WCSU Graduate Commencement Speech

Juanita T. James

Commencement, May 10, 2013
Western Connecticut State University

Thank you, Dr. Schmotter.

It is such an honor to be with you for this ceremony that acknowledges your hard work, perseverance and pursuit of higher education.

You, more than others, know that life is about learning and discovery.

It’s also about giving back. Perhaps you were here in October when the Dalai Lama spoke about the art of compassion — that feeling of deep sympathy for another who is suffering, and the desire to alleviate it.

I want to share with you how helping others has made a difference in my life.

I was an only child, but I grew up with lots of teenagers.

My mother’s younger brothers and sisters, then dozens of cousins, lived with us — one or two at a time — in our little house in Brooklyn, while they went to college.

Mom always said, “If you want to do something for someone, do it from your heart — and don’t talk about it.”

So I grew up believing that this is what you do — you help others out of love, you don’t make a fuss — and you go to college.

When I arrived at Princeton, I was one of the first class of women, and one of very few African-Americans.

I remember reading scathing Letters to the Editor in the school paper, ranting that the institution was being ruined by accepting women and minorities.

It was not the most welcoming experience, and I was terribly lonely and homesick. Yet the town of Princeton’s black community welcomed me, and became my refuge.

They introduced me to Princeton Community House, which encouraged Princeton students to volunteer and work with local children.

That’s how I met 7-year-old Lakay Broadway. I tutored Lakay in math and reading throughout my four years at Princeton.

I loved tutoring her, befriending her and watching her grow and improve as a student — and knowing I played a part in that.

In fact, tutoring Lakay was so rewarding, I decided to become a French teacher.

However, I didn’t get a teaching job after I graduated. I was hired by a French electronics company, and I discovered I liked business.

After a few years, a Princeton alumna recruited me to join the board of a nonprofit.

I found out I really liked board work. I could bring business skills like strategic planning, communications, time management and event organization to the nonprofit world.

It was exhilarating to work beside board members from totally different professions, yet be connected by this common cause.

Then, several years and nonprofits later, I became involved with Childhood Learning Centers in Stamford, and fell completely in love.

It ran a Head Start program and day care, serving several hundred children from low-income homes.

I was a board member, then board president, and a volunteer who read aloud to the kids.

While I was president, we, along with the mayor and school district, launched a city-wide initiative to provide every 4-year-old in Stamford with a quality preschool experience.

I loved every aspect of it — the strategy to create the plan, the challenge of partnering with the Board of Education and raising awareness of the importance of early childhood education.

It was such a feeling of accomplishment when we grew to serve several thousand children and help them start school on a level playing field.

Since my long-ago Princeton years of tutoring Lakay, I’ve been involved with dozens of nonprofit organizations as a volunteer, board member or contributor.

Along the way, I’ve been blessed to make lifelong friends, apply what I’ve learned to benefit others and feel a sense of meaningful purpose.

It’s incredibly enriching to be a part of something bigger than yourself, something that changes lives, something that helps make the world better.

Now, at the Fairfield County Community Foundation, I’m inspired every day by the generosity of people who not only want to reduce suffering, but help people reach the height of their potential.

I’m moved by the outpouring of compassion, most recently expressed within hours of the Sandy Hook tragedy, when so many called to ask, “How can I help?”

I’m humbled by the opportunity to impact the entire county with the direction and scope of our work.

Giving back has helped me form and solidify my values and gain clarity on what’s important.

It has guided me to seek work that has meaning and gives meaning to others. It has become a part of who I am and what I care about.

Without consciously realizing it, I’ve followed my mother’s advice: “If you want to do something for someone, do it from your heart — and don’t talk about it.”

Well, except for the part about “don’t talk about it.”

As you advance in your careers, I encourage you to find ways — apart from your job — to help others from your heart.

You don’t need to start with a big commitment in order to make a difference.

You give one hour of time. You can donate canned goods. You can send a check.  

The more you do this, chances are you’ll feel such satisfaction, you’ll want to get more involved. Perhaps by helping with an event … serving on a board … or tutoring a 7-year-old girl.

I guarantee that as you change lives, yours will be transformed as well.

Congratulations to all of you and to your families for your achievement.

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