Author highlights refugees, immigrants in Lehman address

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Lehman College’s recent graduation was one for the books — and not just because acclaimed novelist André Aciman delivered the keynote. 

It was Lehman’s 50th commencement, and also the college’s largest graduating class in its history. More than 3,000 students gathered on the campus’s south field surrounded by family, faculty and alumni. 

Before his novel “Call Me By Your Name” was turned into an Oscar-winning film, Aciman sat in a similar seat — much like the graduates that sat before him — when he himself earned his Lehman degree in 1973.

“I did not have a common college experience,” Aciman told the sea of black caps and gowns. “I had no time for parties, and I had no money to get drunk.” 

Before Aciman stepped foot in New York City, he was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt, but later escaped to Italy as a refugee. When his family eventually came to America, he found himself caring for his aging parents during the prime years of his 20s. 

While at Lehman, Aciman worked three jobs to not only cover his tuition, but support his family.

“My mother was totally deaf and she couldn’t learn English,” he said. “She only spoke French, and my father’s English wasn’t very good. They were immigrants that arrived too late to start a new life — and even coming to the States was a shot in the dark. 

“We could have stayed in Italy, but they came to the States because of us — my brother and I.”

Aciman even accompanied his parents to the movies so he could translate the dialogue on the screen. He loved his parents, but as a young man, the responsibility of supporting the family sometimes felt like burden.

Lehman, however, offered him a level of support, both financially and academically. When Aciman realized he wanted to study comparative English, Lehman created the program for him, giving Aciman the opportunity to take classes both in and out of the English department.

“They were flexible and supportive,” he said about the college. “My teachers all loved me, and I got along with them very well. They were there for people, in my case, that came as a refugee.” 

After Lehman, Aciman went on to Harvard University, earning post-graduate degrees in comparative literature. Today, Aciman is a distinguished professor in the graduate-level comparative literature program at the City University of New York, and serves as director of its writers institute. 

Aciman also has published four novels, two collections of essays, and even crafted a memoir, “Out of Egypt,” which won the Whiting Award in 1996.

“It was clear that I wanted to write,” he said.

He wrote “Call Me By Your Name” in 2007, which was turned into a film last year  about a summer romance that blossoms between a 17-year-old boy played by Timothée Chalamet and a doctoral student, played by Armie Hammer, hired as a research assistant for the teen’s father in the 1980s.

It earned Oscar nominations for best picture, best actor in a leading role for Chalamet and best original song for “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens. 

The film took home the Oscar for best-adapted screenplay, written by James Ivory.  

Much of Aciman’s art stems from his experiences, upbringing and understanding of the world. As an immigrant, education was one of the building blocks of his success. 

“As soon as some immigrants come to the States, they want to have a job,” Aciman said. “The fact that you make money is extremely attractive, and you kind of get seduced by that.

“My best advice is don’t get distracted by the money, but get an education. And if that means you have to work during the day and get your education at night, do it.”

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