Community Collage speech (Aug ’05)

Note: I was asked to speak about women at Carnegie Mellon’s 2005 Community Collage, our freshman orientation diversity forum. I struggled for months to write a speech that I thought would be appropriate. Then, two days before the forum, I scrapped what I had written and completely started over. This is the result.

Hi everyone, I’m Kristan. Let me start by saying that I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make this speech interesting and applicable to everyone. Kind of ironic, huh? I’m supposed to speak to a group of 700 people, about diversity, and I want to appeal to all of them? No way. There is no way.

So what I decided to do instead was to talk about something — or rather someone — who is really important to me. My mom.

My mom came to the United States from Taiwan when she was only twenty-five, not much older than any of us. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine going halfway across the world to a country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t know a single person? Well, some of you are doing that right now, and let me tell you, I admire you, a lot.

Like you, my mom came alone, leaving behind her mother, father, five brothers and sisters, and countless aunts, uncles and cousins. No family, no friends. Just my mom, a few suitcases, and a lot of hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Scary, huh?

Well, she did it. She did it alone and she did it well. She got her Master’s in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania. She moved to Houston, Texas. She got a job at a renown architectural firm. That’s where she met my father, and now here I am.

Here I am. At Carnegie Mellon, one of the top twenty-five universities in the nation. Here I am, standing in front of some of the brightest, most accomplished young people in the world. Here I am.

Being here made me think. It made me think about who I am and who I want to be. What I’ve done and what I want to do. Most of all, it made me think about who I look up to, and who I ought to look up to.

Growing up, I never really had what I thought of as “role models.” People would ask who my role models were, and I’d give what I thought of as “right” answers, like Michael Jordan or Mahatma Ghandi. Now, I’m not saying they aren’t great men, but that’s just it: they’re men. And as much as I believe women can do just about anything men can, just as well as men can, let’s be honest: I’m not gonna make it in the NBA.

So coming here changed a lot of things. I mean, I’m at the same school that graduated Stephanie Louise Kwolek, the woman who invented Kevlar. And Holly Hunter, who won an award an Academy Award for her performance in The Piano. And even Ming Na, who did the voice of Mulan for Disney! How cool is that?

As a matter of fact, Carnegie Mellon has turned out a lot of really, really amazing women. From all sorts of fields. We’ve had astronauts, we’ve had authors of award-winning books. We’ve had CEOs of multinational companies, like L’Oreal. In fact, that particular CEO came to speak here last year, and listening to her was really inspiring. She talked a lot about her family and her past, and about how lucky she was to attend a school like Carnegie Mellon.

She made me realize just how lucky I am. Being here, taking classes, meeting students and professors and guest speakers. It’s all such a fantastic opportunity, one that I have only because of one woman: my mom.

For nineteen years, my mom has slaved to give me the best of everything. She enrolled me in the top schools, she worked 16 hour days seven days a week, and she drove me to and from every activity I participated in. She took me out for dessert when I was feeling down, and she put me in my place when I gave her attitude. Yeah, sometimes she asked me to help out at the office, but that was mostly because she wanted to spend time with me but had a job to finish. I griped about it at the time, but I understand it now.

Honestly, I can’t even begin to count the sacrifices she’s made for me. I can only hope to be half the woman she is. I can only hope that what I do, and who I am, makes her proud.

So I guess what I’m saying is, I have role models now. And they’re not just the women I mentioned before; they’re all around me. They’re women like Jane Bernstein, the professor I had for screenwriting and creative non-fiction. They’re women like Joanna Dickert, the Housefellow for West Wing and Resnick, and the coordinator of Sexual Assault Advisors. They’re women like the Resident Assistants and Orientation Counselors who have been with you all today, and who will be there all the rest of this week, and then all the rest of this year. I kid you not: these are some of the most amazing girls I’ve ever had the pleasure and honor of knowing, much less working with. I’m just so glad, and so grateful, that I finally woke up and realized that you don’t have to be in the headlines to be a role model. Sometimes being “ordinary,” is the most extraordinary thing of all.

So thanks, mom. Here’s to you, Mei-ing Liu Hoffman, the strongest woman I know, and my number one role model.