University of Vermont

Claire Ankuda remarks

Convocation 2005:
Claire Ankuda, Class of 2007

Claire Ankuda Welcome Governor Douglas, trustees, faculty, students.

I am so honored to speak to you today. The beginning of a new school year is always a very hopeful time and ceremonious time for me. I think about my goals, I daydream about the future. I buy either the 24 or 50 pack of Crayola colored pencils although I actually still have a half-used pack in my desk drawer. It's always been a fresh start, with all the hope and all the fear of failure which that implies. But this year, writing this speech and rewriting it, I have had a chance to really deliberate on the nature of my time here, instead of just my usual giddy planning for the future.

When I came to UVM, coerced by a very generous scholarship, I was full of ambition and yet needled by skepticism. I didn't know exactly how I wanted to proceed, I didn't know if UVM held the opportunities for the kind of success that I wanted. I wanted to do something great. Or rather, I wanted to something with all of myself. When I was young, going to catechism class, stories of martyrs impressed themselves on me, and older, those words of Thoreau reverberated through all concepts I had of who I wanted to be, what I wanted my life to be:
'to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…'

And this is what started my college career: this questioning of where to go, what to do, and a desire to push against the world, to propel myself and to feel it in all of my muscles and yet at the same time to swallow the world, to learn trades, to speak many languages, to watch and watch until some foreseen understanding dawns.

I started out working on two research projects in the medical school, staying up late at night reading through papers I didn't yet quite understand and doing literature searches on PubMed. Startlingly, I began to comprehend the respective languages of cell cycle control and behavioral psychology in ADHD. Slowly, I could not only define vocabulary, but could wrestle with ideas, could push concepts like clay and challenge them, could break through my own walls of definitions and presumptions.

I think that's when my work stopped being work and started to take over my life, or rather, I began to see how my work here could provide me with what I wanted in my life, how it could, indeed, become inseparable from my life.

Teaching knitting and working as a tutor at the Lund Center for Pregnant and Parenting Young Women, I have learned a lot about relationships. I have learned about hope and strength through the mothers I work with. I have learned how to listen better, talk less. I have learned how to be grateful and how to be determined from these girls as they struggle through the dramas of heartbreak and high school gossip, this marvel of motherhood and the fears that come with it.

Working in the lab and on my study of sleep and ADHD and children, I've learned to be thorough, to be inquisitive, to be comfortable navigating a daily blur of doubt and confusion. I've learned that the work that I do in the lab truly can have an impact, truly can contribute. I've learned how to let excitement about ideas pick me up and blow me in some new direction, and yet how to maintain the discipline to always refer to logic, to build on the work of others, to question, to question, to question.

And then my work in China. I learned to speak a new language first, to reinvent myself in words that previously sounded like comic grunts. I learned to dream in Mandarin, although those dreams often featured dancing flashcards of vocabulary words.

And then, through faculty support, college and departmental funding, all of a sudden I was standing in the Beijing airport, fending off cab drivers as they pulled at my arms. This past summer I traveled through China, living by myself for the most part, stationed at a hospital or clinic for a few weeks at a time, interviewing AIDS patients, listening to the stories they told with a shame that often prevented them from looking into my eyes as we spoke.

I countered my own loneliness by spending as much time as I could trying to understand the loneliness of these patients, their isolation. I saw how poverty and inequality pushed minority women into prostitution, pushed peasants into addiction, pushed patients towards suicide. And yet I saw how family, marriage, love, could somehow find a solution to the most desperate of conditions, could ease even the most merciless death, the greatest of loss and fear.

There was one moment at the end of the trip, when I was in a remote region of Hubei province, that continues to haunt me. An infant had been born a few hours before, it's twin safely upstairs with the mother. This younger brother was born with his intestines protruding from his lower abdomen. I had never seen a newborn this young. It's difficult to reason through the attachment that I felt, outside of explaining that I had never seen life so new and that I had never seen an infant so alone.

The baby could have been helped, possibly saved, but the few hundred dollars that would have taken were beyond the means of the parents. The child was swaddled, laying on a bed, waiting to be taken home to the countryside, where he would die within a few days. He kept looking up towards me, towards the sounds above him, crying with this small mew-like noise, yawning and stretching his body, pushing back the blankets so a nurse would have to wrap him again.

This is my classroom. Since I've come here, I've had the amazing opportunity to do work that breaks my heart, that exudes hope, that consumes me. I wish that I could credit this University for all of this, for the drive that pushes me through late nights and early mornings. But really, the opportunities and encouragement I've encountered here have merely let a wider world and a greater
humanity be my professor.

So this fall, while buying books and tacking photographs to my bulletin board, I feel especially grateful to be a student, I feel especially indebted for these lessons, for my teachers, as young or as far away as they may be.

Last modified September 13 2005 09:28 PM

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