The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Deepika Singh '19 Discovered Her Shoal

Deepika Singh
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The 2019 Celebration of Excellence student speaker was Deepika Singh, political science and Middle Eastern studies. During her time at UMass, Deepika earned prestigious awards for her research, such as the Christopher C. Gardner scholarship award, the Middle Eastern Studies Senior Award, and a UMass Women in Leadership fellowship. She credited CHC and professor Paul Musgrave for rekindling her curiosity and inspiring her to pursue research. After graduation, she plans to spend two years in Cambodia with the Peace Corps teaching English, and then go onto law school to study international relations.

Deepika's speech is provided in full below:

"I first applied to the Commonwealth Honors College at the end of my freshman year. When I was asked the question, “Why do you want to join the Honors College?” I really had to think about it. Did I want a chance at engaging in smaller group dialogue? Did I want more of a challenge than the non-honors classes could provide me? Or, did I want access to the funds and the faculty resources that were available only to Honors students? While all these questions were certainly valid, what I ended up writing about was how I wanted to find my shoal.

A shoal is a group of fish that swims together simply for the benefits of being among similar organisms, despite not having any specific formation pattern or genetic connection. While some fish prefer shoal mates of their own species, this is by no means a requirement--in fact, some fish mingle with fish of another species simply because combined, their relationship is one of symbiosis. Although diverse, together the fish can accomplish more than they could alone, by evading predators, seeking mates, or scavenging food.

Four years later, I can’t say that there has been much evading, seeking, or scavenging food done during my time at UMass (shoutout to #1 dining). However, what I did find was my shoal, a group of like-minded individuals who shared my passion for scholarship and discovery. Although we all come from different backgrounds, possess different strengths, and pursue different fields, by being surrounded by the students here, I have learned what excellence is. I met students who wanted to take what they learned at UMass and implement it back home in Togo, Nigeria, France. Even though I majored in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies, I befriended students who are entering top dental and medical schools, students who are creating biotechnology to aid in medicine, students who are planning on running for office one day. By getting the chance to learn with them, I have found that despite our differences, we are stronger together than apart, much like the fish that swim in the shoal.

I’m grateful to say that I’ve learned many things during my time in the Commonwealth Honors College. For example, I’ve learned just how nice air conditioning can be in the spring semester, and I’ve also figured out that, if you wait too long to start writing your thesis, you will really regret it. But the most important thing that I’ll take away from my four years here is the value of curiosity.

Before I joined the Commonwealth Honors College, I was doing the bare minimum to coast through freshman year. I would calculate what percentages I needed to secure an A in the class, I would ask around for the easiest courses, not even caring what subject they were about. All I sought was a high GPA and my diploma. However, four years later, during my final semester, I had to stop myself from over enrolling in classes that I didn’t actually need to graduate, but simply wanted to take for the sake of learning. For that, I have all my fellow CHC students and remarkable faculty to thank. What I have learned from you, my shoal, is just how important curiosity is in becoming citizens of this world.

It is so easy to treat college as a credentialing exercise. It is so easy to fulfill only the requirements, to memorize just for the exam, and to learn only what is relevant to your career, never daring to explore other unknown fields. And yet, every day that I was in class, I saw so many who did not default to the easy way out, but rather created their own paths, and chased their own curiosities. I’ve learned that students could go above and beyond the bare minimum. You would read books for fun, take on extra research projects you were interested in, work lab hours to discover new concepts, start clubs for your own hobbies, volunteer in communities you saw needed help, engage in student activism, and countless other scholarly acts done not for the sake of money, or credit, or accolades, but just as a result of being genuinely inquisitive and inspired students.

Similarly, it is so easy to do the bare minimum to coast through life after graduation. You might want to treat your career and your leisure time as hours to make money and relax, perhaps vacation on that island you see constantly on Instagram. It is hard work to be continuously curious, and eager for discovery, but it is crucial, for it is only through curiosity that we can get a chance to solve the issues that plague our world today. Issues that we have studied so thoroughly in classes like Ideas that Change the World, in our honors seminars, and in our research theses.

I know there are times when I will want to say, forget it. This is too hard. It’s too hard to care about issues I could easily be complacent about because I think that they don’t affect me. Over the summer, I worked in a small, international aid and development organization that spoke with people on the ground in countries in conflict, such as Syria and Yemen. Everyday when I walked into work, I knew that I would learn of news that would be painful to hear. Sometimes, it’s hard to hear about others suffering, while I’m over here, living a safer life. Sometimes, it’s too hard to choose to empathize rather than be indifferent towards these people miles away that I will never meet. It can be too hard not to turn a blind eye to those in war zones, to constantly condemn hateful speech and actions, to be vigilant against tyranny every single day. It’s too hard to care about a world with overwhelming injustices, some that seem too large to tackle or even begin to alleviate.

When I am feeling this way, rather than give up and begin to coast, I will always, always look back at my shoal. Even though we may be spread apart all over the globe after graduation, I will take with me the lessons that the Commonwealth Honors College Class of 2019 and the faculty supporting us, have taught me about remaining driven for scholarship and discovery despite the resilience and persistence that it takes. It is you who have taught me that it’s not enough to just coast along in this world, that we constantly have to question it, asking why are things are the way they are, and how we can change them. It is you who have taught me to stand up for those whose grievances don’t seem to affect me, for it is only through this that any equity can be achieved. It is you who have taught me to pursue areas of interest that may not benefit me directly, and finally, it is you who have taught me what it means to be curious.

As many of you know, the Mars Rover named Opportunity died not too long ago...Rest in Peace. However, it is lesser known that its sister rover, Curiosity, lives on. It was named by a sixth grader many years ago who wrote a winning essay in which she stated, “curiosity is such a powerful force. Without it, we wouldn’t be who we are today. It allows us to wonder and dream and create and hope.”

The curiosity that she talks about got us to this graduation day, will decide who we are tomorrow, and will hopefully take us all far and wide.

So today, I just wanted to thank all of you. Thanks for teaching me what excellence means, and thanks for teaching me how exciting discovery can be. Thanks for teaching me to be inquisitive and ever questioning, and most of all, thank you so very much, for being my shoal.

 Congratulations to the Commonwealth Honors College Class of 2019, and please keep in touch, thank you."