“We knocked harder at the doors that seemingly slammed shut and walked gracefully through the ones that opened easily upon entrance.”
It is such a pleasure and honor to stand before you on stage at the 2019 New England Conservatory commencement ceremony.
[sung] Oh my god.
Wow, we made it.
For a minute there I didn’t think we could.
In fact when I first started school this year I looked myself dead in the mirror and broke down crying. Yes, crying. That ugly cry too, not even the cute cry. No, that full unrestricted red in the face, snot down the nose cry.
In my last year I had all these goals and aspirations—musically and academically—I wanted to finish in a short amount of time and yet I was in a lot of turmoil:
I was on probation and at risk of losing my job and housing as a Resident Assistant in the residence hall. I turned down to be what felt like an opportunity of a lifetime to perform at an incredible summer jazz festival in Aspen with of my jazz icons. I was an emotional wreck from ending a relationship over the summer and felt isolated and abandoned. I hadn’t figured out how the hell I was going to get by and make it through the school year all in one piece.
So I stood there looking in the mirror and cried, like a small child. In the midst of my breakdown I played one of my favorite gospel hymns written by the prolific African-American composer, singer, and arranger and Clara Ward:
How I got over
How I got over
You know my soul looks back and wonders
How I got over
It was a little premature because obviously I wasn't over! But this song “How I Got Over” sparked a conversation with God. I promised the almighty that if “got over” this school year I would deepen my faith, trust, and continue to pursue in spite of any obstacle. I said when I get to the end of the school year, I will look back and see “how I got over.”
Fast forward to today—I got over!
I graduated. I made the first ever all-women big band between Berklee College of Music and NEC for my senior recital. I completed my Liberal Arts Minor by making an original documentary on jazz and gender. I kept my job, and made Deans list. I created a social justice and music program at the Huntington YMCA alongside members of my club, the Initiative for Social Change, and together we achieved gender inclusive housing and bathrooms at NEC. I performed with Freddie Cole and Ran Blake in Jordan Hall, and won a multiple singing competitions and an EM grant for recording my CD after I graduate.
However, the more I reflect upon the song, I see it take shape in many forms other than, “God came through for me clutch that one time I was in a crisis.” I now begin to see it as a journey. To see the journey clearly we must begin at the root, the origin that traces us back to where we started. The point of inspiration and understanding that led us here.
If you ask my friend Abraham, his story begins in Venezuela where he left the country in the midst of one of the most devastating economic, civil, and governmental crisis of all time to pursue his passion here at NEC.
If you ask my friend Seajun his story began in South Korea over 11,000 miles away, where the thought of playing jazz in a new community and learning from different people was invigorating.
My friend Oznur Tutulgu would speak about what it is like to be a first generation turkish classical singer from Maryland.
If you ask Robyn Smith she would tell you her journey started in Atlanta, Georgia when her band director promised if she played the trombone he would get Beyoncé to come to class. As you may have guessed only one of those things happened—the trombone.
We all began somewhere and yet ended up here, all in the same TP and Solfege classes, and leaning on each other to get through the tough times. Those times in the old dorms at 33 Gainsborough when the power went out and we all had to evacuate the building. As inconvenient as it was, it forced us out of our rooms and onto the sidewalk where we laughed at each other's crazy pajamas and talked about how our night was going.
We even got our hopes up that Dean Novak would approve us to stay at the Hilton near Copley Square. Yeah, and just like Beyoncé, it didn’t happen.
Or the time when Stephanie Munoz organized seventy NEC students on the steps of Jordan Hall to read Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech after she was cut off in Congress.
These moments showed me that we can come together no matter what, even when we partied a little too much over the weekend and had a hard time waking up to attend classes at 12pm. “How I got over” speaks to the ways in which we migrated to be here from our homes and family. And the ways in which we knocked harder at the doors that seemingly slammed shut and walked gracefully through the ones that opened easily upon entrance.
We all came and saw opportunity at NEC. An opportunity to express and to share in one of the most incredible magical forces in the world: music. And just like music our lives here at NEC have a had a lot of theme and variations that placed us exactly where we are supposed to be.
For me getting over encompassed the struggle and reward of pushing for change and equality on campus when my friends and I saw that there was room for everyone’s voices and expression to be included. Getting over was figuring out how to perfect that one line before our promotionals. Getting over was taking a Stratis Minakakis class and hoping one understood modal modulation. Something I still haven’t gotten over.
Getting over was figuring out how to be an artist in a time where the color of our skin, gender identity, reproductive rights, and cultural background are at stake and face a great challenge. The Algonquian word Massachusetts—from the Wampanoag tribe whose land we stand on today—roughly translates to “large hill place” or “at the great hill.” “Massa” means “large,” “adchu” means “hill,” and “et” identifies a place. “es” is a suffix.
As we leave NEC and embark on our new endeavors, I hope we remember this great hill that we just climbed, and all those hills that are yet to come. And at every step of the way we will realize:
How we got over
How we got over
Our souls will look back and wonder
How we got over
Editor's note: an earlier version of this speech incorrectly referred to the Algonquin tribe and word. This has been corrected in the text above.