It is the end of another academic year and there is plenty of wrapping up and grading to do, but there are also celebrations and end-of-year fun. Next week is the Penn State Lehigh Valley Honors Convocation, one of my favorite events where we honor the excellent students, faculty and staff at Penn State Lehigh Valley and I’m enthused to have been invited to speak. Like the PR pros in DC do, I’m going to “release my remarks” ahead of the event. This was fun to write and I know it will be fun to deliver:
Tonight is a night to celebrate your hard work. Tonight is a night to give thanks to those who have helped you. Tonight is a night of reflection about where you have been and where you want to go.
It is easy to become cynical; to believe that education is overpriced and undervalued in our society that seems to reward starring in a reality TV show more grandly than it does original thought and hard work.
But tonight, we are reminded that hard work and brain power matter. And because you are here tonight, there is evidence that you have both.
Some of you come from families that have a long tradition of education –especially a Penn State education—maybe your parents met at Penn State. And some of you are the first person in your family go to college.
You are going where no one in your family has gone before and I know for some of you that is really scary. And the news media don’t help when it talks about high student debt and high unemployment.
Each of us has the power to create the story of our lives that we choose. The same America that honors Honey Boo Boo also honors brains and hard work. The hard working success stories just get less publicity, so I really hope the news media are here tonight. State of the Valley?
I want to remind you tonight that each of us – you and I –have the power to create our own storyline.
We are the authors of our lives and we can write whatever we want.
My advice: write the story of your life you want to read. It looks like you are off to a terrific start.
Tonight is all about rewarding your hard work and validating academic achievement and I am here to tell you to go boldly in the direction of your dreams and be ready to work really hard to get there. Samuel Beckett said: Try, fail. Try again, fail better. I think that one of the secrets to being successful is allowing ourselves to get comfortable failing.
I research and write about extraordinary women who have overcome significant obstacles to achieve their dreams. One way to look at it is the women I write about failed a lot. And they inspire me. Women like Margaret Chase Smith – who was the first woman to serve in both the House and the Senate. She got the courage to amplify her voice against her colleagues – all male—and speak out against McCarthyism. Upon leaving office, she was the longest-serving female Senator in history, a distinction that was not surpassed until 2011, when Senator Barbara Mikulski was sworn in for a fifth term. Margaret Chase Smith may have been dubbed “The quiet woman” but she didn’t back down and she didn’t go away.
Another remarkable woman is Shirley Chisholm who in 1972 ran for president. She broke a lot of barriers because she was both an African American and a woman. When Barack Obama became president he acknowledged that she made the way easier for him. But Chisholm or “Ms. Chiz” put up with a lot of abuse on the campaign trail and throughout her career. People thought she was crazy. She ran for president any way. As she liked to say, she was “unbought and unbossed.”
These were women quite comfortable with being uncomfortable and they let themselves fail.
My advice to you: write the story of your life you want to read.
Like many of you here with your parents tonight, I too grew up in a loving family with my mother and father and I have two older sisters. I like to joke that I came late to the party since my mom was 42 when she had me and back then that was OLD.
Both my father and mother came from large and financially poor families but they were rich in loving spirit.
My dad Nicholas, the youngest of ten told me that he was encouraged to become a medical doctor by his older siblings but instead dropped out of school after the eighth grade to help support his large family by working in the coal mines.
My mother Julia, a gifted seamstress and gardener– I call her the original Martha Stewart –also had dreams of her own—she was a HOOT—trust me—a true inspiration to me– but she gave them up to support her family and left school after the sixth grade.
They wanted more for their three children. My oldest sister Julie raised a family and works as a medical receptionist, my sister Teri a lieutenant colonel in the army with a master’s degree who is second in command at a state prison – you don’t want to mess with her – trust me– and there’s me, the baby. The older I get the more and more I really like that label. We used our brain power and our hard work to create a new story for ourselves – and one that honors the memory of our parents.
There isn’t much we can control in this world, but two things we have complete control over are
1. What we think
2. What we do
I am here to encourage you to THINK BIG – Go for the thing you really want out of life.
And I am here to encourage you to do something that lights a fire inside you, do something that matters to you and something that stirs your passions. And if you haven’t found that big thing that you love to do yet keep trying new things until you do.
You are smart. And you are working hard.
I am here to say keep it up. Because we’ve noticed it at Penn State and when you graduate from Penn State they’re going to notice it wherever you go. Find people who inspire you. Read about them. Maybe even write about them.
Clelia Merloni, founder of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus urged us:
“Love your work; perform it with joy. Do not allow yourself to become discouraged by difficulties, lack of success or humdrum daily duties. Be convinced that this is your mission.”
Congratulations, students! You are smart and hard working. Go forward and write the story of your life that you want to read.
And tonight, celebrate, give thanks and reflect! And always “Speak Up and Speak Well!”