Creating Change for Today and Tomorrow

Erika Lee, J91, tells the Class of 2022 to build a future that is not about us versus them, but about ‘we’

Hope and action will make the world a better place—and it takes active work to make that happen, commencement speaker Erika Lee, J91, told the members of the Class of 2022, as Tufts University held its first in-person graduation since 2019.

“A Tufts education empowers us to change the world, to create a better future for the next generation,” Lee, an award-winning historian, scholar, and writer, told the 3,275 graduates during the university’s 166th commencement on May 22.

“There are many ways to make a difference. Sometimes we must protest in the streets. We must march and we must go to the front lines,” she said to applause from the audience, who sought shelter under trees as the temperatures rose. “But we can also do the everyday work of changing the world a little bit at a time. We can volunteer in big and small ways to make an impact on others and the world around us.”

Graduates clapping

Photo: Matthew Healey

The author of four award-winning books, Lee is Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Her latest book is America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States, which won the American Book Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.

She was one of six individuals awarded honorary degrees at the ceremony on the Academic Quad of Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, which was followed by convocations for the individual schools.

Awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, Lee emphasized how Tufts’ focus on being a responsible citizen carries valuable lessons to take out into the world.

Tufts taught me that active citizenship is not just about change for today,” she said. “It’s about change for tomorrow.”

Female student clapping

Photo: Matthew Healey

She said that “it’s incredibly important that Tufts asks us to be active citizens of the world. We are taught to look beyond our national borders, across the political divide, to respect and celebrate our different racial and ethnic backgrounds, faith traditions, our gender identities and sexual orientations. There can be no more important lesson than this,” she said.

“White supremacy, antisemitism, anti-Asian hate, and racism and bigotry of all kinds impacts all of us, not just some of us,” Lee said. “We live in an interconnected world. We are—and always have been—dependent upon one another. So if we are to survive—and thrive—we must commit ourselves to building a future that is not about ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ but we.”

She urged the graduates to “keep asking questions, keep solving problems, keep creating, keep transforming, and be active citizens of the world. And then come back to the Hill to lift up the next generation so that they can do the same.”

Lee told the audience that her experiences at Tufts led directly to her life’s work. As an undergraduate, she took history classes, but realized that what she really wanted to examine race, migration, and social justice through an interdisciplinary lens. So she created her own major, in cross-cultural studies, with Reed Ueda, a history professor, as her advisor.

“I started to ask questions that I’m still asking today,” she said. “What does it mean to be an American? What counts as American history? Who gets to tell our nation’s stories?”

Male student blows a kiss to the audience

Photo: Anna Miller

As a student, the Asian American Center “became a second home for me,” she said, where she hosted visiting writers and scholars like Maxine Hong Kingston, Sucheng Chan, and Ron Takaki. “Talking with them I started to realize that history and ethnic studies did not have to be just subjects I studied,” she said. “I could use them to help advocate for change and social justice.”

She taught an Experimental College class on the Civil Rights Movement, calling it a life-changing experience. “My experience teaching about race and rights and engaging students in these ideas also made me realize that this is what I wanted to do after graduation,” she said.

Lee cataloged the differences between when she was in college and life for the graduates of the Class of 2022. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, she wrote her papers on the portable typewriter she brought with her in her first year, there was no texting or even email, and if you wanted to share music, you made cassette mix tapes.

Computers were a novelty, too. One friend of hers did have a computer, and friends came to his Miller Hall room to play the one computer game he had—Dig Dug, an early 80s arcade maze game.

Caroline Genco, Erika Lee, and Tony Monaco

Left to right: Caroline Genco, provost and senior vice president ad interim, honorary degree recipient Erika Lee, and President Tony Monaco Photo: Anna Miller

Toward the end of her speech, she circled back to that friend to bring up a point made by former provost Sol Gittleman, H10, A85P. He had told Lee’s class back in 1991 that Tufts had educated them not for their first jobs, but for their last ones, and that the jobs that most of them would be hired for hadn’t even been invented yet.

That turned out to be the case her friend with the computer. He was an art history major who went on to work for an internet startup and later as a digital product consultant. And, she said with a smile, she came back to Tufts with him seven years after graduation—to get married in Goddard Chapel.

In addition to Lee, other honorary degree recipients were Callie Crossley, award-winning journalist, commentator, and storyteller; Pablo Eduardo, sculptor and 1994 School of the Museum of Fine Arts alumnus; Jane Frommer, AG76, groundbreaking nanoscientist; Lonnie King, veterinarian and One Health pioneer; and Asad M. Madni, innovator and engineer.

Visit Commencement 2022 for complete Tufts Now coverage of Commencement events and more on the Class of 2022.

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