‘Where Does Community Truly Live?’

Television producer Samie Kim Falvey ’96 urges the Class of 2020 to build community through “extraordinary actions in response to extraordinary times.”

By Samie Kim Falvey ’96 H’22
Date
Samie Kim Falvey speaks on stage in front of Class of 2020 banner.

The following is the prepared text of the Commencement address delivered by Samie Kim Falvey ’96 at Kenyon’s 192nd Commencement on May 22, 2022. 

Thank you, Sergei, for that warm introduction. 

Thank you to President Decatur for inviting me here today. 

Also, thank you to Allison Janney, Beto O’Rourke and Hank Green for having prior commitments, so that a TV-producing alum who graduated with no academic distinctions could have this moment.

Thanks to a wonderful Kenyon staff and faculty who have defiantly said “no!” to Zoom and who faithfully believed this day would come! 

And I especially want to thank all of you — 308 of you who made the trip back, many with your elated parents, families and loved ones. And I want to welcome class president Jodi Ann Wang and everyone else live streaming this morning. I’m incredibly honored to be a part of this historic weekend.

I imagine it is the first time many of you have been back to Gambier in over two years. This is also my first time back on campus since a board meeting pre-pandemic. My middle son, Theo, is with me, visiting Kenyon for the first time.

And I think I can confidently say this is the first time Kenyon has held two commencement ceremonies in one weekend.

So much of ceremony is about processing transition and the pain and celebration that comes with it — not alone, but together. 

So much of gathering before going our separate ways is about capturing what is best about an experience and figuring out how much of its essence you can carry with you.

I like how Associate Professor of Sociology Shaun Golding described it in the Kenyon Alumni Magazine: “When a class graduates … there are rituals and rites of passage that are engineered to make something that is emotionally fortifying rather than emotionally devastating.”

My class was beyond fortunate to have Kenyon faculty and staff who engineered that for us, who made our graduation possible.

And because of that, I remember vividly how difficult it was to leave Kenyon behind. 

It was crushing for me to take that last walk down Middle Path — and to see the Hill in my rear view mirror as I set out for Los Angeles right after graduation.  

I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was in LA and aching for that Kenyon shorthand — for the familiarity that came with going to school in a town with only one road … where no one really gets lost. Unless they were overserved and made a wrong turn out of the VI. (That never happened to me.)

And I was right. 

When I left in ’96, my only actual connection to television was that I had watched a lot of it. I didn’t know anyone in LA, or frankly west of Chicago. I had no solid game plan for breaking into the industry. 

I was alone — and not just geographically. 

In fact, it became one of the most lonely, isolating, and trying times of my life. LA was confusing — disorienting even. I never seemed to hold the right social currency and the stakes of even the most ordinary days felt very high. 

I desperately missed the six degrees of Kenyon, the campus where everyone was a friend — or a friend of your roommate’s.

I missed when our imperfections and mistakes weren’t the kiss of death, but instead the eccentricities we appreciated and remembered about each other. 

And I missed that because we knew each other inside and outside of class, we had a full picture and a deeper willingness to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

I missed acceptance. That’s really what it was.

Because it was the acceptance that made me whole. So when I graduated, I had no unfinished business, nothing left unsaid to my friends or teachers, nothing I regretted — only the feeling of being complete within a community I’d help build. 

I've thought so much about how incomplete you must have felt — how different the end of your time here was — and how right out of the gate, your first pitch was a curveball. You didn’t get your last Summer Sendoff or Senior Week. You didn’t have the time or space to process any of the things I did. 

In fact, at spring break, you were cut off from everything meaningful. You got a terrifying email saying your rooms would be packed up — and then what felt like an eternity passed before you received a follow-up email assuring you that nothing found in there would be held against you. 

And with that, you were unceremoniously catapulted into the world, facing an immediate, pressing, and existential question: 

When every challenge we face feels increasingly divisive,
when compounding crises threaten to drive us further apart both physically and ideologically,
where does all of this go? 
Where does community truly live? 

Think back to early 2020. 

Remember the period when across the globe we rang bells and clapped for healthcare professionals, left thank-you notes for essential workers, my family and I were bringing toilet paper to our elderly neighbors, and when it felt like, despite our differences, humanity was somehow “all in this together.”

Honestly, it reminded me of how I felt at Kenyon, and of how over the years, my Kenyon friends have never ceased to be the closest and most enduring community I have. We’ve been roommates, bridesmaids, and colleagues. We’ve celebrated together, traveled the world together, become godparents to each other’s kids, and held each other up through unimaginable losses. 

But when it became fairly clear that COVID-19 would linger indefinitely, I started fixating on the fact that with or without a pandemic, community is a fragile thing, and that keeping it takes much more than looking back lovingly at college memories. 

That’s what happens with downtime. You get nostalgic. You relive things. You compare. And if you’re lucky, like I was, you get some much-needed introspection on why unconditional acceptance is such a big deal.

It got me thinking about my first years in Hollywood. I endured jobs that you couldn't even call menial. I gave studio tours walking backwards in high heels, crawled through doggy doors to get my boss’ medication, and picked up other facially bandaged bosses from plastic surgery appointments. I tolerated people saying all kinds of things, including that I’m not “really” a person of color. 

And I was often the only woman in the room. This has meant having to learn to hang, stomaching certain jokes, and going out of the way to make others feel more comfortable with my differences. Sincerity and true connection were so hard to come by — and there was always an unspoken pressure to assimilate. 

Back when my team and I were developing “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Black-ish,” we talked about what it felt like to be a person of color pitching a television show — to know that in two decades, there hadn’t been an aspirational Asian or Black show, and that if you produced one and it flopped, well then you weren’t just failing on behalf of yourself. You were failing on behalf of all people of color. 

I’ll never forget the word that network execs would use to claim that a show with people of color wouldn’t work — it was “fringe.” As though the audience wouldn’t accept it on principle.

After growing up Korean, with three half-Korean/half-Jewish sisters, a white sister and an adopted Latina sister, I never considered that my identity, in someone else’s eyes, might be seen as “fringe.” 

Even when I came to Kenyon, when at the time there were only four other Asian students. I can still name them — Andy Ochi, Mariko Tada, Hyung Steele and Vuoch Tan. But I felt safe. I felt different here — but never out of place. Because unlike the Hollywood I started out in, for me, Kenyon was a community that thrived on acceptance instead of assimilation. 

It’s safe to say that Hollywood, while still a work in progress, is evolving. When we debuted “Modern Family” in 2009, gay marriage wasn’t legal in most states, including California. By the time the series ended at the onset of the pandemic, acceptance wasn’t just a trend. There was demand for all kinds of marginalized voices, for perspectives we hadn’t seen or honored yet. And because of that, my children are finally able to see people who look like them on screens all the time.

These things didn’t happen overnight. But the pandemic, an industry-wide shutdown and long-overdue racial reckonings created the cultural momentum necessary for lasting change. 

For the first time, it felt like there was a deliberate stillness, a contemplative moment — in even the highest ranks of film and television — to consider how each of us could prioritize our community in ways we’d never done before.

It felt good — and familiar. But it also felt fragile. 

While a more deliberate pace that allowed for self-reflection was a way of life I’d learned here at Kenyon, many years later, I’d taken its impact for granted.

The pandemic wasn’t the first time this realization hit me. In 2011, my 90-year old grandmother passed away. I’d been consumed by work. I was logging insane hours and missing family time.

So I made the 14-hour trip back to Seoul, Korea, for the funeral to be with my family. We ate, we cried, we hugged, we offered ritual blessings — we must have bowed 1000 times. I wasn’t doing anything but very deliberately just being there, existing in ceremony with them. 

And I remember recognizing what it felt like to sit quietly — to not feel pulled in any other direction, and to be able to think about the years I’d spent living with my grandmother as a little girl. I made the space to mourn losing that part of my childhood and that connection to Korea itself. 

But what I also remember feeling was that it had been a long time since I’d experienced this sense of community. Fifteen years after I’d graduated, I was reminded of the people and pace of life I’d missed at Kenyon — and particularly the way that when I was here, I was really here. 

In a culture that often tells us to move fast and break things, there’s something to be said for coming here to the middle of the country to learn a more intentional way of living your life, and for carrying that pace into the rest of your existence. 

There’s more compassion. There’s more open-mindedness. There’s more acceptance.

Which leads me back to the question of where community lives.

When I started my freshman year, it was just prior to the election of Bill Clinton in the fall of 1992. I was sitting in a McBride common room when someone popped a bottle of champagne and sprayed it all over the nubby industrial couches. Those couches are definitely still there, by the way.

Your first months here were marked by the ascension of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and your last by the darkened days of a global pandemic. And then — the very first thing the world told you — before you were even getting started — was to stop and slow down.

But here’s what I want to say about that. 

In many ways, you had your “a-ha” moment right out of school, not years later and in retrospect. You didn’t have to wait to connect the dots on why community — and especially this community — can always propel you forward. 

The world grinding to a halt colliding with the final days of your senior year inadvertently allowed you to bridge a gap that took me many years in real time. 

When I was last on campus having coffee with Sergei, I asked him what the biggest difference was between your class and mine — and his answer was in his smile.

I let him off the hook and blurted out, “They’re smarter, right?” He laughed. “By almost every metric.” 

After sitting in on classes, spending time with student leaders, I knew he was right. And being back on campus these last couple days has only reaffirmed that. 

You are smarter. You are stronger and more resourceful. Your opinions are better researched and you are more informed. You’ve learned the true meaning of the word “pivot.” 

Some of the biggest physical and emotional tests in your life arrived in the first inning — and look at how you’ve responded. 

You’ve come back. 

Maybe you’ve taken exhausting connecting flights or, God forbid, Spirit Airlines, or maybe you drove 20 miles per hour behind an 18-wheeler or Amish wagons, but you’ve made your way back to each other in a much more deliberate state — one where you aren’t rolling out of bed stumbling to Peirce like I did, but where 308 of you, plus all you livestreamers, showed up because you’ve experienced firsthand the fragility of community. 

Which, to me, means you’ve solved the mystery of where all the love goes after it leaves here, of where it must go. You’ve answered the question of where community truly lives. 

Community lives in your actions, your extraordinary actions, in response to extraordinary times.

So, listen to others the same way you’ve learned to hear yourself these last few years. 

Continue to see the world through your very own lens.

Accept and allow yourself to be accepted without giving in to the need to assimilate.

This is the challenge of your life — to keep this feeling in real time, to carry with you this reflective period, to see to it that all of this isn’t just a blip, isn’t something that comes and goes and only resurfaces in crisis. 

And remember that community lives on as much as we allow it to — 
and that when you perpetually channel your introspection into intentional action, 
when you do that on behalf of each other and yourselves, 
you will be destined for so much more than the change that comes with hindsight. 

Thank you and congratulations, Class of 2020!