Graduates should make lives special

By KIMBERLY BARRETT / Guest Columnist

Summer is a time for rest and relaxation but it is also a time of transitions. One of the most prominent transitions that occur at this time of year is graduation. We were fortunate at the University of Montevallo to be able to hold our spring commencement on the beautifully landscaped lawn of Flowerhill, our president’s residence. Graduates and the audience were inspired to give back to the community by a keynote speech by Kristina Scott, executive director of a program associated with the Alabama Poverty Project.

Surprisingly, the most talked about graduation speech this year didn’t come from President Barack Obama, the secretary of state or another famous person. It came from a high school English teacher, David McCullough. A recurring theme in his remarks was that graduates were not special. Although I understand his point, I prefer the way Mary Schmich put it a few years ago in her mock graduation speech, “Wear Sunscreen.” She wrote, “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.”

In fact, I do believe that all graduates are special. By special I mean that they are privileged. Something — whether it was supportive parents, wealth, intellectual brilliance or the sheer drive and determination to endure adversity to finish high school or a post-secondary degree program — put them at graduation, which is both a major achievement and advantage.

But I think the real point of McCullough’s speech and many other speeches this time of year is to urge graduates not to squander this privilege, but to use it to enrich their lives and the lives of others in the most meaningful ways. So I will leave you with a quote from McCullough’s speech that makes this point:

“Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others… And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”

Kimberly Barrett is the vice president for student affairs at the University of Montevallo.