I had the honor of delivering the faculty address to incoming Syracuse University Students. The title of my talk was, “I will make you uncomfortable,” and begins at 35:00. The longer remarks are available below the video.
tl;dw: We must embrace discomfort to learn.
Thank you Chancellor Syverud for this honor. Today, I want to share the most important thing that I have learned in more than 20 years of taking and teaching college classes.
We are amoebas.
I know that’s strange to hear, but we – you, me, your parents, your teachers, Chancellor Syverud – we are all amoebas.
I’m not saying that we are single-celled organisms; clearly, we are multicellular, but we are stimulus-response machines. When we encounter a stimulus, we have a response, and that response is fairly consistent. We consistently move towards things that make us feel good, and away from things that make us feel bad. Consider the people with whom you spend time, the media you consume, even your matriculation to Syracuse. Each of these outcomes was the result of approaching one thing and avoiding another.
This tendency is evident in the comparatively homogeneous makeup of American neighborhoods by race, socioeconomic class, and political ideology. Like amoebas facing a harsh environment, we aggregate into similar groups for comfort, but this significantly impacts your education, both formal and informal.
About half of Syracuse students come from the top 20% of the American income spectrum; alternatively, half of Syracuse city children are in the bottom 20%, which hovers at the poverty line. Therefore, as a whole, Syracuse students are comparatively privileged.
Discussing one’s own privilege is uncomfortable. Discussing privileges regarding socioeconomic class in America is especially uncomfortable because it is antithetical to a meritocracy. We react with anger and frustration to these topics because we are psychologically predisposed to avoid uncomfortable situations. But uncomfortable situations define college. You leave behind the things that make you comfortable and embrace new people, new experiences, and new knowledge, about the world and about yourself.
I started college as a budding geneticist. At the time, I didn’t know there was a stereotype that women, and especially women of color, were supposed to be bad at math and science. My mother immigrated to the U.S. by herself at 20 years old and earned degrees in business and computer programming. In addition, my high school AP classes were mostly girls, and there was racial, religious, and economic diversity.
But when I got to MIT, some of my male classmates told me I only got in because I was a woman. Some of my White classmates told me I only got in because I was not White. Some of my wealthier classmates told me I only got in because I was not wealthy. I was an “affirmative action” acceptance and less was expected of me. I internalized these tiny degradations and eventually came to believe that MIT had made a mistake in my acceptance.
I felt like an imposter, but I didn’t know that the “imposter syndrome” was a real thing. The work was hard, the partying was easy, and I dropped out a few weeks into my second year. In my time away, I realized that it didn’t matter how I got into college, it only mattered that I get through college. I had the opportunity and the privilege to earn a degree from a prestigious university, regardless of others’ comments or my own insecurities. Since then, I have earned 5 degrees, 2 Bachelors, 2 Masters, and a PhD.
Regardless of your background, college will make you uncomfortable. The work will make you uncomfortable. Your classmates will make you uncomfortable. Your professors will make you uncomfortable. I will make you uncomfortable.
In my classroom, we discuss complex issues and conversations often end with more questions than answers. We consider things that we have been actively taught not to consider; and we embrace the resulting distress, anxiety, and discomfort. We don’t get angry. We don’t give up. And we don’t rely on stereotypes. These reactions, although seemingly “natural,” perpetuate problematic discourse. Instead, we mindfully engage with these psychological growing pains, both within ourselves and in others.
I know now that my classmates were probably uncomfortable, and in turn, made me uncomfortable because they were uncomfortable with their own discomfort. Many studies document this trend: like amoebas, we respond to new and difficult stimuli with defensive maneuvers. However, unlike amoebas, we have the capacity to recognize our discomfort and respond in ways that make the world a better place.
So today, I leave you with the following. Wherever you came from and however you got here, you all have the opportunity (and privilege) to learn more about yourselves and respond in ways that are proactive, not reactive. In this process, you will experience severe discomfort, but remember: you also have an ever-expanding group of classmates, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, and local community members working to help you get through and emerge a critical thinker and a stronger person. Regardless of your major, by seeing patterns in the world (and in ourselves) that we have been trained not to see, we become creative, innovative problem solvers and catalysts for change.