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Let’s talk about hermit crabs

Miranda Stewart, 2020 commencement student speaker, addresses her graduating class.

Good evening, President Watkins, distinguished guests, Mr. John Warnock, faculty and fellow students of the Class of 2020.

I would, first and foremost, like to offer you a resounding congratulations. Milestones of great magnitude are always worth celebrating regardless of circumstance. But they’re also sobering, and even more so now. What this moment means for each of us moving forward cannot be overstated. As such, I’ve determined that this is the best time to have a little talk with you about hermit crabs.

Now I had a small hermit crab army as a kid. One of the coolest things about them to me was the fact that, throughout their lives, they’re constantly changing their shells. The shell-changing process sounds simple. A hermit crab grows until it begins to feel tight and uncomfortable, and then it leaves that shell to find a new one that fits better.

The problem is that being without a shell is described by scientists as being stressful for the crabs. And it is as worrying as it is dangerous. Those shells are not only their places of comfort but also their protection—their shield from the precariousness of the world. Until a crab finds a new shell that can accommodate its growth, it is vulnerable.

Admittedly, at times I have felt a lot like a hermit crab. Probably the most powerful instance of this occurring in my life took place at my first university. I did not come to the U as a bright-eyed freshman. When I entered that school, I had the same shell I had worn for most of my life, as I’m sure many of us did when we stepped foot on our first campus, be it the U or elsewhere. But over time, new experiences and realizations caused me to grow, and I began to feel uncomfortable in that same old shell.

But where I was, I was not allowed to leave it. That shell was the one I had been accepted in and, unless I wanted to endure some pretty serious backlash, it was the only one I would be

permitted to wear. And I tried. I tried to keep myself small, but I couldn’t suffocate forever. I decided to risk the vulnerability of living without a shell until I could find one that would hold the version of me into which I had grown.

Long story short, that is why the University of Utah is held so dearly in my heart. When I came here, I came on the heels of discouragement and punishment. When I arrived, I was met with acceptance. I took a leap of faith. And all of you, our professors, our connections, and our culture, you caught me. There are as many University of Utah experiences as there are students at the school, but if your experience here has been anything like mine, then the shedding of our shells has been celebrated rather than suppressed. The various opportunities in the spirit of the U have encouraged you to grow as much and in as many ways as possible. If your experience here has been anything like mine, you have always had somebody in your corner.

Seeing as we’re humans and not hermit crabs, the shells we have had to leave do not look like shells. For some, they have looked like friendships or relationships. For some, they have looked like career choices that do not actually fit with who they are. For some, they have looked like closets. Our shells, however, are not always left voluntarily, and many things have forced us to grow more quickly than we had anticipated. Horrendous tragedies have broken our hearts. Disappointment and frustration have plagued our conversations. We have reached for each other in times of fear and held each other in moments of weakness. These things have taught us how to move forward when we weren’t ready to leave our shell. As new graduates, we expect to be in a position of uncertainty about the future, but none of us could have expected that this occasion would call for the individual and collective strength that it now has.

That in mind, I would like to finish my remarks with the same sentiment I intended to convey before our plans for this day turned upside down. As we part from each other and from this university, it is my hope that we always find the self-respect to recognize when our shells are too small and the courage to move through uncertainty onto a better fit.

Be honest about whether you are allowing yourself to expand. If you find that you are not, may you understand that the vulnerability you display while you search for your new shell is not weakness, but proof of growth.

It is additionally an act of ultimate care for others to understand that their growth is not up to us. We do not get to decide when or how the people in our life grow, nor do we get to determine what is right for them once they have. The best thing we can do as friends, as partners, and as people is to value empathy and acceptance more than we value the status quo.

It has been a pleasure and an honor to grow with all of you and to have felt your support and offer mine in return. I may have taught you more about hermit crabs today than you wanted to know, but you have taught me without a shadow of a doubt that the Class of 2020 is intelligent, empathetic, brave, and resilient. Please continue to carry those strengths with you wherever you go from here, to whichever shell you choose next. Seek out the ones that will hold all that you are, and do not make yourselves small. We are called the mighty Utah students for a reason, and that is not something you leave behind when you close this chapter. Remember that.