area all your lives, you too are on a journey. In the process of your journey, you students have inspired and transformed us, the faculty. We are all rooting for you to achieve your goals. Did we faculty nudge you and push you? Did we make even more demands on you when you thought you couldn't face any more deadlines or write any more papers? Well, know that we are cheering for you. Nobody said education would be easy, but, just like a physical journey, it is transformative. We all emerge in a different place from where we started.

There's a book that has been on my mind recently because my students have just finished studying it. Maybe some of you have also read it, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It is the story of a young girl, Esperanza, of Mexican-American heritage, coming of age in a poor urban neighborhood. The women of Esperanza's neighborhood are bound by traditional female roles. They can barely see any alternatives. They seem doomed to repeat the same patterns, Esperanza's great-grandmother, her mother, her friends, sitting at the window, looking out, leaning on an elbow, passively accepting whatever the world hands them, unable to break out.

But Esperanza dreams of being a different sort of woman, one with her own physical and psychological space, able to maximize her potential. She even wants to change her name. She knows that she is secretly Zeze the X, a superhero who will surprise the people who think they know her. She will not just sit by the window, unable to take action. I think I'll call you all Zeze the X, the superheroes who have persisted in order to change your own lives.

Today, May 27, 2017, I challenge you to make a difference for others. Education is a personal journey, but it has repercussions for society, especially as we all try to improve democracy in this country. This is a very important time to be getting an education. My ESL students all revere this country with its world-famous freedoms, but it takes continuous effort to create such a society. I'd like to give some historical perspective.

More than 100 years ago, on the top of a 10-story building in New York City, there was a factory that made ladies' clothing. They called the dresses "shirtwaists" at that time, and the factory was called the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Young immigrants, mostly Jewish and Italian women between the ages of 13 and 23, labored at sewing machines for 10-12 hours a day, six days a week. Many of these girls did not speak English and were illiterate. The supervisors locked the workers into this sweatshop so that they couldn't steal from the company or leave their sewing machines.

On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in this factory. There were 500 young women working there. You can imagine what happened, with the doors locked, and the girls unable to get out. They jumped out the windows and down elevator shafts trying to escape. One hundred forty-six young immigrants died that day. The fire called attention to the terrible, working conditions of immigrants. This day was important, not only because of the great loss of life, but also because, after it, people joined together to demand and eventually win improved conditions for us, the American workers. 

My grandmother, Fanny Bregshtein, an immigrant from Lithuania, worked in a sweatshop like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. She had made the trans-Atlantic passage by ship, alone at the age of 15. She and my grandfather never had money. My father, the only child who lived to adulthood, slept on the couch in the living room. Fanny never learned to read and write English. She sat, leaning on her elbow, looking out the window like the women on Mango Street, but somehow she realized her son's ticket out of poverty was education.

City College in New York was free in those days, the only way the children of immigrants could go to college. My father sold shoes during the day. But he persisted in his education, and he eventually attended law school at night. He became a civil rights lawyer and contributed to the landmark court decision Brown vs. the Board of Education, which declared that African-Americans had a right to equal access to education.

I'm telling these stories because we are all beholden to the immigrants who have contributed blood and sweat to this country. They continue to do so today, despite anti-immigrant sentiment. Immigrants, especially undocumented ones, continue to struggle under miserable working conditions because they are afraid to speak up. Today, energetic, hopeful, and creative people come to the U.S. for the same reasons that all previous generations have come.

There is talk about putting up walls to prevent immigrants from entering across our southern border, talk of separating families, depriving young people of education. However, we are all immigrants and the children of immigrants, or in the case of many African-Americans, descendants of slaves who were forced to work under unimaginable conditions. You deserve to celebrate your own persistence, but do not forget whose shoulders we all stand on.

I respectfully ask you to take great pride in your educational achievements today and to reach out with a grateful hand to your family, your community, and the society at large.

This is not the time to push away those who look different from us, or those who may speak a different language or practice a different religion, or those who love differently from the way we do or have different abilities than we have. This is not a time to build a wall around ourselves and our possessions or to be afraid that if others solidify their rights and liberties, our own freedom will be diminished. This is a time to feel gratitude. An education is a lifelong treasure, something that no one can ever take from you.

My wish for you is that you use that treasure to good purpose. May you enrich your own lives but also enrich our global community with your talents and energy and power. Speak up for those who need help. Don't forget the ones who stay behind. Don't be afraid or too busy to speak for those who do not have a voice. Use your education to fly. Go far. Go high. But, as Esperanza says at the end of The House on Mango Street, come back for the ones who are "left behind, for the ones who cannot out."

PHOTO by CHRIS YURKO: ESL professor Vivian Leskes, winner of the 2017 Elaine Marieb Faculty Chair for Teaching Excellence, addresses the Class of 2017 at HCC's 70th annual Commencement May 27 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.