When super model, actor and best-selling author Emily Ratajkowski took the stage Thursday afternoon on the Upper East Side campus of Hunter College, she delivered a winter commencement address with a candid message drawn from her own experiences and reflections on a life interrupted when she was forced to drop out college more than a decade ago.
Donning a purple cap and gown, Emily Ratajkowski — or EmRata as she’s known— sat with dignitaries on stage inside the school’s Assembly Hall, as an estimated two-thousand Hunter College students were awarded their undergraduate, graduate or post-doctoral degrees — their family and friends all in attendance.
Upper East Site transcribed Emily Ratajkowski’s inspiring speech to the new graduates:
“I have found that it can be very easy, too easy, to float through days like these without appreciating them for their purpose. Today is a celebration. So, I’m going to start by telling you something about me. I never used to celebrate. I’ve always been very, very, very careful, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Life can make you hard, or at the very least scared of being caught vulnerable. And celebrating can leave you vulnerable, because it can catch you unaware. It’s been my experience that as soon as one challenge is completed, another hurdle seemingly instantly rises up like a giant mountain on the horizon.
I usually choose to focus on the next task at hand, rather than to pause and to look at and to reflect back on the one he successfully completed. Hard-earned accomplishments are full of tedium.
David Foster Wallace, in a commencement speech he once gave, describe the brutality of day to day life, of coming home after working many hours exhausted only to realize you have no food in the house, of having to run to the grocery store and the traffic and the time wasted coming and going.
Life consists of so many moments like that, of traffic lights, of waiting in line. Things that look great on resumes are often the worst this way. They involve so many long, banal hours, weeks, months and years, that you experience by yourself. Usually without witnesses.
I am thinking of the hours I spent in my car, early in my career as an aspiring actor-model, driving to auditions, getting lost, trying to find parking, waiting, or the time I spent reading my book alone in my apartment, revising one sentence over and over again before realizing the day had completely escaped me and that I barely completed anything at all.
Or the work I do on my podcasts now. The pickups of a missing line — listening back the same ten seconds over and over again. Even being a mother is this way, the daily washing of my son’s bottles in the sink, the waking up as I did this morning at 4:30 in the morning to take his temperature and the darkness of his room. The countless hours of holding up against my chest until he is lulled back to sleep. The thousands of diapers I have changed.
When one first sets out to do something big and arduous, like raising a child, or writing a book, or getting a degree, it’s exhilarating and exciting. But the road is always so tedious and seemingly never-ending and after moment of moment of feeling like you may never actually accomplish the thing you set out to do, or even forgetting how all of these tiny instances relate to the original whole, you become worn down, fatigued, all that invigorating energy dissolves so that by the time you reach the finish line, you think ‘finally,’ rather than ‘my god, against all odds, I did what I set out to do.’
Standing on the stage and hearing President Raab tell all these stories, and also the phone call we had ahead of this speech, she was able to fill me in on who so many of you are. I learned that this graduating class is especially remarkable. That there are particular challenges and circumstances unique to all of you.
She told me about the students who worked several jobs while getting degrees, battled illnesses, the people who are the first in their families to graduate from college and those who had to learn English as a second language. I heard about the students who are mothers, who took time away from their education and somehow found the courage and ability to return to school as an older person. I am so humbled and honored to stand in front of you all today.
Also humbled, because let’s be completely honest, models don’t give speeches at colleges. Sure, they are respected in many ways, right? Giant images of them can cover buildings, people follow them on social media to see what they’re wearing, or how they take care of her skin, but they are certainly not regarded or honored by esteemed institutions and schools.
As I was preparing for today, battling impostor syndrome, I remembered something: I actually spoke at my elementary and my middle school graduation. So, this isn’t my first rodeo.
.@Hunter_College‘s 225th commencement speaker @EmRata: “This graduating class is especially remarkable….I am so humbled and honored to stand in front of you all today.” #Classof2023 #HunterGrad2023 pic.twitter.com/EaYewH5sB2— Hunter College (@Hunter_College) January 19, 2023
But it made me think, what happened in the intervening years that led me to wonder if I deserve to be up here. I never made it to my own college graduation. I dropped out in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, choosing the financial security I hoped modeling would bring over what I really wanted to do, which was to learn and to make things.
Modeling paid more than what my friends made working service industry jobs and I was terrified of being saddled with student loan debt. I also knew that my window for this opportunity was limited. Everyone reminded me that women have an expiration date.
So, I gave up on my education and instead focused on work. Modeling was full of relentless reminders of my limitations. It’s an industry that deeply disrespects the young women who work in it. I’ve faced countless, very personal rejections.
For many years, throughout most of my 20s, I believed what the world told me: that I was simply a body, a commodity, and that my thoughts and ideas would never be valued as highly as my physical self.
Women and femme-presenting people are used to being told to fit into small limited box, people of color even more so. The world encourages us to stay in our lane to give up on trying to be more and it becomes exceedingly difficult to remember that we are, in fact, capable of so much more than what has been prescribed to us.
Many people are able to work through that self doubt and the constraints we are constantly reminded of. You are all here today because you were able to do that. And even though our experiences are undoubtedly different, and for that reason I’m trying to do something unusual for me. I’m trying to celebrate.
Here’s what I missed in not celebrating: I missed out on joy, the flow of that kind of quiet and hard work I described earlier, that brings the day-in day-out frustration. It actually leads to something incredibly beautiful, true satisfaction. That kind of work is the type you do alone every day and in small determined ways.
It may go unnoticed. It may not be the kind that gets you likes and praise on the internet, but it will bring you deep fulfillment. Joy is underrated. We pray for so many other things before we hope for joy. In order to prioritize joy, you must be cognizant of time. You must be present. Being truly present takes diligence and care.
Remind yourself to look around and marvel today, but also on all the seemingly unremarkable days. There is no doubt more obstacles are coming, more hard work. Still, find the moments to pause, to reflect on where you are and how far you’ve come.
It’s easy to stand up here and say that and I’ll tell you what’s harder, practicing it myself. It’s hard to stand here not is a model but as a mother, not as a college dropout but as a New York Times best-selling author, not as an Instagram whatever, but as an entrepreneur.
It’s hard to celebrate myself, not as an imposter in a body, but as a soul deserving of joy — and I bet a few people here feel the same way.
So if you can’t celebrate yourself, maybe do it for others. For the friends and family that greeted you when you returned home after your long day, who listened to you complain about your workload and your schedule, who encouraged you when you were filled with stress and hopelessness, for the loved ones who fill in this audience who can remember when you first had the idea to try and get this degree and cheered you on when you were sure you’d never make it.
The people in your life who love you are a precious gift, treat them as such. Enjoy them as such. Celebrate with them.
Thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of honoring you today. Congratulations to the Class of 2023.”