Jeanne Gang's message to Class of '24: 'Start daydreaming'

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May 12—CHAMPAIGN — As 2024 University of Illinois commencement speaker Jeanne Gang sees it, imagination isn't just for kids.

It's for college graduates, too.

"It's about taking the time to visualize something you want to see in the world, whether it's social change, sustainable futures, or other new ways of living," Gang said. "And through this visualization, you've taken the first steps to actually make it happen."

Gang, an internationally recognized architect known for works like the Aqua skyscraper in Chicago, is herself a UI alumna.

She was awarded an additional honorary degree prior to her speech Saturday, celebrating alongside 13,000 Bachelor's, Master's and doctoral degree recipients.

While he acknowledged that "everyone is tired of talking about COVID-19," Chancellor Robert Jones opened the ceremony by highlighting the fact that many students receiving Bachelor's degrees in 2024 were not able to attend normal graduation celebrations to close out their high school experiences.

"I suspect that four years ago, many of you felt like we would never get to have events like this again," Jones said. "I know it wasn't easy, but you have gotten here. And you all helped us to be a community who demonstrated to the world that, when it matters the most, whether you're six feet apart or separated by an ocean, you are never alone."

Jones didn't want too much focus on those serious notes, though; he told the audience that anyone who thinks of commencements as somber, subdued events "have never experienced commencement at Illinois."

UI President Tim Killeen encouraged graduates to be difference-makers and Board of Trustees president Don Edwards encouraged them to go out and "bleed orange" and stay connected to the university as alumni.

Looking back on her own time as a student, Gang recalled keeping the lights on all night while hard at work in the School of Architecture, which earned cheers from graduating architecture students.

Other favorite study spots included the Illini Union and the Law Library.

"And then if you're not really studying hard, there was the Undergrad Library, where you would go to see your friends. It was less like going to a library and more akin to say, going to Kams, except without the bar," Gang said. "No wonder they're closing down the library."

Hard work typified Gang's college experience and she said most companies will also endorse the idea that hard work is the key to success.

But she wanted to offer a suggestion to graduates to find careers that they love so much they can turn the "feeling of working hard into the feeling of hardly working."

"After you leave Illinois, you will need to find out or further define what you really love to do," Gang said. "Once you're doing what you love and it doesn't seem like work at all, it's time to start daydreaming."

That's where imagination comes in.

Gang referenced the likes of Albert Einstein, bell hooks and Margaret Atwood as they each promoted the idea of imagining a better future.

She also said she reached out to some 2024 graduates over the last few weeks in preparation for her speech, hoping to see what was on their minds.

Students had fears about not being able to find jobs, whether due to new technology, the economy or discrimination.

"It may seem like imagination is no match for the system and the problems that we seem trapped in, like there's no point in envisioning a different, better future. But I want to guarantee you that in life, you will need your imagination," Gang said. "My one assignment for you for today, after all the celebration, is that you take a few moments to imagine that safe, peaceful and joyful future you want to see. In doing that, we will all be that much closer to having this future come true."