Michelle Au ’99 delivered Wellesley’s 2024 commencement address

Good morning, graduates!

So the good news is, only a few more speakers stand between you and the diploma you’ve worked so hard to earn.

The bad news is, one of those speakers … is me.

(I know.)

To start, I’m going to tell you one story about my Wellesley commencement that I probably shouldn’t. Here goes: When I graduated from Wellesley, my parents drove up from New York to watch the ceremony.

They sat through the procession. They clapped politely and listened to all the speakers.

That year they gave out the diplomas in alphabetical order by last name—my last name begins with A. So they watched all the way up until I got my diploma and walked off the stage.

Then the second I got off the stage, they ran across Severance Green over to the reception tent where lunch was being set up, and just immediately started eating, figuring they had at least half an hour of all those names before we were done.

Those of us with Asian parents understand this brand of ruthless efficiency. “Hurry up! We still have to pack up the car before our four-hour drive home! Put this in Tupperware for later! No time!”

Anyway, don’t do what my parents did. I promise there will be cheese cubes enough for all when we’re done. So much cheese!

So I came to Wellesley around the turn of the century, which I say just because it sounds way more fancy than me saying that I attended school here in the ’90s.

I probably shouldn’t tell you this either, because it feels deeply unfeminist, but here goes: One of the reasons I applied to Wellesley is that I had been dating a Harvard student.

So when I was accepted, I thought, “My life is totally set, because this is going to work out great.”

So obviously we broke up instantly after I got accepted. That’s how it goes in life.

But what that meant was that when I got to Wellesley, unencumbered by the expectation of who I was supposed to be relative to someone else, I got time and space to figure out who I wanted to be for myself.

So when I got here, I wanted to try everything.

Even back then, I knew I had just four years in this rare, special place, and that once I graduated, I would never have a chance again to be a Wellesley student.

So … I decided to row intramural crew. Looking at my brawny, chiseled physique, probably many of you already guessed that I either rowed crew or played rugby.

(Eventually, when it became clear that I was maybe better at yelling things than I was at actually rowing, I coxed intramural crew. A better fit for my skill set.)

For three years, I was the cartoonist for the Wellesley News.

Between that and taking organic chemistry with Professor [Julia] Miwa, this ensured that I was covered with pencil smudges and eraser bits for most of my time here at this school.

I acted in a play, and tried out for an improv comedy troupe, two things I was so embarrassingly bad at, I still die a little inside when I think about it.

I served on Res Staff as house president, and I ran for College Government Cabinet, thinking, well, I was going to be a doctor, so this would surely be my first and last foray into the world of politics.

As you can probably tell, I was wrong about a lot of things back then.

But that’s OK. Because the thing about Wellesley is that it created a space for me to not be good at things, or not be right all the time.

It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to question yourself.

It’s OK to be wrong, and it’s OK to admit out loud that you were.

But in creating that space, Wellesley encouraged me to say “yes” to things, even when they were scary.

And saying “yes” to things is hard. Because actually, the easiest thing in the world is to say “no.” Why is that?

Because after you say no, you don’t have to do anything else.

“No” means you think the issue is settled. “No” means the conversation is over.

But “yes” is almost always harder, because it invites the question that follows.

And that is: “What’s next?”

That’s what today is about.

Commencement is about what comes next.

* * *

So what happened “next” for me after Wellesley is that I went to med school.

And some of you may be thinking, “Of course you went to med school, Michelle, you’re Asian!”

And I want to push back on that a little bit, because that’s a stereotype.

Some Asian people also go to law school or become engineers.

Now, there are graduates in the audience today who will also be going to med school, or into an allied health field, and I just want to reassure you that all your hard work here at Wellesley was worth it.

Because some day, maybe nine, or 10, or 15 years from now, after med school, and residency, and fellowship, and your stint in research, you will finally get a real adult job.

Right before you die of old age.

One thing that brings people to medical school—and this is a trope, but it also happens to be true—is that med students want to help people. They want to help people, and communities, live healthier lives.

But one thing that most medical students realize quite early on in their training is that the majority of the factors that make patients sick are clearly outside our ability to treat at the bedside.

I’m a practicing anesthesiologist, and every single day I can give my patients insulin, or transfuse platelets, or treat their pain, or defibrillate their hearts when they stop beating.

But by the time those patients get to me—if they can get to me at all—it’s usually too late to fix lots of the things that made them sick in the first place.

These obviously include things like access to health insurance or the prices of medication, but they also include broader things that we like to call “the social determinants of health.”

These are things like economic opportunity. Public safety, and violence prevention. Food. Housing.

And, of course, fittingly for today, access to a quality education.

The fact is, improving those factors can enhance the health of our communities far more than anything I can do within the four walls of the hospital.

People often ask me why a doctor would ever run for office. What I’d ask instead is: why don’t more doctors run for office?

At my med school commencement, we all stood and recited the Hippocratic Oath, and the first part of that oath reads, “First, do no harm.” We’ve all heard that.

Often people hear this and think immediately of active harms. A medication error. Wrong-side surgery. Accidentally transecting the aorta.

But there are passive harms too. There are the harms of inaction.

And I don’t think doctors should abdicate the responsibility we have to our patients by refusing to serve where we are needed.

* * *

I don’t mind telling you that when I first got elected to the Georgia State Senate in 2020, I did not know what I was doing.

I don’t mind telling you that because that’s exactly how I felt when I started my clinical rotations in med school.

As a third-year med student, any day I could find the bathroom and remember the login to check my patients’ labs was a good day.

But like in med school, as a first-term legislator I knew that I wanted to get better, and I knew I couldn’t do this work alone.

I also recognized that, as a member of the minority political party in Georgia, anything I wanted to get done, I was going to have to work with people who disagreed with me on many, many things.

But while we disagreed about our methods, I found we could often agree on the goals.

And working back from those shared goals is the best—and really the only—way to get things done.

In the great state of Georgia, my conservative colleagues and I do not agree on passing legislation to regulate guns.

That’s … understating things rather dramatically.

Some people wouldn’t even talk to me because my positions on gun safety made anything that came out of my mouth on the issue a complete nonstarter.

But I found that something we do agree on is wanting children to be safer.

Because come on, who doesn’t want that? How do you refuse to work on that?

Gun violence is currently the No. 1 killer of children and teenagers in this country. And working back from that shared goal of keeping children safer, I was able to advance a bill I very deliberately named the Pediatric Health Safe Storage Act.

I gave the bill that particular name because I wanted to make clear that secure gun storage was not a political issue, but a public health issue, and an issue of protecting kids.

Pediatric health is something we can agree on.

Children’s safety is something we can agree on.

And because we took that approach, in 2023, the Pediatric Health Safe Storage Act became the first substantive gun safety legislation to be heard in a Georgia House subcommittee in over six years.

Find where you agree. Then work backward.

Later, when it became clear that our conservative colleagues, bless their hearts, did not think that we should make it harder for toddlers to find and fire loaded weapons, I tried to find something else we could agree on.

And it turns out that something Republicans really like is being able to pass a tax credit during an election year.

So I drafted the Safe Storage Tax Credit Act, which offered up to a $300 tax credit for purchase of firearm-securing equipment like gun safes or trigger locks.

Because here are two guiding principles of public health. First principle: The lever arm of public health is prevention.

We seek, for example, not just to do more open heart surgery. We seek instead to prevent patients from developing heart disease.

Similarly, our goal shouldn’t be to prosecute gun owners when kids get shot. Our goal should be preventing kids from getting shot in the first place.

Second principle: The goal of public health should be to make it as easy as possible for people to do the right thing.

This is why your car beeps at you when you forget to put on your seatbelt. This is why we offer flu shots in the supermarket and at schools. This is why we bring blood donation drives right into the lobby of your workplace.

Giving gun owners a tax credit for buying safe storage equipment makes doing that right thing easier.

That’s how we get to yes. Find where you agree, and then work back from that.

A version of the Safe Storage Tax Credit Act passed nearly unanimously out of the Georgia State House this past March.

I’m also proud to say that six Republican colleagues signed as lead sponsors for this bill promoting safe gun storage.

In an election year. In Georgia.

(I know.)

Because even when we disagree, there are common goals we can identify.

And when we allow ourselves to eschew absolutism, and interrogate our assumptions, we can move forward, and do good work together.

That’s what my career in medicine taught me about politics.

That, and the importance of good hand washing.

* * *

So we’re almost done here.

Not almost done with this graduation ceremony, though we are— much to the relief of your hungry parents who are already mentally packing the contents of your dorm room into the back of their car—but I mean you’re almost done here, at Wellesley.

The rest of your college career can now be counted not in years or months, but in minutes.

What will you take with you? What will you remember?

I don’t dare give you too much advice, because what do I know. But I will ask you to do one thing.

Remember who you are in this moment.

You, in this moment. And who is that, exactly?

Well, you’re moments away from getting a pretty important—and frankly pretty expensive—degree. That’s for starters.

Because of that, you’re proud, as you should be. You’re excited, which you should be too. And maybe a little nervous.

Do you feel ready?

Some of you do. Most of you don’t. Either reaction, or both at the same time, is OK.

Because the most important thing about you today is that you are still idealistic.

I hope, at least, that even at the end of this long process, you have managed to retain the idealism without which an institution like Wellesley could not exist.

So remember who you are in this moment.

Now, cynics—and you may know a few—will sometimes speak of idealism as though it’s a bad thing. Like it’s a weakness.

But I’m going to tell you this right now: Idealism is never a bad thing.

And idealism seasoned with experience is maybe one of the very best characteristics any leader can have.

Remember who you are in this moment.

You are a Wellesley student on the cusp of doing great things.

Some of these great things will be big. The majority of them will be much, much smaller.

But make sure they stem from who you are in this moment—someone with the energy, idealism, and work ethic to not just (as the school mission goes) “make a difference in the world,”

… but to make a different world.

Cynicism is a protective adaptation. I see it in both my jobs all the time.

It is a shell that people build around themselves after they feel that they’ve worked too hard, seen too much, been burned too many times to care anymore.

But don’t become that person. Don’t be the cynic. Even when it’s hard, find the places where you can agree.

Say “yes” to things.

And then always ask, “What’s next?”

Be ready for everything you think you know right now to change. Listen. Learn. Allow yourself to be surprised.

But always remember who you are in this moment. What’s next? Honestly, I don’t know. But let’s go find out together.

Congratulations to the class of 2024, and to the people who love you. You’ve earned this.

Now roll up your sleeves and get out here to join the rest of us, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.