I Was A (Terrified) Commencement Speaker, And Here’s What I Said

A couple of months ago, one of my college professors got in touch with me to see if I’d be willing to speak at my alma mater’s graduation ceremony. Even though it was just for the small group of Women’s Studies graduates and their families, I couldn’t help but find the offer laughable. I felt ridiculously under-qualified for a lot of reasons: I only graduated four years ago, I work in the financial industry (hardly an obvious use of my Women’s Studies degree), and public speaking is one of my biggest fears. I try to write as much as I can, often about women’s issues, but I still haven’t found a way to make it lucrative or produce as much content as I’d like. I typed this out with brutal honesty in my response to my professor, in the hopes that she would come to her senses and find someone with more experience. As I queasily awaited her reply, I tried my hardest not to envision a reality when I’d have to get in front of the 130 person crowd and attempt to be insightful and inspiring.

It turned out she still thought I had something to offer, and I knew it was one of those terrifying opportunities I couldn’t turn down without feeling like a complete coward for years to come. I spent weeks writing and rewriting my speech. I can’t remember how many times I cried, which is probably a good thing, because it was definitely more than I’d like to admit. It took me a long time to realize what I wanted to say and to figure out how to say it. But I’m so happy that the work resulted in something I’m proud of and that students let me know did comfort them. Take my word for it: If I could be a keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony, despite the incredible level of anxiety public speaking gives me and the general average-ness of my life to date, I promise you that the seemingly impossible things you’d love to do are plausible. All it takes is a willingness to step outside your comfort zone:

Good morning and congratulations to you, the class of 2016. When I was invited to do this, I have to say, I was not surprised. Since graduating four years ago, I’ve become an extremely successful, highly impressive individual, who is no doubt on track to achieving her wildest dreams. I’ve also amassed tons of public speaking experience at prestigious conferences and lectures around the world. So strap in and prepare for one of those graduation speeches they make a book out of.

I’m totally kidding – I haven’t done any of those things. And I could not have been more shocked, or more afraid, when I was offered this opportunity. Not only do I feel entirely lacking in wisdom, I’m also terrified of public speaking. So unstrap, re-buckle, and prepare to feel uncomfortable with me.

Truly, though, I am honored to be here. The one advantage I have over people with more experience is that I remember what it was like to be sitting where you’re sitting now. I remember being excited and afraid of what would happen next. I remember feeling at once anxious and invigorated about the fact that I didn’t have a plan, and that for the first time, my plan would truly be all my own.

When I was graduating, I had a lot of vague ideas about what my future “should” look like. I’d tried to make concrete plans throughout my senior year, but they had either fallen through or I had decided against them. As each plan dissolved, I realized that it wasn’t really what I wanted at all. Mostly, I just wanted the comfort of knowing what would happen next.  

But by the time it was finals, I had no idea what my life would look like after school. All I knew was I that I needed to find a job, and I hoped that job would involve the vague concept of improving the world. I couldn’t wait to get past the anxiety of landing that elusive job. I assumed that once the interview was over, and I settled into the routine of working, I would feel comfortable.

Looking back, I’m not sure there’s anything I could have told that version of myself that would have convinced her it would be more valuable to get well-acquainted with “uncomfortable” than to seek the impossible—and boring—feeling of comfort.

Honestly, I think my real understanding of that only could have come from the place it did—raw experience.

Since graduating, discomfort has become one of my closest friends. At first I didn’t like her, but maybe that was just because we didn’t truly know each other yet. Don’t get me wrong, we’d spent a lot of time together over the years. But it wasn’t the kind of quality, one-on-one time staring into each other’s eyes that kindles a real connection. That didn’t start until I was at home with my parents, aimlessly searching for jobs online, and wondering what the hell I was going to do next.

Sending endless applications into the vast sea of the internet didn’t get me the job I imagined. It actually didn’t get me any job at all. But it did show me that spending a lot of time at home on my computer, waiting and wishing for something to happen, made me anxious, overwhelmed, and unhappy. So I went back to my old summer job making minimum wage as an office assistant, and signed up for a volunteer training to be an advocate at a local women’s shelter.

After gigs as a camp counselor and then a waitress–taken mostly out of fear of being idle–I was told about a paid position opening up at the shelter. Even though it was for the overnight shift, I went for it, because as unpleasant as it sounded, it seemed worth it to do something I cared about. And in retrospect, it was absolutely the right decision and one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. But at the time, not seeing daylight, dealing with issues in my family, and witnessing my clients’ pain without really being able to talk to anyone about it, made those six months some of the darkest months of my life.

So when another position opened up at the shelter, I went for it. Incredibly, it didn’t even matter to me at the time that the job was to be a community educator—which meant lecturing to groups of all sizes and ages about domestic violence and healthy relationships. I remember a friend who worked the day-shift in shelter fearfully saying to me, “Don’t you have to talk in front of a lot of people in that job? I could never do that.” Honestly, a big part of me agreed with her. But the difference was that I was so uncomfortable in my current position, that I was willing to tolerate another kind of discomfort, if it meant change.

I loved being a community educator and the experiences it brought me. Each day was different, and I was constantly meeting people and forming new connections. I learned about myself, and I learned about teaching. The work was tiring, and it seemed like each day I faced a new fear, but it was so rewarding that the stress was always worth it.

I would have been happy doing that job for a long time if I’d been making just a little more money. I had more than enough to afford living with my mom, but I wanted to be financially independent. I knew from conversations with my co-workers who had been there for up to ten years that wages never increased significantly. I could have scraped by, but I wanted a position where there was room for growth.

When I heard about an opportunity in finance from my brother, I had to weigh the comforts and discomforts of each job to make a decision about what path I wanted to go down. With one job, there was the comfort of doing work that meant something to me, but the discomfort of struggling to pay my bills. And with the other job, there was the comfort of being able to afford my bills, but the discomfort of not doing something that deeply mattered to me. But because I wasn’t sure what comfort I preferred at the time, or how to find a balance between those comforts, I decided to try something new. I took a job working with mutual funds and software, in a field I had never imagined myself in.

Cut to a year later. My dad had just passed away, and I couldn’t keep my focus on financial regulatory services. Life seemed too short to spend forty hours a week doing something that wasn’t really engaging me, so I applied for an unpaid internship at a feminist magazine I’d always loved. And when I got the internship, I made the bold move to quit my job and move to New York City. Luckily for me, when I told my boss, she was not only extremely supportive of my decision, but she also offered to keep me on part-time, remotely. 

Since then, I’ve been able to write about the things that matter most to me without the pressure of relying on it to cover my living expenses. And I’ve gotten to a position with my company where I’m doing work with software that I finally find challenging and engaging. It’s not perfect, and it’s not the end goal, and like everyone else, I truly don’t know what will happen next. But even though I was uncertain of them at the time, I’m grateful now for where my decisions have led me. 

For a long time, I wondered constantly if I was making the “right” choices, and doing what I “should” be doing. And of course, like every other person in the world, I still have those concerns. But their power over me has been diminishing slowly. With time, I’ve started to realize that feeling lost and uncertain is not so scary, and it’s also not that unusual. From what I’ve observed from the people around me—people my age, and people older–feeling lost is simply part of being human. Life changes constantly, and discomfort and unsettledness can come at any moment. Even when work is going well, no one is protected from struggles in their personal lives. Those impossible-to-predict moments will always exist, and always have the power to interrupt the comfort we think we’ve found.

Our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies degrees acquainted us with discomfort. We learned that it is discomfort with a system or the status-quo that leads an individual, and then a group, to challenge it. We saw that movements are birthed out of discomfort, and therefore, so is progress. We read people’s most personal stories about their discomfort, and we began to recognize their deepest vulnerabilities. We saw ourselves in these stories, and we realized how much feminism and social justice matter to us.  

It was hearing people’s personal stories as an advocate that added color to what I’d learned in school. Because even though I knew the issues I read about in class were significant, it was not until I stared them in the face that I truly recognized their urgency.

A big part of what gave me the ability to be a compassionate listener was what I learned in my Women’s  Studies classes. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes my knee-jerk reaction was to feel disappointed in the choices I saw some women make. But I’m grateful that when those feelings came up, I was able to take a step back and do my best to put myself in the shoes of the women I was working with. And almost every time, I realized that I had no idea what I would do if I were them.

If I hadn’t spent so much time in college learning the roots of the issues my clients faced, I might not have remembered to take that step back. I might have overlooked the fact that the women I was working with were limited by systems and circumstances, and that many times it wasn’t comfort they were after, but simply survival. If I’d let the judgments I’d internalized throughout my life get in the way, my clients wouldn’t have been able to trust me. I had to replace those judgments with the openness I was taught in school. It made me believe that only by understanding a person’s discomfort can we truly comfort them.

On the campaign trail, we see political candidates refusing to empathize with the struggles of the people they claim to represent. It’s not uncommon to see people act this way, simply to avoid the discomfort of taking on another’s pain. We all know that at times, our own pain can feel like more than enough.

But when we see this behavior in the larger political picture, it’s obvious how damaging it is. We see how it causes suffering and perpetuates injustice. We see how it marginalizes certain groups and fails to unite us. And we are faced with just how vital it is to be willing to feel and get to know discomfort.  

I think that getting to know discomfort means looking at the parts of yourself, and the parts of the world you’d probably rather ignore. It means recognizing those parts, and finding the courage to improve them. It’s the kind of work that’s difficult, and it’s the kind of work that’s never complete. But it’s also the kind of work that I know your education the past four years has prepared you for.

Like me, you might feel uncomfortable if you find yourself doing a job that is not what you imagine as technically “using your degree.” If that’s the case, I encourage you to rethink what it means to “use your degree.” As women’s studies graduates, you have earned a very special education. You’ve taken classes, met professors, and become friends with peers who have opened your minds, increased your capacity for empathy, and shown you what really matters to you. Your degree has shaped you so strongly that you wouldn’t be able to stop using it if you wanted, because it’s simply a part of who you are.

You’ll be reminded of it wherever you go, and whatever you do, because the essentialness for feminism and social justice is so prevalent, and your passion for it is so clearly needed. And even if a job you take doesn’t feel directly related to your Women’s Studies degree, remember that you will still be using it.

You will be using it every time you take a step back and rethink your judgments towards people. You will be using it every time you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand the history and circumstances that brought them where they are. And you will be using it every time you question a system or a norm.

The way Women’s Studies teaches us to question things isn’t just significant when we think about progress and equality and the ways we’d like to see the world change. It also applies to how we shape our own lives. If something is the status quo, but it’s simply not working for us, we know we can reject it. This is key when we think about the way we want our lives to look, and the way we want our careers to look.

Learning to be less hard on myself about the differences between what I am doing and what I think I should be doing is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the past few years. It’s important because when we let go of the “shoulds” we’ve internalized, we free up space to make room for a life all our own. And when that life suits us, and includes what we really care about, the discomfort we face for being different tends to hardly matter to us at all.

The future is not clear-cut, and that can be uncomfortable. The years ahead of you will undoubtedly involve insecurity and tough decisions. But I promise that in time, discomfort will feel more and more like a friend. It will help you grow, realize your strength, and increase your self-awareness. 

Your time here  has shown you the value of tolerating and learning from discomfort. It’s made you more empathetic, and revealed to you the issues you care most about. It’s molded you into a person who is eager to connect with others, and who will undoubtedly touch many lives in the years to come. And then inspire others to do the same.

Thank you, and congratulations. 

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