Reggie Cunningham/The New York Times

Roxane Gay, bestselling author, gave the Class of 2021's convocation speech on Friday.

May 30, 2021

Author Roxane Gay Encourages Cornell Graduates to Find Their ‘True North’ in 2021 Convocation Speech

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Author Roxane Gay encouraged Cornell’s Class of 2021 to tear down the borders of their imagination and to ardently pursue their dreams without inhibitions. 

In her virtual convocation speech, Gay addressed the graduating class on Friday in this year’s ceremony, encouraging students to go out into the world and aim big. 

“I could not tell you where any of my degrees are, but I can tell you what it took to earn each of them,” the author, professor and social commentator told the graduates in her pre-recorded speech. “I can tell you how they have contributed to who I am today and I hope that is true for you too.”

In the speech, Gay described the early childhood experiences that shaped her love for writing. She wrote stories about imaginary villages and underground cities based around games she would play with her brothers, Gay said, emphasizing the importance of imagination to Cornell’s graduates, even as adults entering the workforce. 

“As you walk into the unknown of the rest of your life,” Gay said, “please tear down the borders around your imagination and what you believe is possible for yourself and for your community. Do not let the fears and insecurities of others keep you from your ambitions for a remarkable life.”

Gay continued to write through school, college and adulthood, describing her lifestyle of constant reading and writing.

“I was able to honor this commitment to my craft because writing was and is my true north,” Gay said.

Gay has penned bestselling books Bad Feminist, an essay collecting covering the intersections of feminism with race, politics and culture, and Hunger, a memoir about food and body image. Gay is also a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times as well as a visiting professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Yale University. She also launched her own publishing imprint, Roxane Gay Books with the publisher Grove Atlantic.

Gay previously expressed her interest in speaking at Cornell’s convocation in 2019 when comedian Hasan Minhaj stepped down from the role — saying at the time that her speech would focus on the importance of listening to others. 

But this commencement weekend, her speech focused instead on pursuing big dreams. Gay recounts her own early dreams of becoming a writer and how she purposely refused to set far-reaching goals. She focused on stories themselves, drowning out other people’s expectations, which allowed her to write on her own terms. 

“I think I just wanted to be free,” Gay said.  

Gay also told students not to let rejection or influence from others prevent them from reaching high. Despite receiving countless rejections, she never doubted her abilities as a writer. Instead, Gay said she used rejection as motivation, determined to prove herself. 

“Sometimes it was pure spite pushing me forward making me write every day and try to improve my craft,” Gay said. “I was going to show each and every editor who rejected my work that I could write well, that I was good enough and eventually I was.”

Gay also urged students not to let their dreams be limited by other’s expectations. 

“Naysayers want you to tame your potential until it can satisfy their lack of imagination for what is possible for you,” Gay said. “They want you to believe that only responsible choices are available to you because those are the choices they made for themselves.”

She concluded her speech by reminding students to ask for help when they needed it. 

“If you have to chart your own map to success, however you define it, share that map with others on the same path,” Gay said. “Be fiercely committed and fiercely kind, be relentless, find your true north, that thing that makes your world make sense.”