University Medalist Josh Biddle speaks out

This speech is for Bill Sell who changed my life by teaching me that it’s more fruitful to lean into my emotions than to retreat into my fear.

Josh Biddle

Josh Biddle speaks at Commencement Convocation at UC Berkeley's Haas Pavilion on May 16. (Steve McConnell/NewsCenter photo)

Good afternoon. I’d like to begin by thanking Chancellor Birgeneau, the distinguished faculty, my fellow graduates, and their families I’d like to thank my friends at the Biology Scholars Program for helping me realize my dream of going to medical school. Thank you to the lab of Dr. Darlene Francis for teaching me how to do science. I’d like to give a special welcome to my friends and family. Mom, Dad….if it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here today…so thank you for getting it on all those years ago. My good friends and community college colleagues Matt and Martha. My best friend Jeremy. My grandfather Tom Erhard who served this country in World War II and my grandmother Peg who serves the best almond butter crunch you’ve ever tasted. I’d like to thank my great Aunt Velma who will turn 101 on August 8th. You know when Velma heard that I might be speaking today she said she would explode. So if an old lady blows up in the next few minutes, I apologize, but I think she washes out. You don’t stain do you Velma? And finally I’d like to thank my younger brother Justin who shows me everyday what it means to be diligent, honest, and full of integrity. Thank you.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent.” So I ask that you forgive me in advance if I hurl my words at you with too much desperation, but this is my last day on campus and I’m going to do my best to leave it all on this stage. I’ve spent a lot of my life hiding. I hope that this is not one of those times. But even if I fail, don’t worry, the truth is that this speech isn’t for you….it’s to remind me of the person I want to be.

I enrolled at City College of San Francisco in the spring of 2005 and transferred to UC Berkeley in the fall of 2008. During that time, I volunteered at San Francisco General, studied drug-resistant cancer at UCSF, and was a medical assistant at the Glide Health Clinic. At Berkeley, I’ve been a member of the Biology Scholars Program, investigated how experience becomes biologically embedded, and spent two semesters as part of the Teach in Prison program at San Quentin. I’m starting UCSF medical school in the fall and now I’ve won the University Medal.

But I assure you it hasn’t always been this good. It certainly wasn’t like this at San Rafael High where I spent three years using all my energy to keep the world at arms length. It wasn’t like this when I went to the University of Wisconsin thinking I could run away from my confusion, and then dropping out after only one semester. It wasn’t like this when I came home and enrolled at the College of Marin only to find my old habits waiting for me. And it certainly wasn’t like this when 9 years ago I enrolled in a therapeutic boarding program in Boulder, Colorado.

I spent a total of two years at AIM House. I learned that few things are ever solved, but that a commitment to working through my struggles allowed me to address entrenched, cyclical challenges like addiction and depression. As a mentor, I tried to help other young men bring meaning to their own hardships. I learned that recovery isn’t easy, that failures are inevitable, but that understanding and healing come from being patient and gentle. In the end, I learned that compassion is perhaps the highest human virtue.

But look, if I really knew what I was doing I wouldn’t be a 28 year-old undergrad. I wouldn’t go to therapy every week to find out why I can’t make a relationship last more than 8 months and I wouldn’t break nearly as many promises as I do. I’m wrong more often than I’m right and I’ve got about a billion more questions than answers. I spend most of my time making my life harder than it needs to be and I forget to do a lot of important things. About the only thing I do know is that I don’t know much. I’ll tell you some of the things I think about before I go to sleep but most of the time I just make it up as I go along.

I know that the real University Medalists are the students who have to sleep on couches because they can’t afford rent, or the ones taking a full course load while they raise their children and work a half or even full time job. I know that before I save the world I should probably learn the name of the man who drives my bus. I know that it’s easy to love poor people in Africa, but I also know that there are poor people in my backyard who need help and that the hardest person to love is myself. I know that I’m not supposed to be afraid of my pain, that it’s the clearest window I have into the experience of others, but most of the time I run away from that too. I know that the moments when I’m most sure of myself are the ones of which I should be most leery. I try to treat the self-doubt that greets me every morning as motivation to do better. I honor the homeless men and woman trapped in the dungeons of their addictions who explore the truly dark places of this world so I don’t have to. I remind myself to think of this diploma not as a symbol of my accomplishment but as a reminder to return to the communities who don’t have Berkeley graduates to fight on their behalf. I know that the things I used to be most ashamed of are the ones that have brought me the most insight, and I’m starting to understand that forgiveness means giving up all hope that the past could have been any better than it was. But the most important thing I know is this, just tell your story. Share yourself with those around you, the good parts and bad. I know it isn’t easy, but it helps. I promise. And anyway, you’re too beautiful to keep it to yourself.

I appreciate this award. I really do. I’m honored to be the first community college transfer to be awarded the University Medal and I take that responsibility seriously. I want to accept this award on behalf of the late bloomers and the second-chancers. I want to champion the nontraditional path and represent the wisdom of following one’s own internal directives no matter how foolish they initially appear. And if my winning helps inspire other young people who struggle to bring meaning to their lives not to be embarrassed by their confusion then I’m happy. But for me, the true reward is being able to share space with my parents without precipitating a fight, to know that when I smile it’s genuine, and to be comfortable with where I’ve been, confident in who I am, and excited about the doctor I’m going to be. I get more love and support than one person deserves and it feels good to finally be able to accept it.

I’m going to end with the only piece of advice I’d like to give my fellow graduates. It’s something I wrote for my friends at Glide after a man told me to stop being an observer and start being a participant. Magnolia, Angela, Charles, and Greg, this poem is for you.

Speak out
Because words are the foundation of family

Speak out
Because you never speak only for yourself

Speak out
For the watchers, the doers, the dreamers, the hurt, the addicted, the ignorant, the fighters, the angry, the meek, and the chained

Speak out
For us

Speak out
Because there is more value in one true statement spoken from the heart than there is in all the wealth Wall Street can lose

Speak out
Because every word you speak plants a seed of bravery in the belly of a person trying to decide if their time has come to stand up

Speak out
Because abuse is never earned

Speak out
Because justice for all is more important than the peace of a few

Speak out
Because we learn as children that you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole, and then think as adults that we can somehow put a round soul in a square cage

Speak out
Because poverty is a systemic failure, not an individual fault

Speak Out
Because the education of our children is more important that the taxes on our property

Speak out
Because you don’t have to suffer alone

Speak out
Because heterosexuals do not have a monopoly on love

Speak out
Because there are more important things in this world than your fear

Speak out
For love over loneliness, the strength to know when it’s time to leave one for the other and the wisdom to recognize when we found the one we need

Speak out
Because we sing as individuals but we make music as community

Speak out
Like the fate of the world depends on what you say because it does

Speak out
So that the wisdom of your struggle is not lost to the graveyard of silence

Speak out
So that the youth can use your story like a blueprint to stay out of trouble

Speak out
And share the symphony of yourself with a room full of tone-deaf friends who don’t care much what you sound like and who value the effort over the achievement

Speak out
To tell those you love that you do and to tell those you don’t that you’re working on it

Speak out
Because your voice is the sound of God’s breadth pressed through the bellows of your being

Speak out for any of those reasons
But really
Speak out for me
Because I’m selfish
And I just want to hear what you have to say.