Commencement Speech 2014 - Speaker + Graphic Designer

Cayla A. O'Connell

Good Evening Friends, Family, Faculty and Fellow Graduates,

First, I would like to congratulate you all on the accomplishments you have achieved and the topics of study that you have officially mastered while at Parsons The New School for Design. I am deeply honored to be representing you all as this year’s selected student speaker and as a graduate of the Fashion Studies program.

For the past two years, we have had the unique opportunity to reflect upon an individual’s negotiation with their outside community through both practice and presentation of the self. As a dualistic paradigm, fashion has the power to both inform, and be formed by individuals. The critical examination of fashion, is, in essence, the study of the human experience. I’d like to take this opportunity, now, to reflect upon my own.

I came to Parsons at somewhat of a crossroads in my life. Having recently undergone tremendous personal tragedy, I found myself at odds with the world around me — both emotionally, and intellectually. For a characteristically optimistic person, I had trouble finding meaning in the everyday, and in the unexpected absence of my primary source of guidance: I felt pretty lost. Parsons offered me a direction. I bring this story up because I think that it is important, on the last day of our higher education, to reflect upon what brought us here in the first place.

On my first day in graduate school, a professor I had never met before, asked me to trade clothes with her. Going into the class, my peers and I were aware that we would be expected to do a “performative exercise in dress” as both a literary prompt and introduction to the course known as Fashion Practices. What began as a seemingly bizarre and arguably trivial icebreaker, culminated in a uniquely-unifying interaction amongst complete strangers. By the end of the exercise, each of us had exchanged garments, donned each other’s clothing, and quite literally, stood in another person’s shoes. On that day, we were all vulnerable, we were all changed, and we were all enlightened by alternative perspectives. Simply through the changing of dress, we exchanged experiences, ideas and ultimately found new ways of understanding. Those sartorial transactions set a tone amongst our classmates, and were indicative of the exchange of information in each classroom across the program.

This climate enacted a camaraderie, which in turn, inspired a coterie of collaborative initiatives amongst our peers, such as the formation of the Dress Practice Collective, the publication of the academic journal, BIAS, a host of academic symposia, guest lectures, clothing swaps, pop-up shops, art installations and of course, lively opinion-based discussion. As I stand here today at the end of this journey, I realize that Parsons not only provided me direction, but for the past two years, it provided me a home. And for that experience I am eternally grateful.

I am often questioned by those outside this space - what will you do with your degree? How will you apply it in the world? And while I have a back pocket formulaic answer for most of my inquisitors, which usually eases their mind and fits into their personal understanding of the fashion industry, the truth of the matter is: I don’t know — and that is what excites me most.

I say this, because as Masters of Fashion Studies and graduates of Parsons The New School for Design, we do not fit in to tradition: we break from it. As you may have guessed from my personal anecdote, this is not a normal scholastic experience: it is an exceptional one. We all came here looking for a way to explore something outside of our established circumstance, outside of the norm, and outside of most people’s understanding of the world. This school provided us with the platform to go down those rabbit holes - to challenge traditional academic fields and encourage new paths in education. While studying under some of the most innovative professors in academia today, we were afforded the space to experiment, to create, debate and make meaning of our unique interests. It is now our responsibility to further those pursuits beyond Parsons, so that we may pioneer new paths for those after us, and continue the dissemination of ideas, information, and knowledge.

My late Father, always told me, “find something that makes you happy, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” As I reflect upon the sentiment that brought me to Parsons and the unique field from which we are graduating, I offer it to you all, as an inspirational point of departure for the journey ahead. While I am not yet aware of the paths each of us will forge, I have confidence that they will be innovative, inspiring, and most likely, a bit off-course from those typically travelled. Fellow classmates - I wish you the best of luck in each of your endeavors and a hearty congratulations for your commitment to completing this leg of the trek - from where I am standing, the future looks bright, and certainly well-dressed.

Thank you!