2010 Keynote Address: Renee Wolforth

First, I want to let you all know that this will be a very long speech.  I tell you this because every time I have been in your position – whether at a graduation, a lecture, question and answer session etc. – and someone stands up and says, by way of introduction to his or her speech, lecture, or question, “I will be brief” or “I am going to keep this short,” it seems that he or she never is “brief” and never “keeps it short.”  So I hope that by keeping your expectations low, you will be pleasantly surprised by my brevity, or at least if the speech is long, I can say, “I told you so.”

Speaking at Convocation

Second, I want to thank a few people:  Paige Blache for being kind and patient enough to do my TRINITY magazine interview via email.  Also, for introducing me to Rotary International and encouraging me to become a member as well.  President Pat McGuire for inviting me to speak to the seniors today.  I am honored to have this opportunity.  Thank you.  My professors at Trinity – I started to thank individual professors in this speech, noting my favorite class that I had with them, why I enjoyed it, how their knowledge and enthusiasm made me so happy to be in their classes, but I realized that every time I noted one, I would think of another professor, another class, and I was halfway down the page when I realized that I hadn’t even gotten through the “thank yous” to the speech itself yet!

So, I will just have to thank them all as a group for now.  Hopefully there will be an opportunity for me to thank them individually in another speech on another day.  So, thank you to all the professors who helped shape my time at Trinity.  I am deeply grateful to all of you.

My parents – without whom I would not have a college education to begin with, and would currently be “couch-surfing” around the greater D.C. area, instead of sleeping in a comfy bed every night.

I also want to thank Paige for coordinating a meeting with four of the graduating seniors, Irvin Moore, Tia Garrett, Waseme Berry and Morgan Kellman.  Thank you so much for taking the time out to give me some perspective on what the seniors are thinking about, as all of you get closer to graduation.

My Time at Trinity

I actually also gave a speech to the senior class at my own Convocation in 1997.  I believe that was the first year that I had heard about “the internet” and received my first email address, which I still have today.

I started my time at Trinity in 1994, which for me is a lifetime ago.  I was 17 years old when I started that year, and I just turned 34 about two weeks ago.  While the 34-year-old me laments about what I haven’t done yet, where I feel that I should be in my career, in my personal life, with my finances, etc., if I told the 17-year-old me that I would participate in not one, but two sports (crew and lacrosse) or that I would be senior class president at Trinity, I might not have believed me.  If had told the 17-year-old me that then I would go on to be in the Peace Corps in a country in Africa that I had never heard of, and that experience would still be changing my life more than a decade later, I definitely would not have believed me.

If I had told the 17-year-old me that I would go on to become an attorney and would go back to another part of Africa to work with refugees – and on safari to boot! – there is no way that I would have believed me.  But, as I would definitely have said at 17, I would be “wicked psyched” if that were all true.

So when I am thinking about how much I haven’t accomplished, how many places I haven’t seen, and how many languages I do not speak, I try to remind my 34-year-old self what my 17-year-old self would think about my life now.  And remember that I should be “wicked psyched” about it.

Realize Your Privilege

So, this is the first thing that I want to tell the seniors:  “Realize your privilege.”  Realize that what you are about to achieve is something that most people in the rest of world will never achieve because they will never have the privilege to be offered the opportunity to do so.

I asked the four students that I met with a few weeks ago to each send me a quote to include in my speech today.

Tia Garrett sent me a quote from Nelson Mandela which states, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  So, realize your privilege and use your education to change the world, but as Morgan Kellman’s quote explained, “Most of us will never do great things, but we can do small things in a great way.” (Anonymous)

You do not have to be Nelson Mandela to change your world – nor the world around you.  Just think how a teacher or professor; a boss or a colleague; a friend or a stranger; or some member (or members) of your family has helped to change your world for the better just by doing a small thing (or many small things) in a great way … for you.

Waseme Berry’s quote from John Quincy Adams states, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”  This is a quote that made me think about leadership in a different way.  I always thought of leadership as the ability to get a large number of people to follow you, to listen to you, and to accomplish a goal or task that you set out for them.  However, this quote seems to have a much simpler message about leadership: that leadership is also about inspiring others to set new goals in addition to accomplishing those goals.

So, try to inspire others by your actions and maybe take the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  Thanks to Tia Garrett for sending along that quote as well.

I will tell you from personal experience that taking the road less traveled is not the easy road.  It is a struggle.  So, I would like to think that I have been rewarded by who I have become, as Irvin Moore’s quote from John Ruskin states, “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.”  So, when I am really struggling, I try to look at the lessons that you can learn from the struggle – no matter how small.

The Economy

Speaking of struggle, the students that I spoke with all echoed that the biggest struggle that they are afraid they face is in finding a job after graduation.  I will not make you all promises that there will be jobs out there waiting for you when you graduate.  Even in a great economy, there will not be jobs just “waiting” there for you.  You have to make them happen.

So, I will tell you now – enjoy your weekend, but, starting Monday, if you already know what job you want, find people who are in it.  Call them, email them, meet with them.  Find out how they got there.  Most importantly, when you meet these people, ask them about themselves.  People love to talk about themselves.  Why do you think I am here?

If you don’t know what you want to do, have no fear.  A friend of mine who is 63, and who has had a long career in sociology, posted on Facebook a few months back that she didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up.  I was immediately comforted after reading this.  I thought, “Great!  Peggy is 30 years older than me and she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up!”

Then I was subsequently gripped by fear and I thought, “No!  Peggy is 30 years older than me and she doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.”

So don’t expect to know what you want to be when you grow up right now.  But as for finding a job, start looking now.  See what interests you.  Volunteer.  Volunteering is good for the soul – and the resume.  It gives you skills, makes you contacts, and shows your interest.

Find a mentor.  Once you have figured out what you want to do in five years, find someone who is in that job.  Keep in contact with him or her.  Touch base every few months to let your mentor know what you are up to and find out what your mentor is up to.

I will leave you with what I told my senior class in 1997:  “Congratulations!  You’ve made it! …Almost.”

Thank you.