Thank you, President Strauss and Dean Wepner, members of the Board of Trustees, Vice Presidents, and distinguished faculty. And congratulations to the graduates of Manhattanville’s Class of 2015— and your proud parents and families.
I graduated from college nearly 50 years ago to this date, but I can still remember the excitement, the sense of possibility as I set out to make my mark on the world.
Standing in my cap and gown, holding my bachelor’s degree, was especially meaningful: I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.
I was lucky to have had parents who instilled in me a love of learning. My father, in particular, encouraged me to pursue my passion, which turned out to be education.
While other teachers rushed up the career ladder, I remained in the classroom for 22 years.
I believed that all children, no matter where they lived or what their parents did for a living, deserved the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I developed a whole-child approach to education that guides my work today.
Later, as a staff developer, principal, superintendent, and deputy chancellor, I worked collaboratively across the system to ensure that students, families, and educators had the tools they needed to succeed.
My career has been more fulfilling than I ever imagined it could be. Certainly, I never dreamed that at age 72 I would be at the pinnacle of my career, using the skills I’d honed over nearly 50 years, to lead the largest school district in the nation.
Today, I look out at your bright faces and see young people at the dawn of your professional lives. And I rejoice with you, because you now have 50 years, or more, to make a difference.
Before I share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned over the years, I want to say that I do not normally deliver commencement addresses. I feel that young graduates would rather hear from a peer than from someone who has already lived the greater portion of her life.
So let me tell you why I accepted President Strauss’ kind invitation to speak to you today.
First, Manhattanville was created as a Catholic boarding school for girls. I am a product of 12 years of parochial school and went to an all-girls high school.
I was fortunate to have spent my formative years in a culture that valued service and an ethical approach to life. I know these are values Manhattanville holds sacred. So that is one reason I am here today.
The second reason is that I had the privilege of working with a remarkable woman who graduated from your esteemed institution when there were few role models for women who aspired to be leaders, movers, and shakers.
You may not know the name Kathleen Grimm, so let me tell you a little bit about her. Kathleen was one of my Deputy Chancellors, and she had grit. She was tough. She was fearless. She was also one of the most ethical people I knew.
During Kathleen’s nearly three decades as a public servant, including 12 at the Department of Education, she always put New Yorkers first. And never lost sight of her goal: to move all of our students, our school system, and all New Yorkers to greatness.
For her, public service was not a job, it was her passion, and it showed in the small and large things she did every day.
Kathleen also understood the importance of community, and reaching out to her extended Manhattanville family. After graduation, she drove to Mexico to teach and persuaded her brother to drive with her.
Along with her luggage, she made a point of carrying the Manhattanville alumni directory, calling former students along the way to find places to stay. They all welcomed her. And that’s the power of your community.
I am telling you about Kathleen because you can’t hear any of this from her. Sadly, she passed away earlier this year.
One of the many things she and I shared was a belief that there was a lot the younger generation could learn from us. We’d always marvel at the 22-year-olds who looked at us as if we were obsolete, who thought they were so much smarter than we were.
Yes, you’re smarter at tweeting and posting to Instagram and Facebook, and using social media to brand yourselves.
But do you know how you’re going to change the world? Because that’s the challenge before you. What will you do to reach your pinnacle?
So now I will share a few thoughts.
First, I encourage you to live a life of purpose. One way to do that is to imbue public service into whatever field you choose, whether you work in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. As you rise in your careers, take every opportunity to give back. You can do it through grand gestures, but even small kindnesses can make a huge difference.
Second, don’t be in a rush to get where you think you want to go. Every moment has pleasures. It’s far more rewarding to savor the moments that make up the days of your life than regret the opportunities for joy and connection you let slip by. Trust me; you can’t get these moments back. So in your quest for the pinnacle, don’t miss out on life.
Third, never take family for granted. Having come out of retirement to do a job that is 24/7, I have made it clear that there are times I hold sacred: Friday night dinners with my grandchildren, Sundays with my husband, and a ladies’ night every other month with 12 women friends who remind me that fellowship and rich conversation are good for the soul.
You will believe you don’t have time for family and friends. Believe me, you do—and you should take that time.
So today, in Kathleen Grimm’s honor and in honor of all the women and men who have achieved by staying true to their values and giving back, I exhort you to go forth fearless. Go forth bravely.
Draw on your Manhattanville community. Everyone here wants you to succeed. We need you to succeed, because you are our future.
Yes, you will face challenges. It won’t always be easy. You’ll make mistakes and missteps.
But if, in the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt, you believe in the beauty of your dreams, you will achieve your pinnacle.
It may come at 40, or 50, or even 72.
But I hope, when you get there, that you can cast your eyes upon the landscape you created and say that yours was a life well lived.
Congratulations, class of 2015!