“Dare to Know,” Meaghan Allen’s 2017 Commencement Speech

Meaghan Allen (’17) was one of three students chosen to speak at the English Department’s 2017 Commencement Ceremony on May 20th, 2017.  What follows is the text of her address.

Aude sapere — Dare to know. From Immanuel Kant’s “Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784) and later Michel Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1984) two hundred years later, summoning an individual to the task of self-reflection and invention; to think critically for oneself. Dare to know the world you live in, to challenge it in all its complexity, to ask the questions that are hard to ask. Dare to stand up for what you believe in, to take the risks in life no matter how daunting they may seem. Dare yourself – you will be surprised.

Today, we gather to commemorate the hard work of the past few years. For some of us, this is the closing of a chapter, for others, a new beginning. Here at UC Berkeley, we have walked the same ground as esteemed predecessors before us. We have conversed with Nobel Laureates, MacArthur Fellows, Guggenheim Fellows, and other outstanding minds. By being members of this campus, we have joined the current of a great legacy, and hopefully we will continue to add to this current of intellect, passion, and curiosity in the years to come.

As we receive the title of UC graduate it is reassuring to know that we have been on a tremendous journey together; a journey filled with blood, sweat, tears, laughter, late nights, early mornings, thousands of pages, gallons of coffee, and stacks of pizza. Our personal stories may be vastly different, our futures proceeding in multiple directions, but in this moment, this small, celebratory fragment of time, we are together- let us embrace and acknowledge it.

I came to Cal two years ago as a transfer student from Pasadena, CA. I spent my first year of college in mid-state New York at Syracuse University, a girl from Los Angeles trying to see something else of the country outside the Chilton-esque private school bubble I had been raised in. But Syracuse and I weren’t a good fit, so I returned home and attended Pasadena City College for two years, slinging coffee 25 hours a week while completing the arduous IGETC transfer requirements with full semester course loads. It was hard. It was exhausting. At times I questioned what it was I was working towards. Then I got accepted to UC Berkeley.

But being at Berkeley has not always been easy, to be honest, attending Cal has been the toughest, most demanding time of my life. The amount of reading we are expected to complete is constantly brushing up against the absurd; the cost of living is not ideal for a college student budget; and Berkeley is not always the most inviting – it is a large campus filled with strangers, a reality that can be overwhelming and alienating. Yet it was while reading 3 novels a week, working part-time, and exploring all that Berkeley has to offer I learned that if you persevere, reach out, and show curiosity you begin to scratch beyond life’s cold, indifferent surface, and a new world of possibility begins. Talking with people, hearing their stories and sharing your own, daring yourself to try, you make connections that will take you places you never anticipated.

One morning in fall 2015, my first semester at Cal, I was attending the office hours for my Intro to Socio-Cultural Anthropology GSI, Jacob, to discuss potential thesis ideas for my application to the Haas Scholars Program as both of us are interested in the occult and bizarre. We were researching fellow Pasadenian Jack Parsons, co-founder of JPL in 1936 and high-ranking Thelema leader as a possible thesis subject when Jacob was reminded of an obscure novel he had heard about. The novel was The Mysteries of New Orleans by Ludwig von Reizenstein, written in German between 1854-1855 before disappearing for 160 years. After reading the book summary together, which describes the novel as being about: “the coming of a bloody, retributive justice at the hands of Hiram the Freemason—a nightmarish, 200-year-old, proto-Nietzschean superman—for the sin of slavery, birthing a revolution in frankly apocalyptic terms” we turned to one another wide-eyed. A 200 year-old proto-Nietzschean superman? What did that mean? Intrigued, I purchased the 600 page book, read it cover to cover over winter break, and drafted my Haas Scholars proposal around it. Little did I know that Jacob’s one small comment about a near forgotten text during office hours would change my life.

I was accepted to the Haas Scholars Program, joining a group of 20 wonderful individuals across all disciplines with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I got to spend 2 months in the amazing city of New Orleans this past summer conducting extensive archival and cultural research where I was warmly welcomed into academia not only by my scholarship program, but also by the translator of my text Professor Steven Rowan at University of Missouri, St. Louis; archivist Mary Lou Eichorn at the Historic New Orleans Collection; and Professor Dietmar Felber at Tulane University, all of whom encouraged me throughout the daunting new research process while away from the Bay Area.

Yet it has been my support here at Cal that has been remarkable; not just from my peers, but also from the staff, faculty, and grad students. From Leah Carroll, director and heart of the Haas Scholars Program to my two thesis mentors Professor Henkin in History and English’s own Professor Otter, both of whom listened to my ramblings about nineteenth century pop-literature; to writing guru Professor Saul who worked patiently and ceaselessly with me on drastic edits for pieces ranging in topic from cigarettes as totems of power in The Godfather to a profile on local Oakland artist Amy Ho; to my Creative Nonfiction GSI Ismail who tolerated my “creative” ramblings about waffles, television, and the quality of Nicolas Cage. My gratitude only continues because due to the immense support of these wonderful people I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of backpacking across Europe this summer, where I will be presenting my research thesis at the ACLA Conference in the Netherlands as well as attending the Yeats Society Summer School in Sligo, Ireland thanks to a generous scholarship from the Irish Studies Program here at Cal. And I am just one person. Every one of you has some story, some experience to share.

Let us take a moment to celebrate not only our personal academic achievement of making it here to the finish line, but also those who have been our faithful pillars in this journey. I thank my friends who have kept me focused and inspired, my family who has kept me grounded, and most importantly, my father who has sacrificed everything for me to be here, working odd jobs since I was six to guarantee that he could pick me up from every practice; be present at every game, performance, or presentation; who has driven me across the country to teach me what adventure is beyond books. Without him I wouldn’t be the person I am nor be where I am today, this graduation is as much a celebration of hard work, perseverance, and success for me as it is for him. I do not think I am alone in having people like him in my life.

As we cross this stage today and become Cal Alumni, let us not forget who we are, where we have been, and where we want to go. UC Berkeley’s motto is Fiat Lux – let there be light. Let us be the light bearers in the dark days ahead, using our skills as critical thinkers to challenge the patriarchy, the oppressors, and the ignorant. Let us be the light that illuminates minds and souls through our art, our criticism, our stories and poems and wit. It will not always be easy; often it will be hard and try to break us, challenging our will. But let us prove that we are not merely memorizers of flash-cards or apt at SparkNotes synthesis or sufficient crammers. Let us reveal that we know how to think and are prepared to show the world what we are capable of: that the pen is mightier than the sword. Dare yourself. The time is now, not just tomorrow -we are ready. Congratulations Class of 2017! Go Bears! Aude Sapere!