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Graduation Address Presented at the Sacred Heart School of MontrealGraduation Address Presented at the Sacred Heart School of Montreal
President Peggy Ryan Williams

Sacred Heart School of Montreal
June 4, 2006

Good afternoon. I extend a special welcome to the graduates. We are here today to recognize you and to celebrate your accomplishments. It is an honor to be invited to join you on this occasion. It is also a pleasure because whenever I return here, I am filled with such wonderful memories.

Permit me to begin by outlining my address. First, I will tell you a little about me and why I think I am here today. Then I want to talk about you and why you're here today. Next I will discuss where I think you are going. Then, I will urge you to appreciate what you have gained and to give back to others less fortunate than yourselves. Finally, I will offer some advice which you probably will not fully appreciate until you find yourself standing where I am standing. 

My Path

Statistics suggest that you will have at least six major life roles and careers over your lifetime. As I look back over the years, I have already met my life quota -- although I am not done yet. I thought I would give you a brief autobiography to give you a sense of where my life and work have taken me.

It all began at the age of six with my first job as a frog marketing specialist. I caught and sold frogs to fishermen on the northern shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. The job required no specialized training and built on my natural aptitudes of physical quickness and persuasiveness. 

I dressed a little differently then than I do now; the hours were my own and the money was not bad for a six-year old. Like many entrepreneurs, however, I had some difficulty with my supervisor. My mother hated frogs, and sometimes my inability to keep the frogs confined to their cages on our back porch got me into trouble. 

I then had a stint as a girl's yo-yo champion for the west island here in Montreal. In that role I learned to compete, to handle publicity, to interact with strangers, and to deal with uncertainty. I also encountered my first experience with sex discrimination: the winner of the boy's competition got a bicycle. They gave me a watch! Eventually, I came to believe that, unlike figure skating, skiing, and other Olympic sports, a career as a professional yo-yo competitor held little promise.

My next career came while I was a student here, when I served as a volunteer at the Montreal Children's Hospital, where every week I visited very sick children. I fed them, read to them, and kept them company.

My early paying jobs included raking leaves, shoveling snow, and delivering a weekly newspaper. My first job as a paid employee came when I was in college, when I worked in the laundry of St. Mary's Hospital. In that role I began to learn about the real world of work and the people who inhabited it.

I graduated from the Sacred Heart School of Montreal and looked forward to college with a happily underdeveloped sense of what I wanted to do -- although medical school was on my list. You all are at this point in your lives today.

After several interesting and engaging years at university, I completed two graduate degrees. Now I am a doctor -- not a medical doctor -- and I have no regrets.

My sense of direction and purpose has developed over time, as will yours. I charted new intellectual territory, responded to what captured my heart and soul, and evolved into the person I am today.

You

Now let's talk about you. 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've listened intently, you've been challenged, you've discovered much, you've changed your mind, and you've stood your ground.

Sacred Heart School of Montreal 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.

Today is an important milestone in your lives as you graduate from high school and prepare for the next stage in life. The Sacred Heart School of Montreal has prepared you well for the next steps and has provided the foundation on which to develop further your intellect and other dimensions of yourselves.

As you continue your studies from this point, I have no doubt that you will explore broadly. Now is the one 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 intriguing. You may do this because a friend said that a given course was interesting, or because the faculty member was engaging or challenging.

I know you will also develop interests outside the classroom because of the broad education you have received here: athletics, the arts, student leadership opportunities, study abroad, and volunteering. 

These interests all sound familiar from your experience at Sacred Heart School of Montreal. There will be many more opportunities to explore such interests in the years ahead. Research has shown that the most effective people in life are those who combine 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. You are smart, prepared, and determined. Where do you go from here?

Women and the World

As you prepare to go forward in the world, remember that women do not necessarily start from the same starting line as men. I cite as examples of this phenomenon comments from the distinguished periodical the Economist and from the soon-to-be-former president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers:

In a special edition of the Economist, where the writers reviewed historical highlights of the past 1,000 years, the most significant social and demographic change noted for the 20th century was the "inclusion of women and former outsiders into every aspect of the public arena, particularly in leadership and other decision-making roles."1,2

In your experience here, you have seen women in leadership and decision-making roles everywhere you looked.  Among them are students, facult,y and administrators. It has been the norm for you.

In January 2005 Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University -- in a speech he gave at a national economic conference -- set the academy into a tailspin when he suggested that women might be underrepresented in the top tiers of science and mathematics because of "innate differences of ability from men." 3

As you get ready to take on the world, be prepared for reactions that reflect what I just quoted. As a girl's school, the Sacred Heart School of Montreal provided an environment that encouraged you to develop as an individual, without regard to gender. You are fortunate indeed in this regard; your experience is not universal. Hold on to the messages and perspectives from this wonderfully nurturing and enabling environment. Carry them as reminders wherever you go. Use this experience as a catalyst for moving forward with confidence and competence as a woman, but without naiveté about how the world might react to you at times. Don't be surprised that some in this world do not share our collective belief about the potential and capacity of women. At the same time, don't allow those beliefs to set you off course. Your reactions to those who might think that women are "not up to the task" will serve to educate them about who women really are. They will also make you stronger and more resilient. 

In the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a well-known American activist from the women's suffrage movement of the early 1900s: "Social science affirms that a woman's place in society marks the level of civilization."4 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.

Looking Forward: Life as a Path

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. This story 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. Likewise, you 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. This capacity will grow over time, enabling you to continue to make the decisions that you will face still later.

Sue Monk Kidd, in the prologue to her book The Mermaid Chair, writes, "So few people know what they are capable of. At forty-two I'd never done anything that took my breath away, and I suppose now that was part of the problem -- my chronic inability to astonish myself." 5

Because you will soon be graduates of the Sacred Heart School of Montreal, I know you have the capacity to astonish yourselves and those who know you. I hope you will have moments of joy and exhilaration when you say, "I did it! I did that?" I know these moments will come because you leave here with a sense of openness, wonder, and curiosity. You are open to what might come. You are willing to stretch and challenge yourselves. You are able to step outside of your comfort zone and explore, discovering new dimensions of yourself each step along the way.

Beyond You

But you know that it isn't all about you. The opportunities that you have had at Sacred Heart School of Montreal will launch you on your way with a sense of confidence and intellectual curiosity. The foundation has been laid for intellectual, social, moral, spiritual, and personal development. The quid pro quo for these experiences is your giving back. You have been given great opportunity and advantage. It is a privilege to attend this school. Privilege has a price. That price is the mandate to work on behalf of those less fortunate. You have a responsibility to use all that you have learned here -- in and out of the classroom -- to further develop your talents and gifts. You have a responsibility to put your talents to work to advance the common cause of humanity and the causes of the oppressed and vulnerable.

The old adage about school -- that we must learn the three R's -- serves us well, to a point. But the 3 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 to use differences to separate us, to preclude us from coming together for the ultimate good of humanity. However, you enter a world where these tendencies are abundant. They constitute a disease which you must avoid catching. Work against the tide of divisive national and world politics. You can take us to another level of communication and common bonds.

Advice

And now the advice:

#1.  As you leave here, build on your talents, gifts and interests. Leave behind those parts of you that you don't like so much, that have tripped you up in the past, that did not fit well with who you are or who you want to be. Others you meet will not know all there is to know about you, so now is the opportune time to reinvent some aspects of yourself and cast away some of the old you.

#2.   Don't try not to fail. Try to succeed. It does not matter how successful you have been to date. In the years ahead you will be challenged and sometimes you will fail. When you fail, fail forward. What matters is how you respond to such situations. You either fail backwards, or you use the situation to move on to a new understanding.

#3.   Encourage and empower others. Let your self esteem, energy, motivation, and confidence be contagious. At the same time, engage with others. Listen to them. Be open and learn from what they have to offer. Be open to people from different backgrounds and belief systems. Be open to what they have to teach you. Engage with them and you will enrich your experience and your life.

#4.  Do what you love doing and all else will follow. If you try to do something because others want you to or because you think you should, it will not work, because it will not capture your heart and soul. There are no "shoulds" here.  There is no set path to follow, no one life plan suited for everyone. The path is yours to define. In the words widely attributed to poet Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not go where the path may lead; instead go where there is no path and leave a trail."

Closing

A great world awaits you. It is one filled with wonder and opportunity. It will welcome your talents, your knowledge, your integrity and ethics, your determination, and your commitment to social justice.

In closing, I will borrow words from a letter a parent wrote me last year on the occasion of her son's graduation from Ithaca College. "Having invested so much in these vibrant young adults, we watch them fly away on wings of joy. We lose them at their best moment, don't we? And we send them out now with their own identities -- hoping and trusting that the best part of us goes with them."

We do lose you at your best moment -- your best moment to date, that is -- because we are confident that there will be many more "best moments" for each of you to come. Go now, and the best of us will come along.

Congratulations to you all and all the best.


1. Economist, December 23, 1999.

2. Sally Helgeson, Keynote address, meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges President’s Institute, January 2000.

3. Chronicle of Higher Education, January 28, 2005.

4. Evelyn Beilenson and Ann Tenenbaum, Wit and Wisdom of Famous American Women (White Plains, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1986).

5. Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair (New York: Viking, 2005), pp. 1-2.