Graduate student Wei Zhu’s message to graduates

Wei Zhu, who earned a law degree, served as the graduate student speaker at Commencement May 19, 2017. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

Thank you Grand Marshal Drobak. Thanks to everyone for this opportunity to speak today.

When I received the email to speak at Commencement, my first reaction was: “This must be a mistake.” I stared at the two-sentence message for at least three minutes. I assure you that, as a law student, I really can read faster than that. I was just amazed by the offer and the opportunity. Next, analyzing the situation as a good scientist and fledgling lawyer, I determined it was not April Fool’s Day. Accepting the fact that this must be real, a sudden and surprising surge of vanity took over, and I realized with horror that I just got braces on my teeth a few weeks ago. This might be my only opportunity to speak in front of such a large audience, and I might have chosen to put off the braces by a few weeks had I known. But, as my surprise and vanity subsided, I simply felt honored, and am so excited by this opportunity.

I called my parents in China, my husband in Washington, D.C., and my mother-in-law in South Korea, and asked: “Do you want to come to St. Louis for my Commencement? I will be speaking.” And, of course, they all said yes, and I am so happy they are here with me today.

I am, perhaps, not your typical graduate student. Before enrolling in law school at Washington University, I had already finished a PhD in chemical engineering, an MBA, two master’s degrees, and had worked for three years. I am much older than many of my peers, and have at least some “life experience.” It was not an easy decision for me to give up my engineering job, leave the career that I had been passionate about for more than 10 years, and return to school. But Washington University made this transition as easy as possible, and returning to earn a law degree has been one of the best decisions of my life. Why? Because Washington University gave me the kind of education that I had been craving for a long time.

A Washington University education is intellectually, mentally and physically challenging.

It is intellectually challenging because graduate and professional students work with faculty members to solve some of the hardest problems facing society today. Problems like converting and storing solar energy; altering proteins to create drugs that fight cancer; implementing programs to break the intergenerational cycle of diabetes; and developing strategies for preventing child abuse and partner violence.

This education is mentally and physically challenging as well. Students may have to handle caustic chemicals, endure sleep deprivation and overcome frustration. Reading 100 pages of Supreme Court opinions overnight in the library starts to feel like a “new normal.”

But rewards for meeting these challenges are great. This is the kind of education that is diverse and interdisciplinary. We are student entrepreneurs who work at Sling Health Network and collaborate with students from different backgrounds. We are McDonnell Scholars who live and work together to teach each other and become future leaders in a diverse and changing world. We are joint-degree students who intermingle academic disciplines to energize new pursuits and discoveries.

This is also an education that builds professional connections, mentorships and lifelong friendships. We worked as a team to polish deliverables for startup clients. We collaborated with faculty members, learning how to publish high-impact journal articles. We formed study groups to help each other through tough classes and research projects, and how to take our first steps as future teachers.

Ten years ago, when I first arrived in the United States, I had no idea that an opportunity like Washington University would be in my future. I’m so humbled to be surrounded by the most intelligent, energetic and knowledgeable colleagues and faculty members. Studying law for the past three years has not just taught me the statutes, legal theories and lawyering skills. It has also taught me how to prepare for the challenges the world outside academia will pose and, thanks to my education at Washington University, I will have the enthusiasm and confidence to move forward with determination.

Commencement speeches usually end with quotes by some famous people. When I tried to find these quotes, I remembered several from my closest mentor, which I am grateful to share with you: “Work hard. Be nice. No matter where you are heading in the future, I wish you all the luck in whatever life brings you.”

Thank you. Congratulations Class of 2017!

Wei Zhu earned her JD from the Washington University School of Law. Read more about Zhu

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