Lucy Shulman, student speaker at University of Southern Maine commencement and a MaineCF Rockefeller scholar, shares her love of linguistics. Photo by Thalassa Raasch/MaineCF

Tell us about yourself and interests and how you landed at the University of Southern Maine.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I came to Maine in 2011 with my family when I was 20 years old. I have major depressive disorder, and at that point it was so bad that I basically couldn’t function. My dad always just says I’m a “late bloomer,” and I definitely wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t willing to support me until I was ready to, you know, bloom.

In 2013, my sister Eliza, who’s four years younger, went to college at SUNY Albany, and that was hard. I felt like my life was already over. I was exhausted from dealing with my illness, but I guess I decided I didn’t have to leap back to full functionality. So, step one was to go to Portland Adult Education (PAE) to brush up on math. Everyone at PAE cares so much about their students, and they’re super supportive. I honestly knew the whole time that I was going to go to USM. I actually matriculated as a history major, because I planned to be a teacher. But I switched to linguistics, and I’m so glad I did. The linguistics program at USM is incredibly strong, with really dedicated faculty, but it’s small, so a lot of courses are only offered once every two years.

How did you discover linguistics and a love of language?

When I was 10 years old, I stayed over at my friends’ house to celebrate my friend’s birthday. They had rented a video cassette of the English dub of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.” They were excited to show it to me, and as the three of us curled up like a litter of puppies on two twin mattresses, the whole world changed. It was so wonderfully different from anything I had ever experienced.

When I got to school on Monday, I opened a notebook and began to write a story. I was inspired. I continued to write for all of my childhood, and started inventing languages for the characters in my stories. I spent hours at a time on my computer, painstakingly constructing lists of prefixes and suffixes, and I would sit in class and draw alphabets. I wrote songs in my languages and taught them to my sisters. 

Are you focused on a particular application of language? How will you apply that to your future studies or career?

I chose to study linguistics and education because I wanted to go teach English abroad, and linguistics provides a great background to anyone who wants a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) career. With this education I’ve gotten, I feel really good about my ability to identify and address the unique challenges faced by English-language learners. For example, in studying phonetics, I learned about exactly how each speech sound is articulated, which will help me teach students to produce them.

Tell us about the language you invented. How did that come about?

During my junior year I found out my department head had once offered a special class on invented languages. What followed was an 18-month campaign of whining, nagging, and harassment the likes of which this university has never seen. The result of all this badgering was that my department head decided to offer the class this spring, which was my last semester at USM.

The language itself is called Gerundi, and it’s spoken in a story I’m writing by a group of nomadic oceangoing humans on an alien planet. I took some inspiration from Polynesian languages and tried to create a language with similar phonetics and prosody to – well, Maori was what I was going for, but it came out more like Tahitian. That’s the extent of my language’s Polynesian-ness; it is of utmost importance not to just take whatever you want from indigenous people’s languages and cultures. I was super extra in my work on this project, writing songs and poems in my language, and ending up with 316 vocabulary words, but I had so much fun with it. This was a lot of childhood dreams realized!

Last week you were honored as the student commencement speaker at University of Southern Maine. What was your message to fellow graduates?

My message was a little unusual in that it was basically that our college degrees don’t make us more valuable as people. I really wanted to point out that our contributions to our communities are way more impactful than whatever is on your resume. Our kindness, and our generosity, and the various ways we affect other people’s lives – those contributions are what matter to others, and they’re how each of us will be remembered.

I also wanted to speak especially loudly to those of my classmates who, like me, are nontraditional students. I wrote once that most people tend to think of a GED as a reminder that the holder has failed at actually finishing high school. And thus they’re probably not destined for greatness, because they’re already a failure. It’s not true. Everyone has something to offer. I’m actually just so pleased that the Rockefeller scholarship is specifically for nontraditional students. We can be so, so overlooked and it’s just an amazing feeling to have an institution willing to stake thousands of dollars on your ability to succeed when everyone else says you’re already a failure. I mean that with all my heart.

You’ve been accepted into the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program for next year. Tell us what that will involve.

I'm leaving for Japan on July 28 and I'm going to be living there and teaching in public schools for at least one year. I’ve started studying Japanese, which is incredibly difficult for an English speaker to learn because they’re typologically very different. I’ll be teaching English with Japanese teachers of English in Japanese public schools. 

What’s your advice to students who are just about to start college?

Do your homework. Your regular homework, but I mean you need to do your own research about your classes, your requirements, your financial aid situation, your professors, everything. Read. Or ask. That’s what the bureaucratic offices are there for, to answer questions. I promise you there is no question basic enough that they haven’t heard it a dozen times before. This is your future, your life, your student debt, not anyone else’s. Please be aware that a lot of student debt is owed by people who had to drop out and have no degree. Make sure you’re really ready.

I am actually a big, big proponent of students taking time between high school and college. I didn’t start until I was 23 and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I knew what I wanted, and I was prepared to pursue it. Talk to your professors; they want to help! And talk to your classmates! Having a study buddy or just someone to talk to who knows what you’re dealing with goes an incredibly long way. Talk in class. If you’re worried about looking stupid, the most important thing I’ve learned in college is that everyone is way too wrapped up in their own nonsense to care about what anyone else is doing. Study what you find interesting. Advocate for yourself. But at the same time, remember that you can only do what you can do. Take care of yourself before you do anything else. And don’t let anyone try and stop you from wearing sweatpants to class.

If you had a crystal ball, what would you hope to see in your future?

I would like to see an eventual place in my life where I can live near my best friends, and health, happiness, and financial security for them and for my family. More pragmatically, I hope to pursue my master's in education after a few years in Japan, and perhaps eventually move into curriculum design. I would hope to visit every place on my (very long) travel list, especially the Lascaux caves in France (the oldest known cave paintings) and to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Beijing. I would like to own a house or condo, and have like, six dogs.