WCSU Undergraduate Commencement Speech
Dr. Janet Robinson
Commencement, May 12, 2013
Western Connecticut State University
Greetings, Graduates, Parents, Family, University Professors and Friends,
I am honored to be invited to be part of this wonderful celebration as you are awarded college degrees and to receive this award. You have worked hard to meet the standards for your degree and hopefully that will open doors for you as you go forward in your lives. I am certain your parents hope so also.
We haven’t met before today but I know something about all of you. To be graduating today, you have had to make some responsible choices when it wasn’t always easy. Some of those choices were as simple as saying no to friends urging you to join them when you had a paper due. Some of those choices were deeper and harder but your choices have made the difference as you are here today receiving your degree. Little choices can sometimes make all the difference.
We don’t always have control over our circumstances but we do have the ability to choose our responses. Let me tell you about my experience on the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was a Friday night and I was driving back from Rockland County with the plan to meet some friends at a Danbury restaurant at 6 p.m. I was so looking forward to the evening. Suddenly, traffic comes to a halt. This was perplexing as the heavy traffic at that time of day is going the opposite direction. Then it became apparent that this traffic wasn’t just slowing. It wasn’t moving at all and soon people were turning off their cars and getting out. The word being shared was that there was a tractor trailer overturned on the bridge and it was closed for an indeterminate length of time. You could hear and see how frustrated people were. Some were honking their horns, but there was no alternative. Then one man began cleaning people’s windows with a bottle of Windex. Someone else brought out a case of Cokes and offered them to others. People began bringing out other snacks they had in their cars. It is amazing what food people had in their cars! People gathered and were sharing stories and empathizing with one another. It was another three hours before the traffic was able to move, but what happened during that time was so different from the initial anger, frustration. This situation was out of our control, but collectively people chose to respond to it with something other than anger or frustration. We cannot control all that happens in life but we do have the ability to choose our response to those events.
Pat Llodra and I happened to be leaders of the Newtown community and the Newtown School system when the unthinkable happened. I believe that we have been invited here to join you in your celebration for choices that we have had to make and continue to make as leaders. We cannot always control what happens. The only thing we have control over is our ability to choose how we respond, and in that response, we can help recovery take place. We can find ways to cope.
There are a number of lessons learned in the past months and I couldn’t possibly share all of them with you today, but I have great respect for your accomplishments and your experiences in making positive choices to get you to this point. So, I will share two things that I have come to value in people, and I believe people value in leaders.
One is resiliency: The ability to deal with misfortune, loss or even great tragedy with empathy, patience and confidence that you can eventually persevere. Rather than dwelling on their own sorrow or pain, a resilient person works to direct their own pain to help others, and in thinking of others, begins their own healing. You all know someone who falls apart at the slightest setback, but I’ll bet you also know someone who seems to cope with whatever comes their way. As you go forward in your careers and life, you may encounter setbacks that seem enormous at the time and the future looks bleak, but if you work to develop your own resiliency by focusing on helping, you too will persevere.
The second thing I have learned to value is joy, and that sometimes means finding joy in the simplest of things — a good joke, a friend’s call, a wonderful meal, a latte or reading a story to a child. There are so many little things that we take for granted that actually bring great joy and solace. I so admire those people who find joy in every little interaction. You too can choose to relish those moments and to simply have fun.
So, I challenge you as you move forward from here to make choices that keep you moving forward, are ethical, build your resilience, and bring joy to yourself and others.