I wrote a commencement speech for my final English class this semester. We presented them to our class and the faculty as our final exam. I thought I would go ahead and post mine here as a tiny bit of closure.
Hello, friends, family, and faculty! Congratulations, Belmont University Class of 2013! We’ve made it to the finish line! I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of my fellow colleagues (yes, you’re my colleagues now, not just my peers). So thank you to whomever put me up for this. Excuse my trembling hands and shaking voice.
It’s disconcerting to be in this place right now. The last time I was up on a stage in this arena was the very first time I ever stepped foot in here as a Belmont student. Do y’all remember Play Fair? It was the first night of Welcome Week: August 22, 2009. My nineteenth birthday. It seems like eons ago.
These last four years have been a whirlwind, haven’t they? And I often asked God to take me away in that whirlwind like He took Elijah. There were many times that I, like all of you, was so tired, times when I didn’t think my fingers could crank out another paper or my eyes read another word, times when I didn’t want to eat another meal in the Caf or attend another class. But I stuck it out, as did all of you.
We couldn’t have done it alone. We can attribute this graduation to our parents, who prayed for us when things got hard; our friends, who stayed up with us all hours of the night in moral support; our professors, who gave us extensions and extra help; and the Belmont staff, who never failed to encourage us to keep going. I am thankful for all of these people, and they are many.
I can classify my college career in terms of the phrase “that was the year...”. Freshman year was the year of homesickness: about nine weeks into the semester, my parents were in Spain, and I had a conference with one of my professors. She asked me how I was doing, and in my fragile emotional state, I immediately started sobbing. That professor asked what it was I needed from my parents. When I said all I needed was a hug, she offered me one, claiming that it wouldn’t be the same but that it might help. It did. Sophomore year was the year of no sleep. I took an overload of credits both semesters and had class with the most frightening and challenging professor on campus. I’m not exaggerating. Of course, I have felt bouts of homesickness and have been sleep deprived all four years, but those first two were characterized by those issues. Well, that and dorm life. Junior year was the year abroad. Although I was only away for the summer and fall, it feels like the whole year; the spring blends smoothly into senior year, the summer before which I stayed in Nashville to work. And then there was senior year: the year I found home in Nashville. The year I lived off campus and joined a church and created a Nashville bucket list, so that I could experience all the things I needed to in Nashville in case I had to leave come May. It’s a good thing I’m not leaving because I only completed about half of that list. I hope I am not alone in these sentiments. I would bet I’m not. Your years may not parallel mine exactly, but right now, you’re probably thinking about how you’d characterize your four years at Belmont in such overly simplified statements. I’m thinking about how to make them into books.
Today’s the day of bittersweet. I’m ecstatic to be graduating (and honestly, I can’t believe I made it), but as I look out over the sea of faces, many of whom I know well and many of whom I don’t know at all and wish I did, I’m deeply saddened. I don’t want to be standing here today because it means it’s over. It means that the four years of late-night Taco Bell runs and one-night cram sessions are over. It means that within a couple of weeks, we will have scattered across the country and beyond. This phase of our lives ends today, and I am sad to see it go. Maybe I should blame this on my graduation goggles because these four years were the most trying in my life: the endless roommate drama, the sleepless nights, the bad dates, the poverty, the stress of paper after paper and exam after exam. I won’t miss these things, but I will miss how they brought people together and how they stretched us and molded us into the better people we are as we sit in caps and gowns in our beloved Curb Event Center today.
Despite my reminiscence, we should be excited to more forward. Some of us have jobs. Some of us been admitted to renowned graduate schools. Some of us are headed off to the mission field. Some of us don’t know what we’re doing, and that’s okay. Enjoy the ambiguity and the unintentional summer that lies before you. This is the last time it’s socially acceptable to live at home. Take advantage of your mom’s cooking, and eat some of it for me.
Here’s what I am looking forward to: after a day at work, I can come home and read books that I want to read because I don’t have any homework looming over my head. On the weekends, because I still don’t have homework, I am going to clean the house, run errands, go for a picnic in the park, take naps. Maybe I will watch my television shows when they air instead of finding them online somewhere the next day. I look forward to having an income and saving up for a trip back to Scotland, which is where I studied abroad.
Whatever lies before you in this next phase, find those things about it that you’re looking forward to. Maybe that’s a new city, the lack of homework, new friends, or more specialized studies. It doesn’t matter where you’re headed because you’re headed somewhere. “From here to anywhere,” right? We never could stay here forever; we’d never be able to afford it. So now we’re off to “anywhere,” whether we are ready or not. It’s unknown and frightening, but if there’s something I’ve learned about myself and all of you in four years, it’s that we thrive on challenges. This next step is just one more challenge, and we will destroy it like we have destroyed the tests and papers that we’ve encountered before.
I’m not going to lie, I’m incredibly nervous about my new job. I’m worried about becoming so used to having an income that I’ll never quit to do graduate work. I’m worried about never having the vacation time to leave the country again. I’m worried that I’ve picked the wrong career. I’m worried that I’ll never make a contribution that matters to the world. I’m nervous about going to the same place to do the same thing day after day, week after week, and year after year until I reach the age of retirement, if I’m even able to retire. I’m used to change. I’ve moved four times in four years. Each semester brought new classes, new professors, new friends. The change was refreshing and gave us ways to define our days and years. I’m most afraid that I will enter a great sleep like Jack Burden or a darkness like Ivy Rowe and come to my senses one day twenty years from now to find that nothing has changed and I’ve missed the last twenty years of my life. The beauty of college was how it kept us rooted in the present while giving us opportunities to think about the future and contemplate the past.
But then I remind myself that I’m 22 years old. The decisions I make today will not dictate the entirety of my adult life. I have the freedom to quit my job. I have the freedom to go back to school. I have the freedom to change career paths. I tell prospective students a version of this on preview days: your choice in college matters, and it is important to choose what fits you, but in the end, your college decision isn’t permanent, and it does not determine your future. I’m trying to convince myself to take my own advice.
So take heart, my friends; we aren’t selling our souls to the decisions we’ve made or ever will make.
I’m proud of myself, but I’m so much prouder of you. Y’all, I went to the greatest university, where creativity in all of its forms is encouraged and supported, where ingenuity is buoyed by professors that serve their respective fields and their students with equal ardor, where academic achievement and participation are required. I look forward to the day when I see many of you topping the various music charts. I look forward to reading the books you’ll write and watching the plays you’ll direct and perform. I look forward to voting for you in upcoming elections. I look forward to seeing your names in the news for the inventions you’ll design, for the cures you’ll develop, and for the new species you’ll discover.
Since we’re looking forward, think with me for a moment about communion: Jesus took the bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he shared it. We, too, must be taken, blessed, broken, and sent forth to be shared. At Belmont, we have been taken into this historic community, where we have been blessed beyond belief by our fellow students and by our professors. At times we have experienced immeasurable brokenness and wondered if any of this was worth it. Both the blessing and the brokenness are imperative if we are going to be shared. Jesus had to bless and break the loaves and fishes before they could be multiplied to feed the five thousand who had gathered in faith to hear him speak. Know that the blessing and the brokenness both are only for the good of what we can then share of ourselves with others. Robert Benson, a native Nashvillian, said that sometimes the only thing we have to give, the only thing we have to share with one another, is our brokenness. Remember that you have a purpose. Belmont has done its best to bless and break you so that it could send you forth into the world to be a blessing for others.
As you step off this campus today, taking one last look at these hallowed halls (and construction), I wish you good luck in whatever you leave to do. Remember these four (or more) years fondly, but keep going. Move forward. Make a difference in the wider world like you did on this small bubble of a campus. I know you can.