May 2016 Graduation Address by Ms. Terri Freeman
President Rudd, Provost Weddle-West, trustees, distinguished faculty, guests, family, and friends, good morning! And to the stars of the show, the graduates of the class of 2016 -- CONGRATULATIONS! You met your financial obligation, you completed all your assignments and finished in good academic standing (remind me to tell you a story about this before I take my seat!). I am all that stands between you and your diploma...what power!
I am honored and humbled to stand in this place and speak to you today, at your commencement, an event that will fit in the scrapbook of memorable events, an event that should motivate, an event that should be both a "well done", signaling the completion of one phase of your lives, and a send-off, as we watch with pride your beginning a life of discovery. And the commencement speech, well it should not be remembered for its length, but for its message and substance. So, that said, my promise to you is that I will use the three S technique that I learned from my husband -- stand up, speak up and shut up!
Today, with the turn of your tassel you will begin to create your legacy. Now you're likely thinking "legacy?! I just want to enjoy not having to pay attention to the next assignment on the syllabus." I know that feeling, that feeling of accomplishment and of completion. But in fact, your journey has just begun and it will be what you make it. Recently, I was asked the question "what lessons would you tell your 25-year old self?" I gave that question a lot of thought and since we can't turn back the hands of time, and I'm privileged to stand in this spot today, I will pass those lessons on to you, since you are no doubt, closer to 25 than am I.
Lesson #1 – Life truly is a marathon, so, don't sprint through it.
We all recognize that life is a marathon, but far too often we complete the marathon through a series of sprints. We can be so focused on the outcome that we miss the enjoyment of the journey. Now, I'm not a marathon runner, but I know that during a marathon the athlete experiences highs and lows. The first thing they do is prepare for the race. The night before they eat the proper nutrition, fueling their body with carbohydrates that will take them from beginning to end. So I guess the sub-text to this lesson is carbs are your friend!
But on the following day they experience euphoria at the sound of the horn signaling the start of the race. They experience the joy of completing those first few miles, with little discomfort. Then they begin to stretch themselves and lean on the months of training they've endured. They begin to feel their muscles responding and being pushed. The need for refreshment increases. Sometimes, self-doubt will enter the picture, through negative self-talk, 'I'm not good enough, I didn't train hard or long enough, why am I out here at 7 a.m. in the rain trying to run 26.2 miles?" They often see a wall that seems impenetrable and they begin to employ tactics – repeating a mantra, visualizing success, thinking about a pleasurable moment in their lives – to help them cope with the physical realities of pushing their bodies to the limit. And just as they reach that big hairy audacious wall, they dig deep and find something within themselves that motivates them to go around or above the obstacle. They face the difficulty, they move beyond it and success is in sight. The worst appears to be over. Additional refreshment aids the body, the athlete is fully connected to their physical selves, but at this point they have transcended to a mental place that says, "I got this!" The runner sees the finish line and soon hears the cheering crowd and the sounds of victory. And then...the body reminds them of the feat they've just accomplished and the toll it has taken. Now there is need for a period of recovery. During the period of recovery, the athlete has the opportunity to step back, relax, release and renew.
Life is like this marathon experience, along the 26.2 miles there is beauty that you need to take in. Along the 26.2 miles there are people who will be there to help provide you with refreshment, kindly accept their assistance because you will never finish if you go it alone. Along the 26.2 miles there will be obstacles that will challenge your stamina and will cause you to question your ability. But for every obstacle, there is a way around or over it. If you dig deeply and really put on your thinking caps, as the old folks used to say, you will find abilities you never knew you had, and soon the obstacles will be in the rear view mirror!
Lesson #2 – To build your character you've got to go through something
Character is not born, it is built. Just because you now have a degree and can put a few letters behind your name, or in the case of some of you, almost an entire alphabet, does not mean you have character. Book learning does not build the integrity that comes with experience. And your character is defined by your integrity, it is the moral qualities, ethical standards and the principles by which we live our lives.
Let me tell you a story. I remember sitting in the stadium at the University of Dayton waiting, or more appropriately praying that my name would be called to walk across the stage, shake the President's hand and receive my diploma. It was April 1981. I, like all my fellow graduates went to the ROTC building to pick up my cap and gown. I was beaming from ear-to-ear. It was all finished but the shoutin'! I walked up to the woman at the table and gave her my name, "Terri Lee" I said, with much anticipation to receive that beautiful black cap and gown. She looked at her list, there were no computers then, she scrolled across, and then she looked up at me with a smirk I might add, and delivered these words, "you're not graduating, you have not satisfactorily completed your political science class. I could literally feel the blood drain from my face. Panic washed over me and I responded. You don't understand, my mother and grandfather will be here next weekend. I've got to graduate or they are going to kill me. She then politely handed me a print out with the class I was obviously failing. It just happened to be a class I took with my then boyfriend, now husband of 30-years in a couple weeks. I ran to his apartment and as the tears flowed down my face, I hysterically explained my situation to him and he responded thusly, I told you you needed to take that class seriously and do your work. Not exactly the response I wanted to hear. So my next step was to go to my professor, eat a lot of crow and figure out how I might convince him to let them give me a diploma. It took the reading of approximately a half of a textbook and significant writing assignments, turned in within 48 hours to get the hardest fought "c" known to man! When my name was called on that Saturday in April I thanked God and vowed that accomplishing the task at hand would never be something I would put off ever again. That was my first true character-building experience. I'm a better person for having dealt with this adverse situation. I might add, that my mom, who is seated in the audience today is hearing this for the first time.
I'm thankful to be joined today also, by my children, and they can tell you that during their time at home any time they had to go through something difficult, anytime they had a failure, anytime they experienced rejection, anytime they were fourth on the list and there were only three places, I would tell them to chalk it up to character building. You see to really develop character you've got to go through something, and the more difficult the better. Let me illustrate it this way, what we think of as bread only develops those characteristics after the yeast is proofed, the dry and wet ingredients are combined, and the dough is kneaded, rested and often kneaded again, before being shoved into a very hot oven. But after 30 minutes or so, what do you have, a beautifully, delicious loaf of home-made bread which can steal the show at the dinner table. For bread to become bread, it must go through something. Our lives are similar.
At this point on your journey, with the help of your family and the University of Memphis you have the raw materials to become bread, in fact, I'm certain your yeast has been proofed. And some of you may have begun to mix the dry and wet ingredients, but trust me, the real kneading, has yet to begin. And while you may have danced around a microwave or a toaster oven, trust me, there is a double oven in your future that will be set to broil, bake or time-cook and the character development you will gain from those experiences, will help you learn how to deal with adversity. Remember, there is no shame in failure, but in not acknowledging the failure and learning from it. A Zen master describes it as such, "human actions have many faults and errors -- this is something that neither the wise or foolish can avoid – yet it is only the wise who can correct their faults and change to good, whereas the foolish mostly conceal their faults and cover up their wrongs.
Lesson #3 – Perfection is best left to a higher power!
As you continue along your journey with its many twists and turns, you will find that sometimes you are in the driver;s seat and at other times you are simply a passenger on the ride. There will be times when you will give 100% and those around you will applaud your hard work and effort. Other times, that same 100% will get you no recognition. It is in those times where you might challenge yourself to work to what you see as perfection. Complete the project ahead of schedule, under budget, and without any assistance and deliver it to your boss with a beautiful red bow. But at what cost? Possibly in pushing so hard to achieve perfection, you've isolated yourself from friends, family or colleagues. Or maybe you've pushed so hard that you've sacrificed your morning run or your afternoon yoga that helped you maintain your mental edge and physical stamina. Or, you've been burning the midnight oil and your perfect project is filled with imperfections simply because you were tired. My point here is that it will be tempting as you move into your next phase of life to want to strive for perfection and get that perfect 100% on everything you do. I would encourage you to set your own bar, always doing your best, striving for excellence but not perfection, you'll have a lot less disappointment!
Lesson #4 – Write your own documentary. At the National Civil Rights Museum I have the opportunity to meet incredible people who have accomplished or endured incredible things. People like Joan Trumpauer-Mullholland, a white woman who chose to put her vey life on the line to integrate lunch counters and interstate travel when she was a college student. People like the mother of Trayvon Martin, who lost her 16-year old son to a murderer found not guilty of killing her unarmed son. Or Judge Damon Keith, a 93-year old sitting federal judge who in his lifetime forced the desegregation of schools, equitable housing policy, and equal access to employment. Each of these individuals, like you and me, had to make the decision to do the right thing. And each of them made that decision recognizing the public humiliation, taunting and in some instances terror they would have to face. But they followed the path of right to do something that would help someone else. The documentaries of their lives are awe-inspiring and encourage others of us to do the right thing. At this very moment, you each have the opportunity to begin to write your own documentary that will leave an indelible mark on history.
So as you begin this journey of life, after the graduation parties, trips and other
celebrations keep this four lessons in mind:
1) Life is a marathon, make sure you enjoy the 26.2 miles
2) Character building is often painful, but will build your meddle and is always worth it in the end
3) Strive for excellence not perfection
4) Live your life as if you are writing your biopic documentary
5) SMILE A LOT, MAINTAIN YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR AND ENJOY LIFE!
Congratulations class of 2016 we are anticipating great things from you!!