BPL 2020 Commencement Address - Fiona Nelson

 The first time I sat down with my advisors in Big Picture, I was told I could do anything. I excitedly asked if I could build a tiny house, to which my mother uttered a nervous “no” eyes conveying, “you’re not serious are you?” But then my advisor jumped in with an equally excited “Yes!” I had heard that Big Picture’s approach to learning was non-conventional and personalized and thought it would be the perfect fit for me, and this advisor’s enthusiasm for my idea confirmed it.

Our class is graduating in a way no other class has before. However, I’m tired of reading emails that start with “in these uncertain times” or something of the sort. Truth is, we’ve always been living in uncertain times. We’re living on a planet that we aren’t sure will still exist in 50 years, between the threat of climate change and nuclear war. We’ve seen peoples careers start and end within days on the internet. There are 5 times as many billionaires hoarding wealth than when we were born, but many people have also been lifted out of poverty. We’ve seen huge wins for the rights of minorities, and huge losses. I won’t pretend these facts are not scary, because they are. It’s easy to feel helpless and feel like the people in charge won’t listen, and continue to make policies based on money instead of people. 

At Big Picture, we’re empowered to dive deep into the issues we care about and carve out the way we want to contribute to our world. I know that building a tiny house isn’t going to solve everyone’s problems, I’m just one person, and it’s just one house. But amidst the chaos, I can create my own world. Over the past 3 years I’ve learned a lot about myself, my values, my strengths, and my weaknesses. This has allowed me indepence and the ability to create my own happiness. So I can try not to talk about the pandemic, or I can lean into it. But what it really comes down to is the communities we create. 

Big Picture is all about community. On our weekly advisory meetings, I look forward to seeing my friends, catching up with everyone, and sharing our academic accomplishments over the past week. These are wide ranging and highly personal to each of my advisory mates, and inspire me to expand my own learning. Last week we attended senior portfolio defenses and I got to witness the growth of myself and my classmates whom I’ve come to deeply know and love over the past few years. 

While it’s called a defense, it is really a celebration. I got to invite all the folks who supported me over my academic career. When I looked across the Zoom screen I saw my old elementary school teacher, two advisors who I did a documentary project with, a previous Big Picture Americorps VISTA intern, my dad, mom, and aunt, friends from inside and outside Big Picture, a math teacher from the conventional high school, and a middle school teacher whose class I was never in, but whom I directed the middle school plays with, as well as my best friend who is now in college, and, of course, my Big Picture advisors. I was in awe, proud, and grateful that I got to end my senior year in this way. It was then that I realized that had we not been in the pandemic, corralling this diverse group of people important to me would have been next to impossible due to constraints like geography, work schedules, and other responsibilities. 

My tiny house played a prominent role in my defense. As I spoke about this through line that bookended my high school journey, I realized how grateful I am to have been part of a program that supported me in pursuing my passion. Co-creating learning builds resilience, which is sorely needed especially during a pandemic. My community of supporters and champions grew exponentially when I received a Harbor Freight Fellowship to study construction. I now have weekly calls and connections with that team. My tiny house community is already growing, even though I haven’t yet hammered one nail. 

Young people’s greatest gift is that we care about the world and have passion and energy to make change. I now know what I am capable of because I had the opportunity to study and work on problems directly integrated into my school experiences -- to be part of environments that allowed me to build agency and skills to make a difference -- especially in a pandemic. Things will never go back to the way they were. Let’s take the momentum and unexpected gifts of COVID-19, and all that we’ve come to know about ourselves and the way things were and move forward, one person, one tiny house at a time.