Finkielstein to the Class of 2021: raise your voices and take action
When Carla Finkielstein took the podium as the main speaker for College of Science’s two commencement events on May 14, it came after a grueling year of online classes, social distancing, and high stress. But if not for her, there would have been no such events, for Science, or any of Virginia Tech’s colleges or schools. For more than a year, Finkielstein, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and director of the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, co-led COVID-19 testing efforts from her lab in Roanoke. With her work, and with that of colleagues, more than 110,000 COVID swab were tested from not only the Virginia Tech community, but the surrounding region as well.
Science Interim Dean Ron Fricker introduced her as a “hero.” Others agree. Just a few weeks prior, Finkielstein was recognized with the Ut Prosim Scholar Award – the university’s top honor for faculty. At the time, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said, “Dr. Finkielstein’s work made it possible for Virginia Tech to detect and trace COVID infections early in the pandemic, providing a reliable testing resource that made it possible to continue university operations while keeping our campus and community safe.” The prize comes with $250,000 of research funds for Finkielstein and her team.
Below, we present Finkielstein’s commencement speech in its entirety, with some formatting edits:
“I am honored to be with you today for your commencement. You are a class that has experienced it all in this past year and, yet, you have overcome your obstacles, succeeded, and today you’re graduating.
Truth be told, when I was invited to give this speech, I thought the email has been sent to the wrong person; it happens and Finkielstein is a very common last name. Then, I asked myself, what qualifies me, or even my generation, to give anyone words of wisdom and encouragement to this incredible class of graduates?
My generation, the Gen X folks, sits between boomers and millennials; we were born and grew up in difficult times characterized by shifting social and family values, challenging domestic and global economies, incredible technological advances -- yes, we own Pac-Man, joysticks, and were the first gamers!, and women were just starting to enter the workforce. My generation has been defined as pragmatic, independent, and resourceful. We lived through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, the energy crisis, the rise of personal computers, corporate layoffs, the Rodney King beating, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Iranian hostage crisis, the HIV epidemic, and the stock market decline, just to name a few.
“If you only ‘hope’ for things to happen, without being the catalyst to make them happen, nothing will change. Great ideas without follow-up action are just an intellectual exercise.”
Today, I am witnessing the rise of your generation as its citizens enter adulthood facing an uncertain future. Members of Generation Z, as your generation has been labelled, are more racially and ethnically diverse than any previous generations in U.S. history and are well on-track to being the most well-educated generation of Americans yet. All this looks promising, but it is up to you to define how your generation will be remembered in history. Each of you have ‘a say’” and ‘an opportunity’ to raise your voice, use your knowledge, take action on issues that matter to you and your community. This can only be accomplished by escaping conformism, stereotypes, and rejecting inaction, and by understanding that peaceful activism is necessary to get things done.
There is no doubt that your generation will inherit monumental challenges. And whereas some of them might be the product of a shrinking global economy triggered by an unexpected pandemic, others are the result of socioeconomical and educational inequalities that need to be addressed, racial discrimination that needs to be eliminated, rampant development that needs to become sustainable, emerging diseases that need to be contained, and a human-made climate crisis that needs to be fought. If you only ‘hope’ for things to happen without being the catalyst to make them happen, nothing will change. Great ideas without follow up action are just an intellectual exercise.
“Each of you has ‘a say’ and ‘an opportunity’ to raise your voice, use your knowledge, and take action on issues that matter to you and your community. This can only be accomplished by escaping conformism, stereotypes, and rejecting inaction, and by understanding that peaceful activism is necessary to get things done.”
I challenge you not to fall into the comfortable role of being a bystander to history; be part of a generation that will transform the world. Boomers did not put a man on the moon because they ‘hoped’ to do it, they took action. Gen Xers moved from being portrayed as ‘slackers,’ to becoming the greatest self-employed entrepreneurial generation in U.S. history. Millennials have crystallized social change by fighting for a more racially and ethnically diverse America than any of the previous generations. I challenge you to do better.
As scientists, you have additional responsibilities in our society. You are now educators, innovators, technologists, and an inspiration to the next generation of scientists. More importantly, you are the guardians of the scientific truth in times in which ‘truth,’ in its many forms, is undervalued, unwelcomed, and under attack.
The magnitude of the scientific problems and societal issues we face nowadays emphasize, more than ever, the necessity for building a team-based culture. We need to bury individualism and welcome ideas and experiences from all fields of science and segments of our society. The ride that you are about to embark on in this next chapter of your life will require perseverance, resilience, and true passion to do whatever you love the most in life.
“Despite the roadblocks and detours you will experience on your life’s journey, you should fight for what you are most passionate about and never settle for anything less than what you want.”
Today, I want to convey a simple message that I hope you will take to heart: despite the roadblocks and detours you will experience on your journey, you should fight for what you are most passionate about and never settle for anything less than what you want.
Congratulations Hokie graduates, the world needs you more than ever. Go forth and make it a better place.”