The following is the speech I gave at the graduation reception for Western Illinois University’s College Student Personnel program 2015 graduates. I share it, slightly amended, because I think that it applies to all graduates entering the field of student affairs as new professionals. Congratulations to everyone!
Hello, parents, family, and friends. My name is Sarah Schoper, and it is wonderful to stand before you here today. I want to start off by thanking you for being who you are because who you are has had a profound impact on the students. I have truly valued getting the opportunity to learn with each of them, and find them to be amazingly, beautiful individuals. I look forward to seeing how they contribute to the world around them, and cheering them on from afar.
(You should be forewarned that my mom told me to be funny so that I wouldn’t cry, and what I’m going to share is my attempt to do that.)
As you may have heard from your student, I decided to take a last minute sabbatical this semester (they probably referred to it as a trip to the hospital). Apparently, I felt the need to do a little more research on the biology of learning, and have indeed discovered that the experiential learning cycle is how learning occurs, that neurons need to connect to build pathways in the brain for learning to happen, and that we take in information through all of our sense that contributes to our learning, amongst other things. I am still in the midst of my research, also known as therapy, but so far, I can assure you and your student that I’m doing everything I can to teach only accurate and true information. It is this most recent research process that I’ve engaged in that has led me to five points, I want to share with the graduates to consider as they continue on in their life’s journey.
1. Celebrate everything (and if you do so with nonalcoholic mimosas, various owl gifts, inspirational items, orange nails, and motivational quotes) all the better! In our world, it is far too easy to see the glass half empty rather than half full. Don’t underestimate the small steps you take because they add up over time to big changes.
2. If you are doing your job well, you will be uncomfortable and feel quite challenged. (no, this doesn’t mean that you should go around instigating issues haphazardly). Going into the field of student affairs means that you get the opportunity to impact every day (no matter your position) the lives of the students you interact with in ways that are life altering. This enormous amount of responsibility and privilege should leave you feeling uncomfortable and challenged for many reasons, including that by doing so you are also continuing to grow and develop. (which, as we learned together in theory class, most of us don’t want to do.) So, breathe deeply, stand tall, and be persistent as you find yourself feeling uneasy, it might just signify that learning is about to happen, which is hard, but also might just provide an amazing opportunity to grow.
3. (and this relates to the point I just made about seeking out uncomfortable experiences and challenging yourself.) Do your best to step back so that you can get a different perspective on the situations you are experiencing. This can mean taking time to quietly reflect while going on a walk and/or it can mean discussing a situation with a trusted friend or mentor in order to help process out your experiences. We discussed once in class how we tend to focus on those who we interact with the most (which are also those who happen to be like us the most), but remember it is important to be aware of those we don’t spend time with and to consider why that might be. Especially since student affairs exists to serve all students.
4. It is okay to be protective of your environment, so that you can be yourself, and perhaps more importantly, so that you can have hope. In almost every class, we’ve discussed the interaction between environment and person, and we’ve established that it has a profound impact on how a person makes sense of the world, which in turn has a profound impact on what they contribute to the world. If you don’t create space for hope to exist within the educational environment, it is far too easy…especially these days, to become negative and cynical, which will then impact the work that you do and the learning that occurs for your students. If you don’t believe me about this, consider times when you’ve been around people who are pessimistic about their experience and how easily their negatively caught on and became the thing to do…almost without conscious realization of it. You will pass along such negativity to those coming to you for help if you do not create space for hope.
5. (and perhaps most important) Show love to everyone around you. I know that you are all capable of doing so, because you have shown it to me (especially this semester as I’ve been doing my research 🙂 ). Doing so, won’t always be easy either (again, sort of like this semester), but it has the ability to transform the world into a kinder place, and I know this because it has transformed me.
During your program interview days, I remember sitting in the academic discussion, and one of you asking me to share what I’ve learned from the students since I had just finished talking about how learning goes both ways. At the time, I had a lot of thoughts in my head, and stumbled through my answer—the student came to WIU, so I must have done something right. 🙂 Now, that you all are about to graduate, the answer to that questions seems so clear. I’ve continually learned how to love more unconditionally, and for that, I am ever grateful. You’ve helped transform me into a stronger person, and I thank you for that because I’ve needed that strength this semester. One of my mentors, Marcia Baxter Magolda, once told me to never underestimate the students, and I sincerely believe that and encourage you all to hold onto it. All students have something to contribute, and it is amazing and beautiful to acknowledge and an honor to be a part of that.
So, in conclusion, I will leave you with two quotes. First, a Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh quote (seems sort of fitting at a graduate level graduation):
The second quote is from a spoken word poet, Shane Koyczan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZfhpD42Z4Y The specific quote I read starts on 4 minutes, 2 seconds.
“Shine in the dark places. Lend the world your light.”
From my heart to your heart, thank you for helping me to find my light this semester—I can only hope that I have returned the favor and helped you to find yours during your time in the program. Congratulations!