(Editor’s note) The author of this article, Ms. Xiao Guozhen, is a human rights lawyer in China. She came to the United States a few years ago. In the beginning, without English knowledge she has to take any available job and worked hard in order to raise her two young daughters. In August last year, she entered the Penn State Dickinson Law School. In less than a year, she achieved excellent academic grades and received a master’s degree. As a graduate representative, she delivered a speech at the graduation ceremony on May 13, 2021. In the past, Xiao Guozhen also served as the secretary-general of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. She worked tirelessly and responsibly for the PEN. Recently, there is a worrisome phenomenon of hatred of Asians in American society. A diligent, courageous, and outstanding Asian woman like Ms. Xiao would be the most powerful denial to the ethnic prejudice. The following is Xiao Guozhen’s speech at the graduation ceremony of the Master’s and Doctoral Program of Law School.
Commencement Address by Guozhen Xiao (May 13, 2021)
Congratulations, class of 2021！
We have been isolated by Covid-19 for such a long time, at last we gather together, right? We have been silent for such a long time, let’s make some noise!
We have borne enough this year, right? Thank God it’s graduation-day!
Think about the wonderful stories you can tell your grandkids. Start each story in this way, “Once upon a time, we were forced to wear masks at the law school. No one could see each other’s faces.” That’s why I took off my mask, I want to show the truth, even though truth is not necessarily beautiful, but truth is truth—even on graduation-day.
You may be wondering: why this Asian woman, who is the age of many classmates’ mothers, came to Dickinson Law from ten-thousand miles away—from another hemisphere?
The reason is simple: I want to break the shell!
Looking back on my life, it’s all a process of breaking the shell—one after another.
When I was young, I loved watching chickens hatch out of their shells. It was so amazing. All the birds in the world—even if they fly the highest—are born by breaking their shells.
I was an economist and considered “legal language” the most boring in the world. So, what made me break the shell and become a lawyer?
It was in the 1990’s, a relative was suspected of committing a crime but we were unable to afford an attorney. The solution was to become a lawyer. There were only 3 months for me to prepare for the Bar Exam, and the books to study had 6032 pages. I forced myself to read 200 pages a day. It was so stressful that I cried. I didn’t even have time to wipe my tears.
I know why I could pass the Bar on the first try—my desire to break the shell was so strong!
Upon hatching, first, I found that legal language is most charming. It is so concise, so beautiful, and should use not one word more, and not one word less.
Second, my thinking took a big leap: I began to understand that I did not know what I did not know, and I started to observe the world with “legal eyes”.
After a few years of practice, I loved this profession so much that I hoped to do it for the rest of my life. So, I decided to break the shell again—to enter law school. (I’ll tell you a secret: when I passed the bar exam, I had not any legal education).
Nineteen years ago, at the Law School in Beijing, I was the oldest among dozens of female classmates. Today, I may be the oldest student at Dickinson Law, without binary distinction.
During the three years at the Beijing law school, I created a masterpiece—my first daughter, Monica. (She’s here with me today.) That left me two years to finish. And, I made it!
At that time, China enforced the One-child Policy, forbidding a second child. But, in four years, again, I decided to break the shell and had my second daughter, Julia—an “illegal” child in marriage.
China’s policy is like the moon and may be different on the 1st and 15th day of the month. Ten years after Julia hatched, China made the Two-child Policy. Government slogans stated, “the local official shall be in charge of assuring every woman in their village should have a second child.” Thanks be to God; I have had two children without the help of my local official.
In the novel “The Godfather,” the Don says, “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” Making money certainly can make a person happy; but I heard the calling and I broke another shell. I started helping those who were hopeless and in need of an attorney. Such activity in the service of others brought me to leave China, and come to America, and then, to Dickinson Law.
Yes, all the way, I’ve been breaking the shell.
When I am not satisfied, I tell myself: break the shell!
When the status quo is good, I tell myself: Don’t be greedy for the easy life; break the shell!
In the USA, my heart echoed with “I have a dream;” The Statue of Liberty lit my way to learn the laws of the United States. Now, English is my toughest shell. I am still struggling with speaking American. All the outstanding people here today have been helping me crack it.
When I was afraid that my English was not good enough and refrained from asking questions, Professor Mogill walked to my seat and said to me: “If you have any questions, please ask. No question is too small to ask.” I realized that Dickinson Law is the school that I dreamed of.
When Dean Dodge said at the orientation, “If you have any difficulties, please come to us—that’s why we are here. We don’t want any students to go to bed hungry.” I realized that Dickinson Law is the school that I dreamed of.
When incidents of hate toward Asians happen in this country, Dean Conway told me, “Guozhen—this is your name and your identity. Just keep your name. You should be proud of being Asian.” I realized that Dickinson Law is the school that I dreamed of.
When Professor Groome, Professor Cole and Dean Ax-Fultz said: “Even after you graduate, you can always find me, when you need help.” I realized that Dickinson Law is the school that I dreamed of.
Professor Morris, you probably have not counted but we have sent each other over 350 emails! You let me know, Dickinson Law is the school that I dreamed of.
When I asked for help from my classmates, no exception, everyone helped with all their enthusiasm—you let me know, Dickinson Law is the school that I dreamed of.
Sometimes, the pressure has made me cry—not only you cried, I cried too—like when I was preparing for the Bar Exam in China.
But this time is different—you are with me. I do not feel lonely. I’d like to thank all of you: our professors, all the staff, and my classmates, all of you who are here and who are online to watch us because you care about us. —— Dickinson Law has nourished us!
The days we have spent in law school are the “incubation period” of our lives. The high-flying bird can break its shell because it is nourished by calcium absorbed from the shell. Every class, every page of a book, and every interesting conversation has made me grow. I believe the same for you.
The little bird that hatches from its shell must continue to grow before it can fly high. We must now continue to grow, as lawyers and citizens.
The forest will not hinder the stream. The sky will not hinder the flying bird. No matter what challenge is in our future, we will find the way!
Our vision can reach where we have not yet walked; Our hearts can reach what we have not yet seen. Only when you want to fly, can you break the shell. When the shell is broken, there will be a pain; but if the shell is not broken, it will be painful for a lifetime. With each broken shell, we are reborn.
Don’t be afraid of the unknown outside the shell. Once you break it, you’ll be a bird beyond the clouds!
Break the shell! — Even if it is whom you worship.
Break the shell! — Even if it was your whole world!
Break the shell! — If it is an outdated law.
Break the shell! — If it is an unjust system.