Shaping a Life
The old adage about the three R's is fine, but the three C's serve us better when we consider how to best live our lives.
Editor’s note: This spring President Williams was invited to deliver the commencement address at the Sacred Heart School of Montreal (SHSM), of which she herself is an alumna. Below are excerpts of her speech to the high school graduates.
Statistics suggest that we will have at least six or seven major life roles and careers over our lifetimes. As I look back over the years, I have already met my life quota—although I am not done yet!
I graduated from SHSM and went on to college with a happily underdeveloped sense of what I wanted to do, although medical school was on my list. This is the point where you now are in your lives.
After interesting and engaging years at university and two graduate degrees, I am a doctor—not a medical doctor—and I have no regrets. My senses of direction and purpose developed over time— as will yours—as I charted new intellectual territory, responded to what captured my heart and soul, and evolved into the person I have become. And that is why I am here today.
It is safe to say that you are not the same young women today that you were when you began your studies here. You are more self-assured, independent, and confident. You have listened intently, been challenged, discovered much, changed your mind, and stood your ground.
SHSM taught me, as it has taught you, that anything is possible within the limits of our intellectual abilities, our energy, and our curiosity. It taught us about hard work, about lifelong friendships, about our responsibility to keep learning, and about our responsibility to put our talents to work for the benefit of others.
As you continue your studies, I have no doubt that you will explore broadly. This is the time in your life when you can pursue one area of study, then another, and perhaps another . . . while you seek to find a passion that will ultimately launch you into the world. Even if you think you know what you want to study right now, I know that you will take courses in other disciplines that sound interesting or intriguing. You may do this because a friend told you the course was interesting, or because the faculty member was engaging or challenging.
Research has shown that the most effective people in life are those who combined rigorous study with other out-of-class activities during their undergraduate years. This is the foundation for living a balanced life, one where work will be part, but not all, of how you spend your time and how you define yourself. As you prepare to go forward in the world, remember that women do not necessarily start from the same starting line as men. As women, we still have much work to do, around the country and around the globe. We need to work hard with and for one another, in order to realize our individual and collective potential.
You are smart, prepared, and determined. Where do you go from here?
Today the question foremost in the minds of many young people like yourselves is, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Cast that question aside—while your parents gasp a little—and substitute these questions: “How do I want to live my life?” “Who do I want to become?”The answers to the “what” questions will take care of themselves. There will be many answers, in fact. The answers to the “how” questions will, ultimately, become your life story—a story that will develop over time as you make choices about what is important, what deserves your time and attention, what is enjoyable to learn, and where you can make a difference.
Life is about choosing a direction or path now, not about making a decision now for what life will look like in 25 years. Life experiences shape us—and you, likewise, shape that life experience by the decisions you make all along the way. You have the capacity to make decisions about what lies before you now, and this capacity will grow over time, enabling you to continue to make the decisions that you will face later.
The old adage about school—that we must learn the three R’s—serves us well, to a point. But the three C’s—compassion, care, and commitment—serve us better when we consider how best to live our lives.
We live in a world that is increasingly divided on many fronts, where we don’t or won’t engage with those whose opinions differ from ours. As future leaders, you must shun these tendencies and perhaps teach your elders anew the importance and power of having an open mind. We cannot continue, as a world society, to use differences to separate us; that precludes us from coming together for the ultimate good of humanity. However, you enter a world where these tendencies are abundant. They constitute a disease that you must avoid. Work against the tide of divisive national and world politics. You can take us to another level of communication and common bonds.
A great world awaits you—one filled with wonder and opportunity, and one that will welcome your talents, your knowledge, your integrity and ethics, your determination, and your commitment to social justice.