Senior orators

She had a dream

Senior orator Tatiana Gellein came to Brown from inner-city Seattle and is continuing on for her medical degree.

Credit: Brown University/Michael Cohea

Practice makes perfect

While other universities scramble to import high-profile, top-dollar graduation speakers, Brown remains true to its centuries-old tradition of choosing two seniors to address its Commencement audience. This year’s speakers overcame significant obstacles on their way to the podium. See videos and read the texts of Tatiana Gellein’s Jonah Lives in Theory and Tan Nguyen’s Walking on the Tightrope.

By Janet Kerlin  |  May 19, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Tan Nguyen is the son of parents who make tofu in an open-air market in Vietnam. Tatiana Gellein is the daughter of a woman who worked three jobs to sustain her family. Both graduating seniors will stand before thousands at Commencement to share their messages of courage, growth, and celebration, with a dash of humor.

Nguyen and Gellein are the 2010 senior Commencement orators, chosen from among 80 students nominated by faculty and seniors in December. A committee of five students, four faculty members, and two deans reviewed nominations through March, convened presentations by about 10 semi-finalists in April, and selected the finalists. The winners will deliver their speeches from the graduation stage on May 30.

After their selection, both students spent hours rehearsing with the help of Barbara Tannenbaum, who teaches public speaking in the Department of Theatre, Speech, and Dance; and Karen Krahulik, associate dean of the College for upperclass studies, who chairs the Commencement Speakers Committee.

The classmates’ seven-minute speeches are a snapshot of their determination and a tribute to the families and friends who helped them reach this milestone.

Tan Nguyen’s mathematical talent brought him from Vietnam to Brown, with a stop for high school in Singapore.: Tan Nguyen’s mathematical talent brought him from Vietnam to Brown, with a stop for high school in Singapore. In Vietnam, Nguyen’s parents labor from dawn to dusk, transforming dried soybeans into the soft blocks of tofu that his mother fries and sells, rain or shine, nearly every day of the year. His parents value education for their children. Nguyen’s father rewarded his correct math answers with packets of cookies. He grew into a talented academic whiz and earned prizes in mathematics that culminated in his selection for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations Scholarship to pursue a high school education in Singapore.

After Singapore, another scholarship brought him to Brown, where this month he will receive both a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics-economics and a master’s degree in economics. This summer Nguyen will teach low-income, high-potential middle school students in the Summerbridge program, hosted at the Wheeler School in Providence. Then he will work in the Boston office of Bain & Company, a leading global business-consulting firm. With his earnings, he hopes to pay for a college education for his youngest sister, who is 17. Someday, he would like to teach fulltime. In his Commencement speech, Nguyen touches on themes of overcoming fear on the way to growth and success.

Gellein, too, talks of anxiety in facing a challenge. She acknowledges the strong women in her family, from her Japanese immigrant grandmother to her hard-working mother who encouraged Gellein to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

Gellein recalls that her mother recommended that she ask her doctor what it’s like to be a physician. But she was also surrounded by obstacles in inner-city Seattle. Her family struggled with poverty. Her friends knew at least one person close to them who was arrested for selling drugs or who dropped out of school because she was pregnant. Gellein wondered whether her dream was too big to achieve.

Her turning point came when she was accepted into Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education, the eight-year academic continuum that flows directly from a bachelor’s degree into Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School. In keeping with the program’s spirit of teaching the whole person, Gellein took classes in contemporary architecture and West African dance.

This summer, she will return home to an internship at a community pediatric clinic, constructing an asthma patient registry of 300 low-income children and collaborating with healthcare providers to subsidize hypoallergenic mattress covers for them.

In August, Gellein will begin medical school, pursuing a career in either pediatrics or family medicine with a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology. She intends to take a medical elective abroad and explore health for underrepresented women and children of color. She also intends to complete a master’s degree in public health so that she can better advocate for marginalized populations. Ultimately, she would like to open a free clinic for inner-city families, possibly in Seattle.

Soon after finishing her last exam this spring, Gellein read her speech to Tannenbaum and Krahulik, noting their suggestions about word choices that would make it flow better, make it relevant to the audience, and eliminate gender-exclusive language – by using “first-year student,” for example, instead of “freshman.”

“Class might be over, but I’m still being graded,” Gellein said with a smile.