Undergraduate student speaker Alejandro Ramirez’s address to the Class of 2024

Alejandro Ramirez speaks at Commencement
Alejandro Ramirez, the undergraduate student speaker, delivers remarks at WashU's 163rd Commencement ceremony May 13. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

Undergraduate student speaker Alejandro Ramirez, who earned a degree in Latin American studies from Arts & Sciences, delivered a message to the Class of 2024 at Washington University in St. Louis during the May 13 Commencement ceremony on Francis Olympic Field.

Below are Ramirez’s prepared remarks to the graduates.

Thank you all for being here and allowing me to speak as we embark on this
milestone together. Thinking about how to stand before you today, students, family and faculty and community members alike, and condense four years of memories into a few minutes, was really difficult.

It allowed me space to reflect on all the memories I had of my time at WashU, what came before and what I hope will come next. I remember, as I’m sure all of you do, the existential dread I felt opening that decision email senior year of high school. I remember the tears in my mom’s eyes when I told her I got into my dream school. I remember my first steps onto campus in a literal pandemic. I’ll always remember my first and last half and half — you can’t get between me and a half and half.

As cliche as it may be to say, so much has happened over our time here. We moved across
states, found new interests and some of us even changed our career paths and majors. Don’t
worry mom, third time’s the charm … I love Latin American studies. And over all of those changes we figured out who we were and wanted to be.

Our path has certainly been unique. We finished our time in high school during the nascency of a pandemic and we entered this chapter with endless questions of what could possibly come next. I will be the first to say starting college during a pandemic was not easy, and I’d never do it again. We entered an entirely new lifestyle and environment, trying to make friends from a respectful 6 feet of social distance, managing Zoom class after Zoom class after Zoom class. They were, in fact, unprecedented times.

But we made it through with the support of our peers and university, developing support networks and connections as we all tried to make sense of our one of a kind entrances to this university. It would be silly to think that we have fully achieved everything we have alone. Whatever your support network may have looked like these last four years, friends, family, professors and mentors, that stuffed animal you have had since childhood, take time to celebrate them during this period the same way they’re celebrating you in this milestone.

As we moved out of the Zoom class fatigue and expanded our horizons, some of us picked up
jobs and extracurriculars to explore the opportunities college had to offer. One of the work-study jobs I had was through the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, giving tours and helping prospective students. One of my favorite parts of the job is that after each tour, we gather the students and family and give what’s called our “why WashU.” A brief encapsulation of all the things that made you choose WashU originally, and everything you have grown to love during your time here. I admittedly teared up the first time I gave my “why WashU” on a tour, but it made me reflect on that fundamental question of why.

Why sounds like such an existential question, but I promise this is going somewhere. Reflecting on the “why” of your choices and path allows you to learn more about yourself. I had the opportunity to engage in undergraduate research here at the med campus, an astounding opportunity I am eternally grateful for, but I remember sitting down with my PI and he asked me if I knew the why of the research. At the time I was struggling to see my future in bio and STEM-based careers, and in that moment it made me realize, I didn’t know my why. As I sat in shock in his office, he was super chill about it. I promise we are still good friends, but that was a moment I knew I needed a change.

My why led elsewhere, even if I didn’t know where that was yet. As we progress I encourage you to use this milestone and transition in your life and ask for a moment, What’s your why? Why are you pushing yourself so hard, why do you want to apply to this place? Why are you doing something, and does it actually make you happy? Your why can be a guiding theme in your life. I now know my why is creating visibility and inclusion for marginalized voices in academia and research. I know my why is potentially outside the U.S. I know my why is fluid and could change countless times throughout my life.

Searching for that why allows you to search for who you are. Knowing who you are and want
to be allows for a daily reflection that can guide you through those difficult and change-filled
periods. During my time here at WashU, I had a lot of jobs, and one of those was in the local area as a bartender. While it was my job to listen in on guests to make sure they didn’t need a refill or anything, it also meant I got constant life advice and insight. One of the most profound things I ever heard came from one of those shifts and is something I will leave you with today. A very wise customer once said, “If you can’t be who you are, where you are, change the where — but never the who.” Change your environment, change the people, change the energy that surrounds you, but find those opportunities that allow you to be every single facet of who you are and allow you to express that why. 

Take these next steps in stride and reflect after all the hard work these last four years have included to figure out why and figure out who you are so you can find where you need to be next. Right now, that change maybe should be taking the time to sit with family and friends. To enjoy these moments, to allow your accomplishments to be celebrated and to embrace the joy that surrounds you. Today, I stand in solidarity with my peers, faculty and community members who have experienced hardship during this last semester, who found their why and used it to express solidarity with the Palestinians around the world.

Your why can be anything. So Class of 2024, take time to be you, to be restful, and to look toward the future with hope. We have all come so far and have so many more amazing accomplishments yet to get to. Thank you and congratulations. Mama, si se pudo.