Bard College at Simon's Rock: the Early College
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Bachelor of Arts Degree Class Speaker James Yu

This Is Our Sanctuary

Congratulations to us, AA and BA Class of 2017! It’s been a long, hard-fought journey for all of us. Today, I would like to share mine with you.

When I applied to Simon’s Rock, I was a junior in a Blue Ribbon high school in a rich
suburb of Boston. I was well-liked by my teachers and even popular among my peers. I enjoyed my courses—yes, they were actually challenging, too—and I was well on my way to apply for “real” colleges the following fall.

All of a sudden, my father revealed a secret—our family was very deep in debt. Right around the turn of the decade, my father had made a huge investment to open an ambitious new company that produced touchscreen glass. It was a particularly savvy move, because the demand for touchscreen glass was so high (just think about how many touchscreen devices we have today!). By 2011, he was producing prototypes in Japan for major companies like Samsung. Unfortunately, that same year, a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Almost every factory he worked with was destroyed. Investors pulled out. Insurance refused to cover the damage. It was not for another two years that my father disclosed to the rest of the family the huge amount of damage done. The bottom line: we could not afford to stay in the US any longer. I was about to be left stranded.

Now, South Korea, the country of my citizenship, is a beautiful country with a unique and exciting culture. It is very welcoming and its people are eager to please. However, to people like me, who look Korean but do not dress, act, or talk like a Korean, reactions can vary from confusion to outright disgust. Korea also has a horrific history of ignorance, hate, and violence towards its LGBT citizens. Even now, its military penal code equates homosexual activity to “consensual rape.” My own mother reacted to a friend of mine coming out as a lesbian with “God can help fix that problem.” In fact, this speech marks the first time my parents are hearing me talk about being gay (through the livestream).

Needless to say, I froze in fear at the possibility of having to move to Korea. Simon’s Rock suddenly became a necessity. But even after attending Discovery Day in late April, I was not impressed. I dreaded having to leave my normal high school life and abandon the plans I had already made for my future. When I received my acceptance, my reaction was not a shout of triumph or excitement, but only a sigh of relief. I resolved then to receive my AA and transfer. And yet, here I am receiving my BA from Simon’s Rock instead.

I chose to stay because a year later, I had become enamored by the essence of Simon’s Rock. Because Bernie Rodgers once sent me an email, “I’m greatly impressed with your work and your commitment, passion for learning, and critical intelligence. You got a B+.”

I chose not to transfer because when my family’s financial situation worsened, scholarships and financial aid allowed me to continue my studies and even study abroad in Europe for a whole year. Because when I returned to Simon’s Rock and wanted to do an ambitious thesis on quantum optics, my thesis committee helped me develop an experiment that demonstrates some of the most bizarre and counterintuitive quantum phenomena, in an essentially entirely new lab space with new equipment. It was one of the most expensive theses in Simon’s Rock history, costing a total of nearly $10k, but to be fair, my thesis advisor is currently developing a new course around it as well, on the foundations of modern quantum physics and philosophy.

I had to stay because Simon’s Rock offered me a safe place to live away from a stressful familial situation each break and a research position to produce meaningful work over each summer. Because when I could not afford to pay tuition for my final semester, Simon’s Rock made it possible for me to graduate a semester early and even offered me intellectually and financially rewarding jobs on campus.

Again and again, Simon’s Rock became my salvation. It has been a safe space for me to be true to myself while receiving a top-tier liberal arts education. Simon’s Rock is unique in how it cares for each student as an individual and a scholar, and how it values their diverse potential, opinion, and background. For those of us who need it, it provides a sanctuary where we can continue our academic careers without the fear of legal, political, or social persecution.

This aspect of Simon’s Rock is so important now, in this unstable and fearful world,
where too many people are told “you’re not welcome, you don’t belong here.” We live in a climate where students are being exploited for money, universities are turned into
political battlegrounds, and freedom of thought has unfortunately become controversial. But Simon’s Rock continues to fight for its values and stands unmoved in its devotion to higher learning and protecting every student’s opportunities to pursue new knowledge.

As we receive our diplomas and head out from this campus, I want to ask something of you: that we carry with us the values that Simon’s Rock steadfastly supported: to be compassionate, open-minded; to think deeply, beautifully, critically; to respect and appreciate individual needs and potentials; to hold education and the revelation of truth in the highest esteem.

We represent the next generation of leaders. So if we cannot find a space like this again, please, let us follow in the footsteps of Betty Hall and use our privilege and power to create one! Not for ourselves, but to show others who find their safety and access to education compromised: “You are welcome here. You don’t have to be afraid.” I know Simon’s Rock has prepared us with all the right tools to make that come true.

Thank you.