Gustavo Arellano to UC Riverside grads: ‘You are secular saints’

gusgradSaturday morning, I had the honor of giving the commencement speech at UC Riverside’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences for their Sociology, Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology students (what a mouthful!).

Following are my prepared remarks, which I mostly hewed to. I did begin my speech with an explanation of what ustedes and y’all meant, and the pocos pero locos line was improvised and laughed at by about three people.

Anyhoo, enjoy!

Let’s start with an experiment, shall we?

I want all the psychology majors to stand up? Applaud them, por favor, for getting to this special day.

Now, sociology graduates stand. Let’s do the same.

Next, philosophy folks stand. You know the drill.

Finally, neuroscience. Pocos pero locos. Everyone applaud.

All right, congratulations! Soak in the applause, the adulation, the love from all of us. Because the honeymoon is over once you leave this ceremony. And what all of ustedes just experienced is probably the last time any of you will be congratulated for your career by the public. Nice while it lasted, right?

I’m not trying to be negative; far from it. I’m in awe of all of y’all. Out of the three UC Riverside graduation ceremonies this weekend from the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, your grouping–Sociology, Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology–is the only one made up of people explicitly tasked with helping the world. The psych people are moving on to offering therapy to those in need; philosophers now get to join the great minds of antiquity in wrestling with the big questions of existence–I always liked Kant and Sartre. The sociology minded are tasked with studying the rest of us, figuring out what makes us tick and what can be done to improve our collective lot in life. And neuroscience. Y’all are, like, science nervous system geniuses or something.

Ustedes are secular saints. Devoting your careers to assisting others–whether you end up being a teacher, a social worker, an author, whatever–is as selfless and thankless a professional path out there. And for that, you deserve all the respect and good karma on Earth.

But once you leave today, life’s not going to be easy. You’ll never get mainstream attention; whatever position you might get will usually be a budget cut away from a layoff. My social worker, philosopher, and shrink friends go on and on about the hardships of their jobs. Get ready for 80-hour workweeks, for getting far more complaints from your clients and superiors than compliments, for never getting paid what you deserve–seriously, never. The nicest bonus your boss will give you is an occasional Frapuccino from Starbucks–if you’re lucky.

And yet the people who emerged from your fields are some of the most satisfied people I know. They relish the daily, weekly, and hourly challenges that come with their profession. They want to continue in such a tough environment. I don’t know how they do it, and I don’t know what drives all of y’all to willingly sign up for the same rough terrain. The only theory I have that each of you are blessed with some of the biggest hearts out there. And in these hard times, the world needs more of your warmth, your altruism, your humility–and, of course, we’ll probably never thank you for it.

So today, remember that applause ustedes gave each other. Carry it with you for the rest of your lives. Know that, when you feel tired and frustrated and want to quit, that we need you. Your reward will be the lives you’ll transform, the improved communities that’ll result. And take this quote with ustedes, one of my all-time favorites, one that I read in the National Catholic Reporter years ago.

“When you work on the margins, you really don’t expect much recognition at the center. This is the choice I made.” It was said by a nun. What was her name? The article didn’t reveal it, which made the nun’s point even more powerful. Make this your mantra. Congratulations on embarking on a faceless career–you just might save us all. Gracias, congrats again, and God bless y’all and ustedes.