Gerontology PhD Mai See Yang Delivers UMass Boston Graduate Commencement Address

Mai See Yang received her doctoral degree in gerontology this year from the University of Massachusetts Boston. She was honored as the selection to be the student speaker for the UMass Boston graduate commencement ceremony. The following is her commencement address delivered at the ceremony May 25 at the Blue Hills Pavillion in Boston.

Good afternoon family, friends, professors, staff, and my fellow members of the class 2017. Congratulations!

It is with great honor that I address you all at the end of my time here at UMass Boston. The graduating class of 2017 being here today together is an impressive achievement.

I would first like to speak to my fellow classmates. Today may be the last time we are scholars at UMass Boston. However, I do not believe this is the last time we will be students, because we are always learning. In my academic life thus far, I have come to believe we are responsible to contribute to each other’s learning. And we should strive to keep learning long after we receive our degrees.

We came to UMass Boston from all over the world to study our respective fields, to learn the importance of theory, to learn how to conduct research, and how to think critically. Along the way we learned about wonderfully abstract concepts and engaged in mundane tasks, like writing software syntax or codes. We have learned to contribute to our fields of study– modifying theories, presenting different narratives, developing alternatives, and presenting new ideas. This process propels us to give space and priority for future learning.

Part of learning is being accountable for what we each contribute to society. For me, being accountable includes knowing the population I serve — including their history, and factors contributing to their well-being; understanding my topic and where it may lead; paying attention to current and relevant news both here in the US and worldwide, and realizing how my work may impact the community or purpose I aim to serve.

Essentially, what I am trying to say is being accountable means doing good work, whatever your field. To be accountable, we must remember to use our knowledge, and skills appropriately and as IPUMS simply puts it “Use it for GOOD and never for EVIL”.

I hope you will be open-minded to the parts we will each contribute to society. My cohort of doctoral students entering in the Gerontology program in 2010 included 3 students with ties to Vietnam: Lien, Emma, and me. I wonder how many academic programs of any kind in the US accepted three doctoral students who were affected differently by the same war? Emma is a war refugee—she entered the US at the age of 10, Lien immigrated from Vietnam as an adult, after completing her medical training, and I am a child of Hmong refugee parents. It is a wonderful testament to US immigration policy that all three of us are here today — and graduating together with our PhDs in Gerontology!

Our interests and paths were brought together by one program. The Gerontology program in the McCormack Graduate School has allowed us to collaborate together, learn from one another, respect our ethnic differences, and make peace with one another, an opportunity our parents and grandparents never got.

We came with different interests but shared goals and ambitions: to help older, vulnerable populations. Emma and Lien will both go on to work as researchers for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. I am proud to say they are some of the best minds and thinkers and their research will help aging Veterans, those who helped serve alongside with their parents and my parents during the Vietnam War. I am heading to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Chicago, where I will continue to investigate the mental health of aging minorities, including Veterans.

I am being honest when I say that I am not the “model minority”. I did not get to where I am on my own as a good, quiet, and studious student. It was through being open and reaching out for help and creating personal connection with professors, mentors, and colleagues. Those who have helped me along the way did not let our differences, — be it history, race/ethnicity, or life perspective — stand in the way of investing, mentoring, and teaching me how to be, hopefully, an excellent gerontologist.

I have worked with several professors over the years, including but certainly not limited to Drs. Jeff Burr, Beth Dugan, and Jan Mutchler. Jan was my supervisor, mentor, and dissertation chair, …essentially my universe here.

In gerontology, we work with one of the most vulnerable populations, and representing the reality of older adults is hard but necessary. In one of the many thousand meetings with Jan, she once said “People deserve good and honest data.” Integrity is key for the honest representation of who we serve. Throughout my time in the gerontology PhD program, Jan repeatedly expressed those words through actions. Over the intensely long, but also short, 7 years of working with Jan, I have learned through her support and mentorship the importance of collaboration, integrity, and humility.

And finally if I may now share a bit of my family with you all.  My parents came to the US in 1979 with my older sister in their arms, a few photos, and in Tolkien’s words, ‘a fool’s hope’. They wanted to thrive and contribute instantly after arriving to the US. To understand why my parents struggled so hard, and failed several times, we would have to understand my dad’s role as a child solider, my mom’s displacement from her family, and the painful effect of war and trauma they each experienced. But their story is a common one for refugees, and something my dissertation research broadly explored.

They gave my siblings and me the opportunity to attend college by coming to the US. Although my dad hid most of my undergraduate college acceptance letters from me, he did support my attendance at UCDavis because it was a short 90 minutes drive, and my acceptance letter came via email so he didn’t have the chance to intercept it. The further I went and the longer I was at college, the less my parents understood my purpose and reason. But I always returned home with a degree or two. By the end of tonight, I will have racked up 4 degrees and 16 years’ worth of explanations to my parents and siblings.

Maybe I subconsciously kept going to school because I was going for the three of us—my mom and my dad as well as for myself. But realistically I kept going to school because it’s the only way I knew how to gain the tools and skills I need to help my parents and their cohort, and those who will come after my parents. My three older siblings paved the way for me by challenging traditional boundaries and expectations; and my six younger siblings taught me to never forget compassion. Together with their support and trust in the American academic system, I am the convocation speaker today.

In conclusion, I say to the Class of 2017: today we come together one last time with our professors, mentors, family, and friends for a celebration of our time at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Our journey will continue. Our love for what we do will carry us forward. Please leave knowing that by being graduates from UMass Boston we have been bestowed power and privilege. I am asking you to use the power and privilege to help our society to improve, repair, and move forward. And never let fear stand in the way of learning and helping.

I look forward to hearing all of the great things we will do! Congratulations to us! Yay us!

3 thoughts on “Gerontology PhD Mai See Yang Delivers UMass Boston Graduate Commencement Address

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