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Commencement 2020: "Mentors are everywhere," valedictorian Betsy Joles tells GBJ graduation ceremony

We are delighted to share the texts of commencement addresses delivered by speakers during the 2020 graduation ceremonies. For a photo gallery commemorating the festivities, click here. To read GBJ co-director Rick Dunham's commencement speech, click here.

Betsy Joles: "I do journalism because it makes me feel. And more importantly, it makes me feel for others."




JUNE 21, 2020

I’ll start by saying I was surprised to be asked to speak by Tsinghua because I was a pretty bad student in the traditional sense. That might sound like sacrilege at this prestigious university, so I’ll preface it by saying that for most of my schooling years, I was studious.

Then there came a point about four years ago, and it coincided with my introduction to journalism, where my brain sort of glitched. I was living in Turkey where I met with heavy realities outside the ones I knew, and upon returning to college, the good grades felt futile, striving hopeless, near ridiculous.

Fast forward to Tsinghua, I felt, and I’m sure my professors and classmates sensed it, restless — depressed even. On this pristine campus, I felt guilty for not being in the thick of it, for betraying the work, the people. So, after class, I’d take journeys far away, vowing to feel the grit, meeting Turkish traders in Yiwu, and fisherman crossing the Taiwan Strait. Sometimes, though, I fumbled -- trying to turn in a video assignment from the top bunk of a sleeper train on Bluetooth, arriving back to campus unprepared an hour before class.

But it reinforced journalism’s greatest lesson, the closest thing I’ve found to a maxim by which I can live: mentors are everywhere.

We’re at the best university in China, but some of my most memorable mentors have been people like Zhang, a car mechanic in Yunnan province, who I traveled with for three days during a reporting trip, communicating solely via phone translator. He taught me hospitality in the truest sense. Fatima, a Somali woman in Guangzhou who I spent a few days with for a photo story. We played soccer in the street at midnight. She taught me no-nonsense fortitude in the way she lives. Tian Fengzhi, a dairy farmer in Inner Mongolia I visited with my friend and classmate Sijia. She fed us like we were an extension of her herd and taught thankless devotion to her work.

Journalism puts me in these positions naturally. Some, maybe most, of you won’t go into journalism. That’s fine. But I challenge you: seek mentors in unlikely places and listen to the things they have to say. Do it however you can. Go on Tinder, Couchsurfing. In these places, too, I’ve met people who’ve informed my worldview, who’ve challenged me with different ways of thinking.

I re-read a piece recently by a journalist named May Jeong that sums up the feeling of stepping into interactions with faith, not a guarantee of profundity. She writes about her base in Kabul where things are imbued with uncertainty. “You see life as more than a succession of transactions,” she says, explaining why she does work that offers no promises, in a place where comfort is not guaranteed: “In the end,” she writes, “We all go towards things that make us feel.”

I do journalism because it makes me feel. And more importantly, it makes me feel for others. This, I think, is what takes us to a level of learning beyond the grades, beyond the pride of any accolades acquired along the way. We learn for the betterment of all the places that hold us, we feel for the people who mentor us in their small ways.

Circling back to the beginning of my speech, another reason I was surprised to be asked to speak by this university is that I spent a good part of my time here worried about getting kicked out of school, or kicked out of the country for practicing journalism.

It feels disingenuous not to acknowledge that China -- and as Rick aptly pointed out, many other places in the world -- do not always encourage the kind of learning I’m talking about. But quashing ideas, hiding complexities, risks dampening the feeling, that precious feeling, from which I think we can all learn the most.

So, to my classmates, learn, feel, and tell about it. And congratulations to all.

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