Graduation Speaker: FIND YOUR VOICE
May 20, 2011 Awards Speech
This is dedicated to Lucille.
Last semester I was voted most deserving of a hypothetical heart. This came as some surprise to me as my URI classmates and I participated in an exercise posed by our Thanatology instructor. The question was this: if every one of you were in need of a heart transplant, and there is only one heart to give, who among you is most worthy? We asked each other questions about lifestyle, family and career in an impossible attempt to quantify worthiness. I won that poll, despite my humble protests, over students so much younger than myself and with so much promise.
Apparently I owe this privilege to being a hospice volunteer and working with at-risk youth. “You’re helping people,” my classmates told me, “you’re helping sick people. You’re helping kids”. I hadn’t fully realized until that moment, no matter how insignificant my role sometimes feels to me, that what some call simply “helping people” is such a substantially honorable way to live one’s life.
This was a significant moment of insight for me. It led me to realize how highly I value my place in a community of people that serve others, and this simple classroom exercise and the feedback of my peers led me to apply for graduate school in social work, which I will begin in the fall.
This insight is just one of several that made my experience in learning so powerful in my six years at The URI Feinstein Campus. Yes, I learned a lot of concepts and theories and facts in my classes (some of which I even retained…). In my women’s studies and psychology courses, I learned that each of us has a better life that we aspire to. I learned that we all face obstacles yet hold the capacity to grow and change. I learned that the obstacles we face can be institutional as well as personal, that empowerment can come from a collective or from within, and that growth and change come from overcoming obstacles with the energy of that empowerment. Some of this I learned from my instructors and assigned readings. And some I learned from my fellow students, many of whom, like me, bring their years (and years!) of living into the classroom as return students to inform the very experience of learning, and many of whom, also like me, are doing this while working full-time. Some are raising families.
But what’s been most significant for me was the learning I did about myself (because any of my friends will tell you, in the end, it’s all about me!). During this time, I have discovered a passion for what I call “voice.” Voice, to me, means self-expression. It means uncovering that self, made of strength and vulnerability and desires, and finding that pure note of truth that is unique to each of us, yet common to us all. It means listening to and honoring that voice. It means acknowledging the need and the right for that voice to be heard. As a social worker I’d hope to facilitate that voice in others, that heart that we all have, which is so not hypothetical.
And though I deeply value the expression of voice, I’ve hidden this, my own voice, for years behind feigned shyness and disinterest, sarcasm and a compulsive need to appear more palatable. I’ve let my voice remain hidden for fear of judgment or failure, and fear of being called out as a showoff. And also this: the fear of discovering that my voice has nothing much to say after all. This may seem odd in light of the fact that I spent years making my living as a singer. But I finally discovered my voice here in the classrooms at the University of Rhode Island.
Yet it’s so not much about what I have to say. For me, it’s about having courage to step out and say something. So, what can I say now that I have made my voice heard? Only that I suspect that I am not alone in this, and that many of you may be hiding, too. And that we are wasting a lot of time making noise and excuses and being not quite brave enough to let our real voices be heard. And that to let obstacles like ego and fear prevent us from speaking our truth is a sin of omission. And I am a sinner myself.
So, I am here tonight speaking my own words and using my voice. This is a dream come true. And a little bit of a nightmare, too, I’ll be honest. Because this terrifies me, taking ownership of my own voice. And this is part of my learning, and part of my empowerment. In this last possible moment, URI has facilitated my voice in allowing me to speak to you tonight. I want to use this opportunity to encourage every one of you to face your fears and use your voice. And to be proud of this accomplishment as you prepare to graduate. I know it is hard won. Perhaps this is your dream, and I am honored to witness it, as you’re witnessing mine.
And so I don’t really think that helping others is enough to make me worthy of that hypothetical heart. I’ve learned in my time at URI that for myself, for each of us, all equally worthy… true self-expression is the honorable way to live one’s life. And that I have a heart… and I have a voice.
I thank you for listening.