Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Center for Inclusive Excellence at the University of Iowa held its annual graduation reception on May 11. At this reception, awards for graduating students are presented for their work promoting inclusive education. 

Fourth-year dental student Megha Puranam was also selected to deliver the keynote address at the graduation reception. Her remarks were an inspiring yet sober portrayal of her work to support diversity, equity, and inclusion where she lays out a way to authentically be who she is. They are offered here in full:

Good evening, everyone! I am so humbled to be speaking to a room full of student leaders at the University of Iowa. Thank you for the introduction. I personally want to thank The Center for Inclusive Academic Excellence Committee for giving me the opportunity to share some lessons from my journey at Iowa, Ms. Cari Anderson for being a mentor and advocate, my support system and friends, those who were able to attend and those who were not, and last but not least, my mom, dad, and sister.

In 2018, I was so excited to return to my alma mater as a DDS candidate with the Class of 2022. This was my second experience as a Hawkeye. However, I was sadly not surprised that I was the only one in my class who identified as a first-generation immigrant and Indian woman.

As many of you know, holding specific identities, visible or invisible, comes with an array of challenges added to the already strenuous educational curriculum. For myself and many others, there often seems to be only two outcomes of holding these identities, being victimized or tokenized. As someone who has experienced both, I am standing here to talk about a third path, an option, taking your narrative into your own hands.

I remember attending my first class get together. I was a non-traditional student, slightly older than most of my class, and was very nervous about fitting in. While I was expecting a relaxing get together, I walked into the party and immediately felt out of place. 

I spent the whole year unconsciously turning into a different version of myself. Essentially, assimilate. One that I thought would be more acceptable, one that I thought would fit in, one that suppressed my invisible identities and one that pretended my visible one did not exist.

Then came a time when I was put in a situation where I had to make a choice. A choice between appeasing people who didn't value me and who made assumptions based on the color of my skin or knowing that if I really wanted to be who I am. I had to step away and have a period of being very alone, but respecting myself knowing that I had also helped protect someone else who frequently had assumptions made about them. This came down to my values and who I was at my core. To this day, I recognize that choice as the one thing that changed everything for me. I was when I decided to do the scary thing and be who I really was. The path to authenticity requires discomfort and isolation. People have to readjust to who they think you are. It is scary, but it is also brave.

Some days it is hard to be the one, especially if you are the "only" one. The one to take on this fight and see it through. But, that is where we find our purpose to call for change. Each one of us sitting here has our own "why." Whether we do this for the people who came before us, the people beside us, or the people who will come after us, our whys drive us through every obstacle, and give us the courage to demand for more. This change is something we cannot always do by ourselves, nor should we have to. Surrounding ourselves with people who have similar values and a common why creates a support system based on trust, mutual respect, and a common goal. When you find your people, you will feel empowered. The isolating stress and anxiety that surrounds burnout, will not be as daunting knowing that your team will step in when you support just like you will do for them.

During my time at the University of Iowa, I found my people. I am here because I was given the opportunity to speak as a student leader due to my advocacy. But what you don't see is the countless number of people, friends, peers, faculty, and fellow advocates who were with me every step of the way and who were integral to the change that was initiated. 

As you start your next step, especially when you face adversities, in those moments of negative experiences, if you are going to choose to be anything, be the one. Be someone who is not afraid to do something different. To have the mentality of you can like or not, but I will not wait for someone else to do it. And, be the one to say, "Enough is enough." Everyone should feel empowered in their academic environment and within their campus community to feel like they can be who they are, and to be respected for it and to not be treated any differently for it.

The path to authenticity may look different for each of us in this room today. My path began with understanding that there was more to me than what others wanted me to be. This realization jump started my own personal growth. My path led me to find connections that I did not know would be so meaningful, to question my own biases, to engage others in coming together for a purpose and cause greater than ourselves with Action UIowa Taskforce. I was and am eager for continuing education regarding my identities, the identities of others, and the intersectionality between identities. The person I was before did not have many opportunities to put this into principle. But, the person I am today can be described by this quote from Maya Angelou: "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style."

So today I want to take the time to celebrate the authentic you out there. All of you. Yes, the you that will be graduating from the University of Iowa with a well deserved degree in your choice of study. But more importantly, the you that supported a friend in need. The you that persistently ensured that your culture and religion were treated with equity during religious holidays. The you that set up a safe community for the LGBTAIA+ community. The you that marched down the Pentacrest and protested for change. The you that was vulnerable. The you that wrote a letter that sparked change. The you that stepped aside and gave a platform for someone else to speak. The you that gathered signatures on a petition to advocate for a safe environment. The you that refused to be silent about how you were for your friends of marginalized identities. The you that checked your own biases knowing that you have room to grow. The you that advocated for a culture change. The you that learned to stand up for yourself and found your people along the way. From the big success to the little ones, be proud of the legacies we left before and look forward to the change we can make in the future.