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2014 Baccalaureate Speeches

Maria-Paz Pitarqua ’14

During my time at Dickinson College, I have seen people lethargically walk through their major in order to obtain their degree. I have seen people take required classes, prescribed seminars and mandatory labs with disengaged attitudes as they attempt to get by in those classes. And while I can relate to taking classes I didn’t necessarily like, I came to Dickinson very passionate about what I wanted to study but somewhere along the way, I fell out of love with my coursework and I found myself also lethargically walking through my major. I started becoming one of those disengaged students, texting throughout class, turning my papers in on time but not even being fully aware of the name of the course. But looking back, I can recall the one instant that my vocation changed, through the ability of one professor; she ultimately changed my college career and my life.

You see, I have been fascinated by politics from a very young age. I come from a family of Ecuadorian politicians and diplomats, so initially I only knew about my own country’s government. I only knew about that one political system that was so fractured by poverty and characterized by soft-spoken but hard-working people that deserved better. I had tremendous love for my country’s government but I was not sure if following my father’s senatorial footsteps or my grandfather’s diplomatic footsteps were what I wanted to make of my life. I did, however, want to learn more, so I declared my major to be Political Science just about one month into my first semester at Dickinson.

But like most people at a liberal arts school, I was constantly bombarded with the cruel question “So what are you going to do with that degree?” I would reply that I was thinking about law school…but that answer happened to be one of the most common responses to that question. It seemed “fitting”, but something always told me that it was not the career I wanted to pursue. I found myself conforming and blatantly ignoring my intuition as I continued to sign up for more political science classes. At the time, I was learning the classical concepts of America’s democratic institutions such as division of power, checks and balances and the responsibilities of Congress and the Judiciary. I reasoned that I was learning the fundamental concepts for my major but I eventually became aware that those concepts bored me.

I knew something was missing. The more I stuck with my major, the more I found myself on a downward spiral. However, I gave Political Science one last chance and signed up for a senior seminar called “Gender and Politics” with Professor Vanessa Tyson for the fall semester of my junior year. That choice made something magical happen in my college career.

“Gender and Politics” was the second class I took with Professor Tyson during my time at Dickinson.  I found myself studying a completely different side of political science. I vividly remember learning about political philosophers such as Iris Marion Young and learning methods of political science through her “five faces of oppression”.  I became aware of how conformity and pressure to conform is essentially testimony of cultural imperialism, one of the five fundamental forms of oppression. Concepts like these allowed me to approach political science through a different lens. I was learning more than just the systems and definitions of the American government, I was learning about concepts affecting people. So, I signed up for another class with Professor Tyson the following semester.  

The more I took her courses, the more I began to realize that we still live in an unequal world, one where policies and laws still discriminate among people. I learned that wealthy countries get wealthier and the poverty gap for impoverished nations expands. I could finally make the connection between the knowledge I obtained in class and the world I lived in. Yet, I had so many unanswered questions about the social injustices I witnessed with my own eyes.  I was desperate to find the answers as to why the 21st century still held incredible injustices such as racism, gender inequality, and homophobia.  Shortly after, I realized that my education did not consist of finding answers, but I had to focus on asking the right questions instead.

Those lessons remained present in my mind as I signed up for another course, “Black American Politics”.  This time I learned about leading figures of the Civil Rights Movements such as Ella Baker and Rosa Parks. Those women became heroes of mine because they were people just like us, but with immeasurable hope and determination for a better country and a better world.  And then it hit me. I saw Rosa Parks and Ella Baker reflected in Professor Tyson; all three women were trying to change the world in any way they could.  

So I began asking myself the right questions such as why aren’t there more people like them? Why couldn’t I dream as big as they did and work towards a world free of oppression?  Why can’t I do something to stop normalizing whiteness so racism stops being so prevalent? Who said that because I am a woman, I cannot demand the same rights and privileges as my male peers?  You see, taking these classes made me believe that I too can be the catalyst for changing the world and Professor Tyson made me realize that my desire to be an advocate did not require a law degree. She empowered me to realize what my passion had been there, but alone and ignored.

In retrospect, I know that when I think of the student I once was, I don’t recognize her. Dickinson introduced me to a truly unique professor who managed to reshape the way I think about politics and about my life. When I found myself hitting a wall my sophomore year, I realize that it was because while learning about policies and systems, what interested me most, the “people”, had disappeared. Professor Tyson, with patience and intellectual rigor, brought the “people” back to me.

And I became an active learner, I became present, I came alive inside and outside of the classroom. I realized that political science is more than just definitions and dates, more than just policies and systems. Political science can and should be about people. You see, I am graduating from college not knowing where I am going but I now know I have a passion for something. I am graduating from college acknowledging and rejecting the existence of oppression. I stand against gender inequality, I stand as a feminist by definition and choice and I stand as a citizen of the world not only of one nation. Dickinson has helped me find my passion to fight for social justice…and I am not afraid anymore. I stand here seeking a meaningful life and I won’t settle for anything short of that. So thank you, Dickinson College. And thank you Professor Tyson; you have changed my life.