The #BeExceptional Challenge
Yesterday I had the honor and pleasure of delivering the keynote address to the Saint Mary's College Multi-Ethnic Graduation Celebration. I cannot describe how nervous I was to address an incredible faculty, respected colleagues, a wonderful college President, proud parents and determined students. It was a moment I will never forget. I'm so passionate about giving back to my alma mater, because as the only African American woman in my graduating class, I feel I owe all of these distinguished graduates a message I wish I heard twenty years ago.
Good Afternoon. I am truly honored to be here today to speak with you all. In researching topics for this speech, I thought about discussing the importance of not being afraid to fail. Or why mistakes are necessary in life. But, I kept feeling called to challenge you to be exceptional. In whatever you choose to do in life. Be exceptional.
During my time at Saint Mary’s, I had at least three majors. Not simultaneously. I started with communications. Switched to Humanistic Studies. I was surrounded by classmates who seemed so sure of themselves. They knew what they wanted and set a course for exactly that and I finally settled on English Writing. Sure I kept a diary for years and I loved to read. I also was nicknamed motor mouth as a child and now I’m actually getting invited to speak! But I honestly looked at my record and saw that my English classes were the ones I enjoyed the most. And a major was declared.
At some point we are programmed to pick a lane and stay in it. But then we realize that we are all just trying to figure “it” out. But what is “IT?” Success? Money? Family? Career? You were probably asked from very early on “What do you want to be when you grow up?” You have One Life and you must pick one thing. You can have hobbies to provide balance, but your primary focus is singular.
Believe it or not, Saint Mary’s has set you up for deprogramming. Not only to pick your own path but it has given you tools for changing course if you choose to do so.
A school founded on educating women, not to surpass men, but to make the concept of equality the standard. Saint Mary’s has set you up to remember that your choices don’t have to pigeonhole you. You aren’t locked in to one thing. An exceptional Saint Mary’s Woman is prepared to choose whenever she’s ready. This institution is the ultimate definition of feminism. The freedom to choose your path based on your own values but also have a sense of appreciation if not understanding for those who choose different. You can be exceptional in whatever you path you choose to take, change, or create.
Being exceptional is not judging. We hear that word very often. I’m a Yoga instructor and part of the Yoga philosophy is practicing Non-Judgement. There was a time in Yoga class when I could not stand and bring my fingers to my toes. I remember the flood of judgments rushing in.
I’ll never be able to do this.
I’m not flexible.
The woman next to me is a pretzel.
I don’t belong here.
I shouldn’t have come.
My judgement led to anger which led to regret. I just ruined my experience. My words destroyed one goal I was trying to accomplish. Now if you’ve been to my Yoga class at my studio or on campus, you’ve heard me talk about my T-Rex arms. They are nice and short. It’s actually my legs that are pretty long and therefore the floor can be a challenge to reach. It’s simply how I’m made. So instead of continuing to judge how I’m not achieving the goal, I grab a yoga block. It has three different heights and brings the floor a little bit closer.
Being exceptional is practicing non-judgement and asking for help. None of us made it here alone. Perhaps our most important and helpful Block is the idea of listening and learning. Listening and Learning is not the same as accepting and compromising. It’s actually what we are called to do. You’ve been doing it for your entire life and it does not stop now.
If I didn’t have an instructor show me how to use a block, I would be nothing but frustrated and wallowing in what I couldn’t do. All of you have the opportunity to be exceptional by listening and learning to others who have not walked in your shoes. And you have the opportunity to teach from your experience because your story deserves to be told.
I used to think in order to be Exceptional, I had to have some extraordinary tale to tell. That’s what gets attention right? People who have overcome incredible obstacles and climbed mountains to get where they are today. After thinking this I’d always end up feeling pretty ordinary. Pretty Basic. The truth is, you don’t have to have some extraordinary tale to tell to be exceptional and if you have overcome some crazy odds to sit where you are sitting today, that is not your story.
An exceptional Saint Mary’s woman is part of a legacy. Your time here is part of a legacy. I remember sitting on a panel of African American SMC Alums a few weeks ago. We discussed being women of color at Saint Mary’s, what life was like then and how it shaped us into who we are today. I recalled walking down the halls of LeMans and seeing the black and white historic photos. Seeing the banners around campus celebrating 175 years. Listening to women who graduated 50 years before me recall their experiences and I believed and bought into the notion that I was a part of that.
Even though most of the women didn’t look like me in those pictures, we had a shared experience. A student asked me how could she buy into that idea. I’ll tell you the secret. It’s by connecting. By staying current. By reading the Alumnae Courier magazine and showing up to local Saint Mary’s College club events. It can be a simple as alerting the Alumnae office to your change of address. Next year will be my 20th year reunion and I’ll be attending with some of my best friends and women I haven’t seen in 20 years.
Not only are you part of this legacy, but you’ve made history! There never was a YOU at Saint Mary’s College before and there will never be another YOU that attends. SMC had one shot with you. And now it’s up to you to make it better for the next person by connecting and believing in your legacy and acknowledging your history.
In every choice that you make because you are already prepared.
By practicing non-judgement with listening and learning from others who haven’t walked in your shoes.
By admitting you are now a part of a legacy of exceptional women and have made history by simply being here.
By leaving this place better than you found it for the next woman determined to rise.
I am honored to be in the presence and company of such remarkable women. I do not wish you luck because Saint Mary’s has already prepared you. Remember who you are. You are already extraordinary.
Now go be exceptional.
Saint Mary's College
Multi-Ethnic Graduate Celebration
May 16, 2019