Commencement 2017: Isabella Kahhale, A17


Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography

Isabella Kahhale, A17

Wendell Phillips Award Winner

May 20, 2017

Good afternoon to professors and staff leaders, parents, members of the Tufts community, and my fellow graduating seniors.

I’m incredibly honored to be addressing you all on the last day of our undergraduate career.

I’d like to start by reciting the serenity prayer, as I have quietly to myself many times over these past few years. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

We ask for serenity, courage, and wisdom always, but especially in moments like this, moments of great personal change. We are poised to move on after spending four years here. Four years, that’s 20% of our lives!

For four years we’ve been failing to schedule coffee with the same people, ignoring the same course evaluation emails, and trying to sled down the same prez lawn and hoping this time the hill will actually be steep enough.

This has become our home. A home that feels comfortable and familiar when we step back onto campus after a weekend away. But this familiarity comes at a price.

When we are surrounded by people who think like us and who believe what we believe, we create a circle of affirmation with little room for outside opinions.

This is our opaque bubble.

We grow distant from the voices beyond our campus boundaries, but we also become resistant to opinions within our community. At a school where involvement in student groups is so important to us, we opt into social circles that share our interests and attitudes.

If you’re in Tufts Democrats, you’re probably not going to go the Tufts Republicans meeting. There’s not much membership overlap between Tufts Hillel and Students for Justice in Palestine. The members of Tufts Cheese Club aren’t catering to the interests of the lactose intolerant.

The same self-selection occurs in the online realm, which has begun to account for more and more of our social lives.

Last February, Twitter stopped showing us tweets in chronological order in favor of presenting updates from users we interact with the most. A few months later, Instagram did the same thing, and started displaying content based on our relationships. And Facebook, the king of curated content, uses hundreds of variables to make sure we only see things we want to see. They focus on our likes, our past comments, and our tagged friends to filter out posts. And that’s just stuff that Facebook does without us – we can also choose to filter things out of our feed.

Whether we realize it or not, we only interact with information that’s relevant to us. The trouble is, this word “relevant” has become synonymous with like-minded. We allow the filters to homogenize our circles of discussion so that we can avoid the discomfort of interacting with dissonant opinions.

This happens to all of us. I recently did something on Facebook that I’m not particularly proud of. I un-friended someone over a status they posted. It was a person I hardly knew, so it was easy to delete him from my online social circle, but I intentionally excluded a perspective that I’m not typically offered just because it hurt my feelings. The post was an anti-immigrant statement. I am the proud daughter of two incredibly hard-working Lebanese immigrants who made an infinite number of sacrifices for my siblings and for me. In return, they’ve asked only that we be committed to our own education and embrace these opportunities that were not easily afforded to them.

I thought I was defending my parents’ values, but by shutting out an opposing view, I was really contradicting their emphasis on using every situation as a chance to learn.

If I had shown my mother the post, she probably would have said, “Why are you Facebook friends with someone you don’t really know anyway?” And then she’d probably ask me if I’ve been eating enough at school.

So, you might be wondering, what did that post even say?

Let’s pretend for a second that this person posted a public status that said “Isabel Kahhale,” – and they called me Isabel instead of Isabella to add insult to injury – “Isabel Kahhale, the hummus that your mom makes isn’t even good.” A few people in this world might share that opinion - I doubt it - but that doesn’t matter.

Whether it’s a personal attack, or a generalized statement that I take offense to, I think it’s my duty as an educated individual to try and grapple with opinions that contradict my own.

This Facebook incident was not my first misstep, but rather one of the first times I recognized my resistance to learning the position of someone else. I started to notice how I’d behaved similarly before. I’ve intentionally avoided conversations with people who disagreed with me; I’ve skipped over news headlines because I assumed I knew what the articles had to say; I’ve avoided talks or events because the speaker took a stand opposite to my own.

Once I challenged myself to start identifying my own biases, I noticed them in other people, too. Now, more than ever, and here especially, “birds of a feather flock together.”

I didn’t re-friend the guy, mainly because I decided to take my mom’s advice to not be friends with random people. I know it’s unrealistic to say that I’ll always embrace opinions that I disagree with, but throughout my time at Tufts I’ve learned the importance of hearing opposing views, to admit when I’m being one-sided, and to expand my perspective.

The times I’ve done it, I’ve found it incredibly rewarding to put myself in other people’s shoes, even though I wear a size 11 women’s, so, that’s tough.

We’ve seen what happens when we don’t do this on our campus. Discussions over Greek life and divestment from certain companies quickly disintegrate into stand-offs where both parties are not even willing to meet in person.

I propose an alternate approach.

One where we have civil debates that are based on respecting another person’s point of view. Failing to do this contradicts the very reason why we’ve spent the last four years here in the first place: to learn.

In our new political climate, a willingness to listen to other viewpoints is more crucial now than it has ever been before. Even when the Tufts bubble bursts, we can still easily surround ourselves with homogenous opinions, and social media will gladly help us.

It’s a platform that has been instrumental in improving countless lives around the world, but I worry that it will continue to prevent us from scrutinizing our own beliefs by allowing us to shut out the other side.

To create effective change in our world, we need to build bridges, not barriers.

I wear this Shakespeare quote on a ring everyday, and it says: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” We’re graduating with more knowledge, more experience, and more resume bullet points than we had four years ago.

But that doesn’t mean our education should end. That doesn’t mean that we should stop challenging ourselves to continuously learn from new experiences, new people, and new perspectives.

So here is my charge for each one of us: Let us seek out the provocative tidbits that do swim through our social filters. Let us tussle with them instead of rejecting them. Let us ask uncomfortable questions and be ready for uncomfortable answers. Let us not harbor hate for opposing ideas, and more importantly, let us not harbor hate for the people who hold them.

We can achieve so much more by listening to other people than we can by listening to our own voices.

And at the end of the day, if we do all this, maybe we’ll be able to separate those flocks of birds that fly together and get a few pelicans, some geese, and a swan or two to hug it out.

Graduating seniors, together, we’ve faced countless campus controversies, lost years of life in Tisch, and survived a few of the worst snowstorms in Boston’s history. At the same time, we’ve seen strangers transform into our best friends, and a hilly campus that we once needed a map to navigate around has become our home.

Thank you, class of 2017, for making it a home that I will miss.

Congratulations to you all.