The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

December 2002
Commencement Address
by Dr. Diane Halstead

Thank you, Dr. Stacy. Good afternoon.

I was amazed to hear the advice from people when they learned I was to give a commencement address. One person said to me, "I wouldn't worry about it-nobody listens to those anyway." And I thought, "Oh good, so it's just like teaching class." I learned a long time ago how to speak with the sounds of snoring in the back of the classroom.

A girlfriend of mine, somewhat predictably asked, "Oh Diane, what are you going to wear?" That was the one thing I didn't have to worry about! There's nothing like a long black robe in a size 24 to make a girl feel slim. And I feel like a real fashion queen. But I didn't have to shave my legs, so that's a plus.

One professor told me, "You should thank all the departing seniors for the new technology fees they paid since they'll never enjoy the benefits of them."

But a truly scary thing happened when I started to research what others have said in commencement speeches over the years-and most of all who said it.

World famous statesmen and politicians, presidents and past presidents, spiritual leaders and writers and poets, giants of industry, Olympic athletes. People like Martin Luther King, Ted Turner, Barbara Bush, John Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm, Bill Cosby, Winston Churchill, and Desmond Tutu.

It is an intimidating, overwhelming, and auspicious group. You get me!

What Dr. Stacy didn't say in the introduction was:

I am a woman who, on her very first day of kindergarten sobbed uncontrollably and would not, could not let go of her mother's hand. I was so afraid. I wanted nothing to do with school. I am a woman who failed her driving test, not once but twice. A woman whose family nickname growing up was "Disie Poo Poo." A woman so shy and lacking in confidence growing up that she sat home many days and read books rather than go out and play with friends. A woman who grew to well over 200 pounds because she ate to make herself feel better. A woman who later failed at much bigger things later in life- like a first marriage. And her first faculty position.

So you see, I'm nothing like the other people who've given commencement addresses.

But I also won't tell you today to: "DARE TO DREAM" or "FIND YOUR OWN VISION" or "STRIVE FOR EXCELLENCE," or any other trite cliche' that's ever been said in a graduation speech. And they're all there-I know- because there's a book called, 300 Years of Commencement Speech History, and I almost bought it.

Did you know that you can buy a commencement speech online now? Well, of course you do- some of you wouldn't be here today without buying your term papers over the Internet!

So, this will not be your typical commencement speech. I have no list of "Do's and Don'ts" for you. No sage career advice. I don't have any jokes. No funny stories about politicians or professors, nor do I have any interesting quotes from famous people.

The question is: Why?

Because there are only a FEW times in your life that you can really take pause and ponder your own existence on this earth and the meaning of life. The meaning of YOUR life.

And THIS is one of them.

And I could relegate this occasion to advice about getting ahead or how to achieve success in your career. So instead my goal here is to share with all of you- just three things. Three things that exemplify, to me, some of the most important human themes-or at least, three things that I know for sure.

FIRST-

Life is an endless stream of CONTRADICTIONS and INCONSISTENCIES. Most of it doesn't even make sense, and if you try to figure it out or fix it, you'll only end up anxious and frustrated. Trust me, I know. And I'm the kind of woman who has to straighten the fringe on the Oriental rug before I leave the room. I've TRIED to figure it out- you CAN'T.

Let me give you a few examples.

The same magazines that proclaim to "Trim Your Tummy in 20 Days" will offer you, on the very next page "The World's Best Brownie Recipes." Or even worse something like, "How to Change Your Life with One Simple Step." I always wonder, is the "simple step" the brownies or the tummy tuck?

They tell us that "Haste makes waste," but then, "The early bird gets the worm." And "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can get done today," but we're supposed to "stop and smell the roses." When do we have time to smell the roses when we're busy doing everything today?

I've also heard " You can't succeed if you're afraid to fail!" I have found the exact opposite to be true. Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear of failure can be a good thing - it makes us work harder, prepare longer, give some extra effort. (I obviously didn't figure this out after flunking my driving test THE FIRST TIME!)

Life is one big contradiction, and you'll drive yourself crazy if you try to figure it out. So don't. Embrace it. And know that's the way life is supposed to be. Try to find some BALANCE in your life, and be sure the trade-offs you make are worth it.

And while I'm talking about trade-offs, let me bring up my SECOND point.

Whatever trade-offs or compromises or sacrifices you had to make to get you here today- the financial cost to you or your family, the lost sleep, the lost jobs, the lost time with your children, LET ME TELL YOU- it was worth it. I never ever heard people say they regretted going to college, or regretted earning a degree. Or that it was a waste of money. EVER. Have you?

I've heard people say they regretted NOT going, or not having the chance to go. As many have regretted not finishing. There is unquestionable worth in education. I know it first- hand myself, and I know how lucky and privileged you are. But graduating today, you're doing something that 75 percent of adults in the United States haven't done. (Even more if you're getting your master's degree today).

I came from a poor family with six kids. My father worked three jobs at times in order to send us to Catholic schools. I had no idea growing up that my parents had to pay tuition- I didn't even know that everyone wasn't Catholic. He worked as an insurance underwriter during the day, then as a security guard at night, and painted houses on the weekends. I can remember his leaving at night in his guard uniform, and he carried a gun. I was terrified he would get shot and not come home.

My parents declared bankruptcy at one point. Years later, I realized how much my parents had sacrificed financially for our education- when we finally went to high school we were far ahead of our classmates. And I was able to earn scholarships to college. To me college was a way out- a way to not have to struggle the way my parents did.

But it was a long time until I was able to live that way. During college I had collection agencies calling because my housing bills were overdue. I took a job cleaning houses during the school year for extra money. Scrubbing someone else's filthy toilet in order to pay for school is STILL a price I would pay today.

When I finished my Ph.D. and started teaching, I was thousands and thousands of dollars in debt. But I have been paid back a million times over since then, not just in the quality of my life but in a vocation that I know is my life calling. And I get to share in your joy today, and the joy of your families. But it's education that got us here. So you should feel proud of everything you've sacrificed for this day. You will never regret it.

MY THIRD AND FINAL POINT:

You can do ANYTHING if you really want it. But you have to REALLY want it. And you have to be willing to WORK HARD at it. You can't do it on desire alone. Or sheer will. But you CAN do it. I believe this. I know this with all my heart. Let me tell you why I know this. I know this because I was a 5'3" 212 pound compulsive eater and worrier. I hated to walk, let alone run. But I started walking. Then I walked a little faster. Then I added hand weights. Then I jogged a little on the downhill. Then I jogged a little more. Then a little more. It takes no special talent, this running thing-just one foot in front of the other. It takes stubbornness more than anything-sheer perseverance. If I can learn what it takes to run a marathon and experience the joy and confidence of overcoming fear and doubt, certainly you can achieve your goals. But there's a much better example than my example. You see, every time I feel a little proud that I accomplished something so difficult, something I NEVER imagined I could do, I think about a man named John.

John is in his late 50s I think. He is an ex-Marine who has competed in the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon many times. A full Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, finished up with a marathon of 26.2 miles. And the entire time, John is pulling his severely physically handicapped adult son with him. In a raft on the Pacific Ocean for the swim- In a cart behind his bike in the sweltering sun, and in front of him for 26 miles on the marathon.

He does it because his son told him one time, using a computer that helped him speak, when they ran together, he felt happy. He felt whole and free. He told his father that when they ran in races, he didn't feel handicapped at all, and he loved the RUSH of the wind and movement of the pavement. And so John trains hard so he can give his son a good life.

YOU CAN DO ANYTHING-you just have to want it enough and be willing to work hard for it. Thank you for the incredible privilege of sharing my thoughts with you. Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2002!