Graduation is a season of celebration and confusion. 

As students finish their education milestone, they wait for something more terrifying than taking an exam. There are no more steps to take or hoops to jump through, no more curriculum to fulfill. Every upcoming challenge doesn’t come with a workbook to cram with.

Yet it is at this season that we hear the greatest words of encouragement from fellow students, alums, family, and teachers. As they have gone through their own trials and tribulations, they are able to offer guidance and inspiration to the graduates so that they may face the future with full confidence.
Tsukumo Niwa, the student speaker for the 2017 University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance Commencement, challenges everyone to pause and think about where it is we call “Home” in this life full of challenges and difficulties.
This speech is an expansion of her senior thesis show “Home and Away” which you can read more in-depth here.

I have attended many commencement ceremonies at the University of Michigan — 10 of them to be exact — because I played oboe in the Commencement Band for 4 years. But this is the first time that I’m on stage, featured as a soon-to-be University of Michigan graduate, with the honor of speaking to such a remarkable and accomplished group of fellow Wolverines.

So, since I’ve been given this incredible opportunity,

I want to ask you all a question:

What does “HOME” mean to you?

Now, this question may sound really random, but I’m curious about your answers because I’ve spent the past four years asking this question myself.

  • Where do I call “home?”
  • Is it a location, an emotion, a concept, people, or a combination of these?
  • Can I have multiple homes? What does it mean when Michigan brands “hoMe” with the Block M?


Here’s what I’ve concluded:

To me, a home is where I can be fully accepted for who I am – not just some of my identities or experiences.

A home provides me with a sense of familiarity, belonging, and comfort. It’s hard for me to pinpoint one location that does this for me, but I now know that I can call Michigan one of my homes.

And you, the School of Music, Theater, and Dance community, have been an integral part of it. The “home” that I have built here includes all of you: students, faculty, staff, alumni, family members, townspeople, and everyone else that I had the opportunity to interact with.

Now, what YOU call home might be very different, since our experiences are diverse. But I hope we can agree with this:

We all deserve a space where we can belong, feel fully accepted, and feel safe to take risks and even to fail. And we should do our best to help build that space for one another.

I believe it’s possible to create that space by using our art. We have the privilege of owning artistic skills to tell our stories and connect with others at a deep level. Some of the best performances I’ve seen on this campus involved artists being vulnerable and sharing their perspectives through their artistic language. Our identities and experiences make us irreplaceable. Being willing to share those identities and experiences results in remarkable art.

I had the good fortune of being a 21st Century Artist Intern, a collaborative program run by the School of Music, Theater, and Dance, and the University Musical Society. This allowed me to work with theater artist Taylor Macone of the most creative and unconventional performers on the planet.

Through this experience, I learned that performances do NOT have to be perfect. Taylor brings these performances, or “workshops” as Taylor likes to call them, closer to perfection by testing them with audience members.


It takes courage to present something that you know isn’t perfect.

However, I now feel compelled to show my imperfections, with the knowledge that I will get better with constructive feedback. As Taylor would say,

“Perfection is for assholes.”

It’s okay to be imperfect – in fact, it’s expected of us. And, we need to learn from our imperfections and let them help us to be better next time. And the place where you feel safe to do that, I believe, is home.

Another experience I had here at Michigan that showed me the importance of embracing imperfection was my involvement in the new campus-wide Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan.

The plan asks units on campus to build a more accepting and welcoming community for everyone, because we know that this campus always has room for improvement. The people I met through this work taught me that we need to always think critically, learn from our mistakes, and apply these actions beyond our campus

And that goes for everything we’ve learned here.

We need to take it and apply it to the larger world.

In order to do that, we first need to be relevant to each other. That means, we need to be active beyond our practice rooms and studios, and engage with the community.

We need to pay attention to current events, and learn how they impact not only ourselves, but also others.

We need to be sensitive to each other’s needs – whether it be an accessible and inclusive bathroom, support for mental well-being, a safe and brave space for meaningful dialogues, a reflection room to pray, or simply showing compassion and empathy in a conscious way. That is how a community is built.

In a way, isn’t our life like a collage, too, where we piece together what may seem unrelated at first to make our own stories?

As a dual-degree student, I pursued every opportunity that fueled my curiosity and creativity, to an extent that Professor Haithcock thinks I’ve pursued more majors than his hand can count. I discovered that these experiences informed each other and made me a more well-rounded human being.


We are a reflection of our experiences.

We’re more than what’s on our diplomas. Our diplomas may tell others that we can play instruments, act, dance, sing, conduct, or analyze pieces of music, but they don’t explicitly mention our skills in multi-tasking, networking, perseverance, communication, or teamwork.

Now that we are graduates of the University of Michigan, we must hone and use skills beyond what’s on our diploma to impact society in a positive way. Even if we are uncertain about where our life takes us next, we will always have these skills and the support from each other to keep us going.

We are a great community of people who can and who will take advantage of the skills we’ve learned as artists, scholars, technicians, collaborators, and entrepreneurs. And I believe in our ability to build “homes” for each other to do just that, wherever our life takes us next.

Congratulations graduates, and GO BLUE!


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