What Does Home Mean to You: Finding Home in University

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This speech has been a work in progress for all the years that I have been living abroad. These years have been a journey of self-discovery, self-love, finding home in new places, and making family out of strangers.

At the age of fifteen, I passed the Customs line holding a crumpled plane ticket in my sweat-stricken hand. I was boarding a plane to a high school three thousand miles away from my home, Pakistan. At fifteen, rather than facing the imperfection and volatility of emotions of adolescence, I was forced to transform into an adult overnight. I left my nation in its fragile state as I embraced the harsh realities of the new world. I lied in my high-school dorm room bed and cried – tears I did not understand. I wondered if they would ever stop. In the aftermath of that plane ride, I was rudely awoken to the harsh reality that change is the only constant in life. And that I should always be ready to start over. And over. And over.

One such opportunity to start over arose again when I moved to Durham on a hot sticky day in July. I zipped around downtown Durham on my bike, with my mind wandering aimlessly as I listened to the song Coming Home by Keith Urban. Bike rides provide a paradoxical mix of relaxation and tension: the soothing effects of fresh air and the bright southeastern sunlight. But this time it was different – I had already learned that to truly experience a place was to get to know it and its people. The environment shapes the person, and the person shapes the environment. As one moves through a place, the place also moves the mover. It is to embrace these deep interactions between the people and the built environment, and it is these interactions that made University a home. My experiences here have taught me to look beyond the immediate veneer of any place, taught me to ask critical questions to better understand the complex and often conflicting dynamics that make a place home. It is a way of etching a place onto your mind and also imprinting it into your heart.

At University we are a community of people who identify as Filipino, American, Swiss, Persian, Taiwanese, and Indian, to name a few. The environment and the people have altered our perceptions and attitudes about what home means. It is at University that the color barriers have faded. We know and see little difference in each other. My skin might have been darker than yours, but what does that matter when we shop or discuss the latest Game of Thrones episode? Or gush over Tre Jones? After living with people of various racial backgrounds, we have come to appreciate the differences of color and ethnicity. We are students before anything else, strangers that have become a family, and that is a beautiful thing.

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Over the course of my journey at University, I have become more conscious of our similarities, I start to respect and understand our differences, and at the same time, I broaden my horizons in what I call home. I can navigate an airport comfortably, board a plane, and go just about anywhere. Every time I travel somewhere new, I begin the process of aligning with myself and the place so I can again redefine my sense of home.

In all these years of living abroad and my time at University, I am blessed to have been surrounded by friends, professors, parents, family, and loved ones who although unable to be here, watch over me. My parents have comforted me in adversity, sacrificed for me to get the best education possible, and loved me unconditionally when I wasn’t at my best. My professors and TAs have put in extra office hours to help me. My friends have bought me study snacks, have walked around with me, and have patiently listened to twenty iterations of this graduation speech. Thank you all for opening your hearts and homes. Today is dedicated to all of you.

But, my fellow graduates, tomorrow is for all of us – as we go beyond the world, it is for us to represent the same diversity, the empathy, the open-mindedness, the compassion, and the gentleness to others – despite their gender, their ethnicity, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents have. University has given us a home and endless opportunities to succeed. These opportunities have given us the best skills and knowledge for our betterment and to also share with others, to challenge the status quo, and not just to live an easy life but a purposeful one.

My fellow graduates as we leave, continue to walk various streets, bike different routes, lay roots and find new homes – may we always remain overwhelmingly accepting of others, outpouring love from our humble hearts, opening our modest homes to those who share our values, and a refuge for those who need it.  

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