Each year, a joint faculty, staff and student committee has the difficult job of selecting one graduating student — who best demonstrates high academic achievement, leadership and community engagement — to deliver a speech on behalf of her or his peers. This year, the committee’s work was extra difficult and ultimately recommended two student speakers: Sarah Sullivan, candidate for a Bachelor of Arts in English, and our salutatorian; and David Norris, candidate for a Master of Library and Information Science.
Below, read the full text of the winter 2017 commencement speeches that were delivered on December 21, 2017.
At the start of this semester, I was sitting in Whitby Hall waiting to start my first class as a Teaching Assistant. I was nervous and fearful about my leadership role in a classroom of non-native speakers of English, until a panel of students — who had previously taken this course — offered advice on how to do well in this class as well as in college in general. One panelist said something that struck me. She said, “College is really hard. But there are so many people here to help you. You just have to ask them.” This statement struck me because it reflects my time at St. Kate’s, rather, our time where we learned to lead, influence and, sometimes, ask for guidance.
My journey to walking across this stage as a leader was not always easy; tests, papers, group projects, homework on top of personal challenges and growth sometimes left me feeling like leading and influencing was on the bottom of my to-do list. In my first year at St. Kate’s, I was challenged by the transition from high school to college. After a few tearful visits to the counseling center and multiple phone calls home, however, I discovered that it is not wrong to ask for help. Rather, asking for help is a way to claim my education and grow into myself. Admitting that I could not succeed in college simply through my sheer effort alone began my process to becoming a leader. Through the immense support of staff, faculty, peers, and the larger St. Kate’s community, I became not only a thriving college student, but also a leader by following their examples.
In and out of the classroom, examples of leadership surrounded me. The faculty showed me that becoming a leader involves learning from others. The staff here at St. Kate’s helped me see that leaders listen to and support everyone to encourage their ability to flourish. The Sisters of St. Joseph taught me that to lead and influence, you need to have a passion for something, preferably a social justice issue. Because, without passion, you will be unable to be a dedicated leader. The entire St. Kate’s community proved to me that leaders are always there when it matters – they celebrate with and encourage you always. I want to thank everyone in the St. Kate’s community who mentored me. You have taught me what it means to be a leader.
Because of these leadership examples, I have sought ways to be a leader on and off campus. Throughout my last semesters, I worked as a Peer Writing Tutor in the O’Neill Center, an intern here at The O’Shaughnessy — where I helped to produce the Women of Substance Festival – a teacher of English as a Second Language for adult immigrants and, finally, a teaching assistant in an English class. These opportunities at St. Kate’s have taught me to approach leadership with immense humility, knowing that leading is not about me. Instead, leading is about influencing others for their good and growth. As an (almost) college graduate, I lead by following my passion. Thanks to my experiences at St. Kate’s, I know that my passion is for helping others. So, this is how I lead, and this is how I will continue to lead.
We are now on standing on the edge of a precipice, about to leap as leaders into our post-graduation lives and into, what is affectionately known as “the real world.” This real world is honestly scary; it doesn’t have the warmth and welcome of the St. Kate’s community. But, we should not be afraid to be leaders in this world because we stand on the shoulders of the fearless members of the St. Kate’s community, both past and present. And because we can rely on them for help, guidance, and examples of leadership.
We have taken their lessons to heart: we will be leaders and influencers wherever our passionate paths take us — because of them and because of this University’s legacy of making a difference in the world; We will use our influence for justice in our communities; We will lead because St. Kate’s has taught us that women can and should lead.
I would like to begin with a story—a story from the Jewish tradition, as told by author and physician Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen:
In the beginning was the Ein-Sof, the infinite, holy source of life, out of which our world emerged as a great ray of light. Yet no sooner had it emerged than there was an accident which caused the vessels containing the light, the wholeness of the world, to break, and the light to scatter into countless fragments that fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden even today. The human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible again, and restore the innate wholeness of the world. In Hebrew, this task is called the tikkun olam. The restoration of the world.
As we gather at this moment of completion and prepare to cross into the next phase of our lives as graduates, let us take a moment together to reflect, to remind ourselves why we took this journey. For each of us, that reason will be different: a new career direction, better opportunities, to make connections in a field, or to pursue an interest in greater depth. Yet whatever brought us here, what we discovered at St. Catherine University was a community that is truly passionate about social justice, diversity, and integrity. Our classes and our education were infused with these principles. In essence, we came to St. Catherine to help heal the world.
When I began the Master of Library and Information Science program three years ago, it was to pursue a career transition into librarianship. I wasn’t sure what kind of librarian I would be, but two chance meetings the year before helped me recognize that a habit of organizing my (and other people’s) bookshelves, and helping strangers find information they needed might not only lead to a career but also a life’s calling. In a project for my first course, I interviewed an educator who works with children of immigrants and refugees. The challenges that these communities faced when seeking information became shockingly real for me. I hadn’t before realized that seemingly everyday things like signage or the layout of a building, things I took for granted, could be a barrier for someone else. In another course, I learned that people in rural Appalachia were sent to the library by overworked county clerks to fill out complex government forms with no assistance.
These stories broke my heart, and they enforced my belief that access to information is not a mere privilege but a human right that shapes pathways to health care, human services, education, and career development. A career as a librarian truly became a calling for me. All this took place at St. Kate’s, within a community of peers who each brought their own story and their own human-heartedness to our fight for social justice. Whether in group work or on a community service project, we pursued this consistent question: how can we help heal the world?
This, in my experience, is the unique quality of the graduate community at St. Catherine University. While we gain the skills and experience to be successful in our field, we are also encouraged to view each project as an opportunity to build compassion, love, and justice into our goals. We learn that a career must be more than an end in itself — that it has the potential to develop our unique gifts so that they can be used to help and to heal.
Today we live in a deeply divided and wounded world. It will take all of us, sharing the whole of our knowledge and humanity, practicing radical empathy and human connection, and collectively realizing our capacity to seek out the hidden light in each event and person we encounter. It is then that we begin to restore the wholeness of the world.
So graduates, here at the end of 2017: Know who you are, hold onto what is true about you, and nourish the values that shape your life’s purpose. Remind yourself of this every morning, in every seemingly endless meeting, and even with every success. Remind yourselves why you started this journey. And wherever you go, no matter how tired or busy you are, remember to look for the light.