Transcript of Kumail Nanjiani's Commencement Address at Grinnell College
KUMAIL NANJIANI: Am I at the right podium? Am I? Should I be over there? Oh, you don’t need to translate this. I haven’t started yet.
President Kington, Board of Trustees, faculty, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, that one random guy from town that always shows up for these things... Thank you for having me.
Sixteen years ago, almost to the day, I sat where you are sitting today, desperately trying to stay awake while a very smart man said some very smart things. I think. I cannot be sure they were smart, because I couldn’t focus on anything but the gaping maw of uncertainty facing me in that moment. The same gaping maw of uncertainty that is facing you in this moment. What do you do in the face of this gaping maw of uncertainty? I have no idea. Good luck.
I’m joking. I don’t know what to do, but I’m not done talking yet.
Sixteen years ago, the man who stood here was Robert Harris Moses, an American educator and civil rights activist known for his work as a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee on voter education and registration in Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement. Today, you have me. A man who pretends to do stuff on TV that he was supposed to have learned how to do in real life, at this very institution. Today, you join an illustrious group of alums including Robert Noyce, the cofounder of Intel and co-inventor of the integrated circuit, and John Garang, who literally created a country. No pressure. And I haven’t named the two most famous Grinnell alumni in the entertainment industry, Herbie Hancock and Gary Cooper, who both dropped out. Perhaps that was the mistake I made. I graduated. I should have dropped out. It’s the same mistake that you all are making right now. History is full of stories of extremely successful individuals who dropped out of college. You and I will never be among them. Because today, today you graduate from Grinnell.
By the way, you will be shocked at how many people know Grinnell. For a tiny liberal arts school in a tiny town in the middle of Iowa, many, many people know it. You’ll say, “I went to Grinnell,” and they will be impressed. And then they’ll say, “Wow, you went to Cornell!”
And then, you will have a decision to make. Your first important post-college decision. And you will make it over and over many, many times. Many of my friends think I’m in Ithaca, New York right now, giving the commencement to Cornell graduates. But some will hear you properly, and they actually will be impressed. “Oh yeah, my cousin’s ex-fiancée went there!” It’s always your friend’s cousin’s ex-fiancée.
But hey, but I’m getting a degree today too! One that I’ll use just as much as I used the last one. I am getting an honorary Ph.D.! I am now Dr. Kumail Nanjiani. So hold on one second, I have to text my parents. Mom, Dad, you finally have a doctor for a son. I intend to use it. I can’t wait to stand up when someone is like, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” And you go “Guilty! Right here. Honorary Ph.D. from giving the commencement address at Grinnell. No, not Cornell, Grinnell. I’ll sit back down.”
Twenty years ago, I got on a plane in Pakistan, got off a plane in Des Moines, and was driven into Grinnell by a nice elderly gentleman in a college van. I was totally unprepared for my life at Grinnell. I didn’t even know what hacky-sack was. At the time, I only knew America from TV shows and movies, where they generally only show New York and Los Angeles. I landed in Des Moines and thought, this is less cosmopolitan than I was led to believe America would be. That’s okay. They have some buildings. Then I got to Grinnell. And you definitely do not see places like this in the movies.
By the way, there is one exception. There’s a movie called Field of Dreams. You may not know this movie. I’ll tell you what it is. Field of Dreams is a movie from 1989 starring Kevin Costner and a bunch of ghost baseball players. That’s how you know Hollywood doesn’t think Iowa is the most exciting. They’re like, making a movie in Iowa? Well, we’ve got to add ghost baseball players or something. But during this movie, there’s an exchange that happens that was frequently quoted when I was at Grinnell. The exchange occurs between Kevin Costner and a ghost baseball player. The ghost baseball player asks him, “Is this heaven?” Kevin Costner responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Man, we love this quote. That exact quote was written on the cover of my orientation packet: “Is this heaven?’ No, it’s Iowa.’” What they don’t mention is the rest of the conversation, which goes, “Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa.’ ‘Damnit, I must have made a wrong turn in Wisconsin.’”
The first couple weeks for me here were pretty tough. I was a very shy kid, I missed home, and I felt like I didn’t fit in. Back then, nobody had cell phones, so I spent hours in the phone room on my floor. They used to have phone rooms here. A phone room is a room with a landline. A landline is like a cell phone without apps. I would sit in this phone room and have conversations with my parents for hours. A conversation is like a text message with your mouth. You know what, I can’t keep doing this. Just Google the ‘90s, and then we’ll get back into this.
But I’d get into bed—and I had the bottom bunk, and I saw the metal bars on the bed on top of me—and they looked like prison bars, and that’s how I felt. Like I was trapped. Those bars would be the first thing I would see every morning, and the last thing I would see every night. And then, things started changing. I met people from all over the world. I met people who were white, black, queer, gender-fluid, every religion, no religion. And that was exciting. Pakistan ultimately is not that diverse. And I was meeting so many different kinds of people. And people were curious about me! What is Pakistan like? What do you guys eat? Do you guys have breakfast there? They weren’t all great questions. I started experiencing things I hadn’t experienced before. I shook hands with a girl for the first time at a party at the Harris Center. [Cheering.] Yeah. I remember saying out loud to myself, “This is a great country.”
And each time I would go to bed at night, those bars looked less like jail bars. And this little liberal arts college in the middle of Iowa changed the way I saw the entire world. Before America was my home, Iowa was my home. And before Iowa was my home, Grinnell was my home. When I came to Grinnell, I was a devout Muslim who had never romantically touched a girl, and I was going to get a degree that guaranteed me a job. By the time I graduated, I was basically a Rastafarian with a white American girlfriend and a philosophy degree. College changes you, is my point. I did get a computer science degree also, because while I had changed, my parents had not. I got a phenomenal education, I heard new ideas and understood that there are different ways of looking at the world. But it wasn’t all existential stuff like that. It was fun too! It was big cookies, and chicken patty parmesan, and hanging on the loggia, and watching X-Files on the TV in Read Hall lounge. X-Files is an old show about a time when conspiracy theories were shadowy rumors, and not a string of tweets the President just posted.
But while I was figuring out who I was, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And then my senior year, I performed stand-up comedy for the first time at Bob’s Underground. [Cheering.] Yeah! And it went well! And it was so fun. And it was so exciting. And I was like, I could be good at this! After graduation, I moved to Chicago because I knew a lot of great comedians had moved there. A Grinnell alum helped me get a computer science job. I wasn’t good at it, but I was nice, and they liked having me around. But mostly, it allowed me to do stand-up at night in Chicago. And I did, almost every night. I’d be out late. I’d get up early to go to work. I probably slept about four hours a night for five years straight. And I had the best time of my life. I mean, it wasn’t always easy. I’d get heckled, because back then there weren’t a lot of comedians who looked like me doing standup. “Go back to India!”, they would yell. And I’d say, “I’ve never been to India, you’re just wishing me an awesome vacation right now?” Or, “Go back to Taliban!” I’ve heard that too. And I would say, “You’re right, I am a terrorist. I just do stand-up comedy on the side to keep a low profile.”
By the way, I have this fantasy that when someone is racist to me, I want something awful to happen to them, and then I rescue them, just to see the looks on their face. Like, “Go back to India!” “Haha, good one! Oh no, wolves!” And then I fight off the wolves, and they say, “I was racist to you, and you still helped me,” and I say, “Well, that is the way of my people.” That’s how we cure racism.
Then, when I started auditioning for TV shows, I had some tough times, some rejections for some interesting reasons. I’ve been told they were going for a more all-American direction, before they hired a white Australian guy. I’ve been told I wasn’t good-looking enough, or that I was too good-looking. That last one’s not true. That never happened. But that’s what they should say every time! The truth is overrated. They should be like, “Sorry, but you’re too good-looking to play a technician in a weapons lab. It would be so distracting.”
But even when it wasn’t easy, I loved it. I just loved doing it. And this is the part where I’m supposed to give you advice on what to do with your life, and I truly do not know what to tell you. I can tell you what worked for me. What worked for me was finding something that I liked doing, but more than liked, something that satisfied me. Finding something that satisfied me and doing it. Just doing it that day. I never thought big picture, that would have been overwhelming. So what I’m saying is, you can go slow. There is no rush. Allow your dreams and goals to change, but live an intentional life. Think, am I doing what I want to be doing every day? And, be okay with failing. That’s what I learned getting rejected at all these auditions. Nobody is paying attention to your failure. The world is full of people failing. People are failing all around you. Failure is boring. Your failure will not be so spectacular that people will write articles about your failure. Only you will remember your failure. Unless you’re the person that made the Samsung Galaxy X7. Those are the phones that literally explode. Everyone knows that person’s failure.
Nobody knows what they’re doing. Nobody does. Everyone’s winging it out there. Some people are just better at pretending to be confident. Because nobody, nobody’s done. Nobody’s cooked. People are constantly growing and evolving and changing. When I was a kid, I thought of my parents as these superheroes who knew everything, and that they were already the people they would always be. And as a grown-up, I realize they have the same struggles I do, that everybody does. They uprooted their lives and moved to America in their 50s, started over. In the last ten years, I’ve seen them change in ways I never thought possible.
I married a woman from North Carolina named Emily. That is not the wife they had pictured for me, and I never thought that they’d get over that. Emily and I got married at City Hall, we just walked in and got married. Then we flew to New Jersey so she could meet them for the first time. The first time my parents met my wife, she was my wife. And you know what they did? They threw a big Pakistani wedding. My grandfather even wrote a poem welcoming her into the family. He did rhyme Emily with family... It’s not our first language. But seeing her white Southern family and my Pakistani family celebrating together, it was so beautiful, I don’t have words. So here’s another concrete piece of advice I can give you: Have sex with an immigrant. We’re going through a tough time right now, and it’s really great for morale. And it’s one way to ensure that you will definitely be on the right side of history. They’re like, maybe this was a mistake...
Immigration is a big topic of conversation right now—do we take in refugees or not, these people are so different from us... And I will say this. Refugees are people who risked everything and left their homes in search of better lives for them and their families. What could be more American than that?
I want to take a moment to give a special shout-out to all the families of international students. To those of you who were able to be here, as nervous as you were to get through customs and immigration, I hope that you are just as proud to watch your children walk across this stage. And I hope that today, you see the America that we love.
There is a member of the House of Representatives from a district not too far from here, and I don’t want to say his name. But he said, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Somebody else’s babies. That is not the Iowa I know. The Iowa I know understands that there is no such thing as somebody else’s babies. How can you look at a baby and say, “That is not one of my own”? I am thankful that that is not the Iowa I know. I came here and I felt out of place, I felt like I didn’t belong, and the community here made sure I didn’t feel like that for long. They welcomed me, they engaged with me, they were curious about where I was from. And this was the second place in my life that felt like home. Different, weird, but not strange.
So I’ll say, this is another thing you can do. Populate your life with people different from you. Once you leave school, you get to choose the kinds of people you’re going to be around rather than just being forced to be around them. So I encourage you to seek out people, thoughts, and opinions different from yours. It keeps you empathetic, and it gets you out of your own echo chamber. Don’t disregard opposing viewpoints. Listen to them, absorb them, oppose them if you feel that they are wrong, but allow them to affect you.
Understand the pain behind an opinion such as, “Our jobs are being stolen,” and try to empathize with it. Believe me, it is not easy. I wish it was as easy as following a couple of opposing viewpoints on Twitter, and unblocking Uncle Steve from Facebook. But he showed up for your graduation, and he gave you a card with some cash in it, be nice to the guy.
It is not that easy. You really have to listen. We cannot expect others to understand our point of view if we don’t understand theirs. And it’s uncomfortable and awkward and infuriating and it hurts your brain, but with that pain can come growth and real change. Being a fish out of water is tough, but that’s how you evolve. I think that’s scientifically accurate. I don’t know. I had a liberal arts education.
Ultimately, we are all much more similar than we are different. That is what I learned in the Iowa I loved. Our shared humanity. We’re all just looking for food, and love, and meaning. And we find that meaning with each other, with community. So take the lessons you learned in Iowa, and in Grinnell, and get out there. Engage with people. Challenge their beliefs and challenge your own. Whether it is here on this campus in the middle of cornfields, or in a village in Senegal, or in a marble hallway in D.C. Actually, D.C. would be good. Go to D.C.
Engage, care, be passionate. Because each other is all we have. This is all we got, this is all we have. And it may not be heaven, but it can be Iowa. Congratulations class of 2017. Welcome to the real world. We need you out here.