Carrie LeVan, the Montgoris Assistant Professor of Government and winner of the 2021 Charles Bassett Teaching Award, framed the nation’s current moment in time by drawing on her personal story during the Last Lecture, delivered May 19 in Lorimer Chapel.
The 29-year-old tradition brings together seniors and the teaching award winner, chosen by vote of the senior class, marking the end of final exams.
On a gorgeous spring day in Waterville, LeVan acknowledged that it’s been “a tough year or so” with the global pandemic, the country’s racial reckoning, and one of the most contentious presidential elections in our lifetime.
“And into this world we send you,” she said.
“I’m sure you have so many questions as you try to make sense of this moment in our country’s history, in our own lives,” she continued. “Why is all of this happening? And why now? How could we fail so miserably to take care of our own?”
Answering indirectly, LeVan turned to her own personal story of growing up in a part of Bakersfield, Calif., called Oildale, where her family experienced hunger, homelessness, and joblessness. But she used a family friend’s address to attend a wealthy public school on the other side of city, a two-hour city bus ride away, often skipping school to save bus fare and arriving late to first period.
“The ‘funny thing’ was that no one ever questioned me. No one ever pulled me into the office, demanding that I explain my absences and tardies,” she said. “No one ever questioned whether I ‘belonged’ there.
“I would be a fool if I attributed my success solely to my own hard work and grit,” LeVan said. She felt she wasn’t any more determined, hardworking, or intelligent than other students in Oildale. Instead, she had access to a “network of largely white middle- and upper-middle-class friends and their families.
“My whiteness had granted me entry into their world.”
LeVan’s story highlights what she called the myth of meritocracy, a belief that hard work and determination are sufficient to move up into a higher social class. “But this myth blinds us to the obstacles and barriers that we as a nation have intentionally constructed to disadvantage some for the advantage of others.”
But hope is not lost, LeVan countered. She encouraged the audience to listen and learn from BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People of Color] journalists, scholars, activists, and classmates; engage in hard conversations about race; reevaluate personal and professional networks; and act—say something and challenge the status quo.
In closing, LeVan encouraged students to see the whole of who they will become, professionally and also personally as future parents, partners, volunteers, and PTA members. “The choices you make in those roles … are transformative. The people I met in neighborhoods, churches, and classrooms forever changed who I was and who I would become,” she said.
“Invest in those spaces, and your impact in this world will know no bounds.”