If you’ve ever been part of a university commencement or reported on one, you know to expect a lot of clichés in the keynote speech. “The future is yours for the taking,” “Risk big, dream bigger,” “Don’t be afraid to fail,” are par for the course.
More unusual, this year’s University of Guam's commencement speaker, Guam attorney and activist Julian Aguon, made this point before getting to what he considers much more serious matters than the vague generalities of such speeches.
“We are losing our capacity to confront the injustice that is literally everywhere around us. And I think it has something to do with the kind of violence we are seeing today,” Aguon told the UOG graduates.
The University of Guam conferred degrees to 257 students on Dec. 16 at its Fanuchånan 2018 Commencement Ceremony held at the UOG Calvo Field House. Crossing the stage were 199 undergraduate and 58 graduate students.
“In one sense, the violence raining down in the most vulnerable among us—immigrants, indigenous peoples, asylum seekers, refugees, women, children—is horrifying, but not startling. Acts of violence against these and other groups are reported with such frequency. News of it is not in fact new.”
Aguon said that Guam is far from being isolated from such behavior.
“The violence that’s everywhere erupting at the borders of this country, at waffle houses in Georgia, at parking lots in Guam, is of a different degree. A man choked to death for selling loose cigarettes. A woman shot to death for burning white rice," Aguon said. "What we are seeing in our communities is increasingly barbaric behavior and it’s immobilizing us, rendering us momentarily from speaking—speaking back, speaking up.”
Julian Aguon. Photo courtesy of UOG
But many people refuse to say anything about what they’re experiencing.
Aguon cited Alice Walker’s book, Overcoming Speechlessness,” to back up his points. He recounted his own experience with violence, returning to Guam after living in Oregon when he was eight. “My grandmother, who was suffering from early onset dementia, was sent to Guam ahead of the rest of us, temporarily entrusted to a relative’s care. One day, after my sister and I had returned home, we were taken to this same relative’s house,” said Aguon.
“Once at the house, we asked over and over to see our grandmother, wondering why she was being kept from us. After what seemed like an eternity, we heard a banging coming from a bedroom in the back. My uncle scurried away to attend to the noise, unbeknownst to him, I had snuck quietly behind,” Aguon recalled.
When the uncle threw open the door, Aguon saw his grandmother, half naked and tied to the bed, a brown rope, a silver bowl on the floor.
“The next thing I remember was my eight-year-old body hanging upside down from its ankles. Crying as two of my cousins passed me back and forth, laughing, knowing there was little I could do about it, because I was little and I had too little power and I did not have the words with which to fight back—to graft my rage upon the world, to wage war. I had no command over the language I would need to set me or her free,” Aguon said.
Aguon has become one of the most prominent activists for Pacific Islanders rights with his company Blue Ocean Law. “We go to court to defend the right of self-determination, because the most categorically legitimate longing of human beings is the longing to be free. I share this because this is what it looks like when we are able to overcome our speechlessness, find our fighting words, and step into the sun,” Aguon told the graduates.
Dr. Thomas Krise. Photo courtesy of UOG
The largest number of graduates came from the UOG School of Business and Public Administration, which conferred 95 undergraduate degrees in business administration, accounting, public administration, and criminal justice and 11 graduate degrees from its Master of Public Administration and Professional Master of Business Administration programs.
The School of Education graduated the largest number of graduate students conferring 35 master’s degrees. “My experience at UOG was fun and exciting and full of knowledge,” said Alyssa Talabong, who graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting. “You strive to do your best, and in the end, it is worthwhile.” Her next step is to find a job while also pursuing a master’s degree.
In his first commencement ceremony as president of UOG, Thomas W. Krise noted how this class would be taking a place in the university’s 65-year history of providing a place to teach and discover new knowledge and to share it with the community. “I thank all of the graduates for learning with us, for challenging us to think in new and different ways, and for your commitment to making the world a better place for all of us and for those who come after us,” he said.
Mia Sara Dizon Madlambayan, who graduated as a double major in psychology and sociology, was named class valedictorian. She encouraged her fellow graduates to not compare themselves to others but to pursue their goals on their own timeline. “In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy,’” she said. “Instead, take life at your own pace. Believe that everything that you do is for a reason. Every experience you have, whether good or bad, shapes who you are.”
Madlambayan plans to take the GRE and to pursue graduate school on her path to working in the social psychology field.