Rachel Maller, of West Des Moines, was selected to deliver the student Commencement address at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences undergraduate Commencement ceremony on Saturday, December 16, 2017. Maller graduated with Highest Distinction, having completed the major in Sociology and minors in Philosophy and Communication Studies. She was on the President’s List throughout her time at Iowa, was a four-year recipient of the prestigious Old Gold Scholarship, and was inducted in 2017 into Alpha Kappa Delta, the International Sociology Honor Society. Maller is an Equity Intern with the Iowa City Community School District and a research intern with the University of Iowa Public Policy Center, and also completed an internship with the Johnson County Department of Social Services. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree in Sociology.
The text of Maller's speech is below, followed by a video of her address.
The action of a single individual, as insignificant as it appears at the time, can, and often does, profoundly influence the lives and actions of others. University faculty and staff, thank you for your guidance and mentorship that helped us all to reach this day. To our family members and loved ones, we would not be here without your support, advice, and encouragement. Class of 2017, fellow Hawkeyes, we’ve made it! Let’s embrace this incredible moment in time.
On this celebratory day It is important to recognize the unique journeys that have brought us all here to this ceremony. Graduates, we all faced challenges, minor and major, as we’ve embraced our newfound independence and come to accept the personal responsibility inherent in it. We’ve worn the same sweatpants 2, 3, 4 times in a row because we waited until our closet was empty to even consider doing our laundry. Other times we’ve found ourselves cramming for 2, 3, 4 midterms because we waited until Sunday night to start studying. This morning, our seemingly separate journeys have intertwined to bring us together to commemorate our time at the University of Iowa.
Let’s think back to when we first came to the University. What beliefs and expectations did we hold? Upon arrival, the University asked us to re-imagine the way we viewed the world, to challenge our biases and beliefs, and to seek out new perspectives. I arrived at Iowa expecting my education would follow an orderly, linear path where consistent steps forward result in a defined destination of success. Like many others, I expected to immediately find my purpose, live successfully on my own, and complete my degree. But life is not linear and the future is unpredictable.
I struggled in my first years here to accept myself and find healthy coping strategies to manage my overpowering thoughts and emotions. I withdrew from the University two separate times and sought mental health treatment in and out of state. I felt very alone many times, consumed by feelings of failure and shame. Returning to the University was extremely challenging, however, through my recovery I learned to embrace the inevitability of chaos in life.
Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. Chaos theory explains complex systems made up of many interconnected parts appearing on the outside to display unpredictable and random behavior, but when looked at over a long period of time, produce an identifiable order; a pattern. These fractal systems can be found all around us, in the weather, evolution, mathematics, and biology, to name a few.
In chaotic systems, a very minor alteration in one part of the system permanently alters another part. The Butterfly Effect describes how the flapping of a butterfly’s wings an eventually trigger a hurricane. Applying this to our lives, it shows us that our actions, no matter how small, unquestionably impact others. In the grander picture of our lives, sometimes it’s the small, seemingly random acts or moments that later prove to be monumental, creating ripples downstream that close out personal chapters and set us off in entirely new directions.
We can all think about the many people, situations, and actions that led us to this moment right now. Whether it be a piece of encouragement from a professor, a bad break up, or being at Brothers on a specific Saturday night, our seemingly separate and random journeys have been interconnected and a part of a larger, underlying pattern.
All of us have experienced the chaos inherent in life and will continue to face many challenges that appear unpredictable and random. However, these challenges provide opportunities to grow and transform. See, growth and transformation don’t have to be traumatic or painful, but can be liberating and joyful, a natural part of life’s continuous unfolding. Rather than be afraid of the chaos, we can embrace it, knowing that underneath is a greater purpose.
My chaos enlightened me to become aware of the connection between society and the individual and to use this understanding to address social inequality and the stigma around mental illness. All of the chaos brought me to this moment, standing in front of all of you.
Graduates, we have braved through many years of academic and personal work that have pushed us past our limits and shaped us into the people we are today. Our journeys here might not have been as separate as we thought, as chaos theory illuminates the interconnectivity of our lives. Martin Luther King Jr. captured this perfectly when he wrote from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Hawkeyes, we are ready to transition to the next phase of our lives and I hope we can embrace the change and enjoy the beautiful chaos that lies ahead of us.
We’re in this together.