2019 IGR Outstanding Alumnx Award recipient: Arikia Millikan

Headshot of Arikia Millikan

May 1, 2019

Arikia Millikan is the recipient of the 2019 Outstanding Alumnx Award (OAA). She was presented with the award at IGR's 16th Annual Award Ceremony and Graduation Celebration. Arikia is also featured in IGR's podcast DialogueUP!

Arikia Millikan is an American-born writer of Haitian, Polish-Ukrainian, Scotts-Irish, Jewish, and Native American descent. She is currently based in Berlin where she works as a writer, independent publisher, and professional parrot trainer. Prior to that, she resided in Brooklyn, NY where she founded LadyBits (a publication for tech-savvy women), co-founded Scientopia (a science blogging collective), and was an editor at Wired.com. She as traveled to 38 countries and would like to visit the rest as well. Her journalistic writing focuses on the art of narrative profiling and how technology is impacting the future of humanity. Her creative writing blends memoir and science fiction to take the reader on journeys into worlds they never before imagined. Arikia's debut book, Hell in Paradise is now available to pre-order and will be released Spring 2019.

Below is the full text of Arikia's speech to the class of 2019 (audio clip):

Hello, and congratulations to the graduating class of 2019. I’m thrilled to be back here at the University of Michigan today. This is the place where being a writer became inextricably folded into my identity, and became the foundation of a fruitful career, and one that has produced many different kinds of fruits over the past 11 years.

It is a great honor to accept this award from the Intergroup Relations department, and a privilege to have been able to travel halfway around the world—all the way from Kyoto, Japan—to be here and speak to you on this special occasion. Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in each of your lives, where your hard work will start to pay off in ways you can’t yet imagine.

The skills you learned here over the past four years will better equip you to navigate the world, and I say this as someone who has used these skills to navigate 40 countries and counting. Once of the most valuable things I learned here was how our differences shape our identities, and how privilege impacts our interactions with one another in every facet of our interconnected lives. If not through your life experiences so far then through the education you have just received, you have been taught to recognize privilege in the world: both the privilege that gives others an advantage over you in the game of life, and the privilege that gives you an advantage over others. All those things that make us different, like race, gender, sexuality, where our parents came from and how educated they were—these determine the difficulty level on which we start off playing the game of life. But none of these things determine the outcome of the game. That part is up to you. We may not have control over our circumstances, but we can choose how we interact with the world in spite of the ones that put us at a disadvantage.

Perhaps one of the most overlooked forms of privilege to consider when moving throughout the world is the privilege of being aware of privilege. One of the most common mistakes I’ve made in the past is confusing ignorance with malice when it comes to interpreting the motivation of someone’s harmful actions. In the world outside the peaceful bubble of Ann Arbor, people may not act with consideration for your diversity values or respectful style of communicating. Sometimes they won’t act with consideration for anything other than their own self-interest and bottom line. Think of every challenge like this as an opportunity to educate someone about the importance of recognizing that we do not all start the game of life on the same level of difficulty.

When we play life on Difficult vs Easy, it usually means we play with less protection and have to battle scarier monsters. It requires those of us who may not look like the idealized image of success to work twice as hard—or ten times, a hundred times as hard—to get to the same place as our peers who do look like that. It means watching a door be held open for someone who didn’t put in the work you did to get there, and then having that same door slammed in your face. When this happens, you must persevere to overcome the unfair advantages that others may have over you. You must gather the strength to push that door open for yourself because you know you should be there. When you persevere, you gain privilege, and you make it a little bit easier for others like you to walk in the door behind you, because, as someone who knows the responsibility that comes with privilege, you can hold the door open for someone else instead of slamming it in their face.

Today, all of you will add a new form of privilege to your identities: the privilege to be a University of Michigan graduate. 

When I graduated, I didn’t fully understand the weight of my achievement. I held my diploma in my hands and doubted that everything I had gone through over the past four years to obtain it was really worth it. In fact, for the next 10 years, I thought, rather cynically: “It’s just a little piece of paper.” But then one day, I was in the visa office in Berlin, Germany, asking permission to live and work freely there as an alien of extraordinary ability, and the visa clerk said: “Everything looks in order about your application, the only thing missing is your diploma.” I was shocked, because over the previous 10 years nobody had ever asked to see my physical diploma before, and now it was the only thing standing in the way of my freedom to live my life in the place I wanted. Luckily the records office was able to fax over a certification of my graduation, and I have been living happily ever after in Berlin ever since. It’s because the University of Michigan is recognized as an accredited university by the highest international standards, and no matter what happens in life, that little piece of paper says: I graduated from here. No matter what else happens in life, nobody can ever take that away from me. And now, they can never take it away from you.

But aside from the bureaucracy of that little piece of paper, the value of your time spent here at the University of Michigan can perhaps best be found in the connectivity to your global network of peers, which I have tapped into in the most unexpected of places.

When I first moved to New York City, I reached out to an alum who was working at the New York Times and she invited me for lunch there, which gave me the confidence to advance my own career in journalism. I have seen University of Michigan t-shirts at night markets in Thailand and thrift shops in France. I wear my own when I travel sometimes, and have heard “Go Blue” in passing at airports on the other side of the world. Once I made a friend at a hostel in Amsterdam, only to quickly learn we’d both benefitted from the wisdom of the same academic advisor in college. To this day, one of my best friends is a woman I met randomly on the street in Osaka, Japan. When I heard her speaking English and stopped to ask her for help activating my SIM card, we discovered within minutes that we were both from, where else, but Ann Arbor, Michigan.

From this day forward, you are part of a global network, connected by the common bond of striving, succeeding, and hopefully not struggling too much here. So now that you have the privilege of being a University of Michigan graduate, it’s time to ask yourself, what are you going to do with it?

I used my privilege to choose the road less traveled. When I hit the glass ceiling in New York City and couldn’t climb any higher, I left the life I knew behind to travel around the world. Just about every job I’ve ever had since graduating was one that didn’t exist before I defined it. When I couldn’t convince a company to employ me in the role I wanted to create, I started my own company. When I grew tired of trying to convince publishers to let me write the book I wanted to write because it didn’t fit neatly into a predefined genre, I found a way to publish it independently. It’s coming out this summer. And all throughout all these experiences, when I saw injustice happening, I recognized that I had the privilege to speak out against it, and I did. Every time I did. I chose the road less traveled, and today I ask that you consider choosing it too.

It will be hard. There will be moments when you feel like you have been through a crucible, as I did, and you will wonder why you didn’t just take the easy route. But I promise you, that when you follow your own path rather than a pre-prescribed route of safety, you will eventually emerge on the other side victorious. Imagine the vision of your wonderful future life that awaits you there, and cling to it during your darkest moments of uncertainty and despair. Hold onto it, and I promise you: however good you think life can be by staying true to who you are, the reality is 100 times better.

So go forth, graduates, and use every tool in your toolboxes to create a future that is as unique as you are, and make things a little bit better for the next generation along the way, and little bit easier for the ones who have to play life on Difficult.

Watch the commemorative video of the 2019 Graduation Celebration.