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Anita Raj

Anita Raj, Tata Chancellor Professor of Medicine, who holds a joint appointment with Education Studies, and is director of UC San Diego's Center on Gender Equity and Health. Photos by Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Publications

Convocation Welcome Message: Know Your Value

Know your worth, build on your passions and use failure as an advantage. These were some of the messages delivered to approximately 9,000 new students last week at Convocation—the annual ceremony marking incoming students’ official entrance to the UC San Diego community.

The event, which kicked off more than 150 Welcome Week events, included an address from Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla.

“This fall is especially energetic as we welcome our largest-ever incoming class­—9,800 students,” Khosla said. “You should be proud of your achievement of getting into UC San Diego. Soon, you will join the more than 200,000 alumni who are changing the world for the better. I urge you to not just follow in their footsteps, but instead to blaze your own trail.”

Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla

Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla addressed UC San Diego’s record, incoming class.

Anita Raj, Tata Chancellor Professor of Medicine, who holds a joint appointment with Education Studies, and is director of UC San Diego's Center on Gender Equity and Health served as the Convocation keynote speaker.

Addressing the thousands of new freshmen and transfers in attendance, Raj imparted the lessons she learned from her college experience, encouraging students as they start an exciting new chapter in their lives as UC San Diego Tritons.

“Right now, there is a lot of debate regarding the value of higher education—is it for your gainful employment or for the improvement of society as a whole? This is a false dichotomy,” she said. “The skills you will gain here in critical thinking and problem-solving are what employers want…And guess what? That same knowledge and those same skills also help create better citizens to support and build great societies.”

Raj also eased some of the anxieties new students may have as they start school at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

“I recognize that this all can feel daunting as you start your education, but know that we, faculty and staff, are here with you,” she said. “This is your time to cultivate your knowledge, broaden your perspectives and seek your truth critically.”

Raj then went on the share the three greatest lessons she learned during her formative years.

Lesson #1: Know and value who you are, not just who you aspire to be.

“Know what you have to offer,” Raj said. “All that got you to this place makes you interesting and worth knowing; trust that. Know and value your strengths and build upon them.”

Raj spoke about how she had to learn this lesson the hard way. Entering college at the young age of 16, she made friends quickly because, as she quipped “it was finally cool to be smart.” However, she wanted to distinguish herself even more, so she decided to speak with a fake British accent to mask her Mississippi drawl. After getting called out for speaking with a suspicious-sounding cadence, she was mortified. Months later, her studies also got away from her and she eventually had to transfer to another college.

students at convocation 2018

Students from all six colleges attended the event.

Her attempt to recreate herself forced her to face a new and profound truth—she was more than just grades and she did not need to change her identity to “fit in” or be accepted.

“People and, yes, professors may not always agree with your beliefs and views. That is okay,” she said. “Different outlooks come from different experiences. We all gain from discussing our different perspectives and learning from each other.”

Lesson #2: Build on your passions, not just your goals.

After transferring to a smaller college closer to home at the age of 18, Raj made a bold choice to explore her interests, even though it didn’t quite align with her original goal of being a doctor.

“I always loved theatre and literature, but never felt like that was the space for me,” she shared. “I auditioned [for a play] and got a part! From there, I started taking more English courses.”

Her grades improved and she started receiving more positive feedback from her professors. During her senior year, she auditioned and got the lead in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” After receiving standing ovations following her performance, she realized she did not want to take the MCATs and go to medical school. Rather, she could create her own path, merging her love of the social sciences and medical research.

students at convocation 2018

Following the ceremony, students had dinner on the RIMAC field.

Today, Raj, who is trained as a developmental psychologist, is a leading expert in the evaluation of sexual, reproductive and maternal-child behavioral health for socially vulnerable populations, among other topics.

“I have spoken at the United Nations General Assembly on the issue of child marriage,” she said. “My research has been presented to Congress and used to develop legislation to protect victims of domestic violence. I led a national study on sexual harassment this year that was featured in The New York Times.”

She continued, “I would have been a good doctor. Happy, but perhaps not as bold. Moving outside of my comfort zone made me take more risks.”

Her work has also inspired her students, many of whom have gone on to conduct prestigious research in the same field, some of whom now work with the World Health Organization.

She urged students to blaze their paths: “If you are a science or social science major, consider what arts you might want to take. If you are majoring in the arts, why not consider an engineering course? Without risks, without stretching beyond your comfort zone, you can’t innovate.”

Lesson #3: Failure happens to everyone. Success is the ability to learn and move past it.

Raj’s own path to success was paved with missteps and, at times, failure; however, she believes she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been humbled and educated by these experiences.

“Failure is not going to hold you back,” she said. “Failure is the opportunity to succeed because if you can overcome failure by learning from it and rebuilding, you can advance.”

With that, Raj encouraged students to seek support from their peers, mentors and professors, and to not be afraid to seek guidance and ask for help.

students at convocation 2018

“If you ever get nervous about talking to a professor on campus, don’t be so intimidated,” she said. “I remind you that I spoke in a fake British accent to try to sound cool after the same people had already heard my real voice. How can you be intimidated by someone who would do that?”

She concluded her speech with an optimistic message, empowering students who all have the ability to be future innovators and problem-solvers.

“Look to your left, look to your right,” she instructed. “These are your peers and these are your future collaborators. Together you may be able to tackle climate change, cure Alzheimer’s or create the next ‘Hamilton.’ Learn here, build here and then pay it forward by using your gifts and your brilliance toward your career and a better society.”

Following the event, students enjoyed dinner on RIMAC field where they had the opportunity to connect and interact with faculty—a key component of UC San Diego’s welcome to all new students.