Raritan Valley Community College Winter Commencement Address

Good Evening!

I grew up in a family that revered higher education more than most people I knew. By the time I came to RVCC, I was married and had two children while all three of my brothers already had their master’s degrees. In 1998 I came to Raritan Valley Community College to fix what I had broken earlier in my life. When I came to RVCC I was a college drop-out.

When I graduated from high school in 1983 I went off to college just as I was expected to. Make no mistake—I loved it. I had a BLAST—Maybe just a little too much fun…. So college and I parted on mutual terms; I dusted the boot print off my behind just around the same time that I decided it was time for me to leave.

Again, don’t get me wrong; there is nothing that I am ashamed of from that time of my life. If I hadn’t left college when I did, I wouldn’t have met my husband Bob when I did. Had I not met Bob, I wouldn’t have my two amazing children.

There were many years I was the sole “uneducated” member of my immediate family, but at that time it didn’t really bother me. I was able to augment our family finances by waitressing. Then one evening at the restaurant I was carrying a bucket of ice up the stairs from the basement and I tripped, fracturing my left kneecap. The moment that I fell my “career in waitressing” came to a crashing end.

As I recall it, I sat home and just sunk into the only real depression I can ever remember. Our family needed my income, yet I had no education to do anything beyond waitressing. Who would hire me?

One afternoon, my brother John came to visit me. At one point I remember mentioning that I was considering returning to college... I’m telling you, at least as I recall it anyway, the words weren’t fully formed, let alone out of my mouth and we were heading up to Kean College for my transcripts and then here at RVCC to get me enrolled.

I didn’t know what to major in at the time. I just remember thinking ‘I loved commercial art and since I had studied it in vocational school and at Kean, it sounded as good as any other major to me.’ So I enrolled in a Drawing class and English II . I just remember walking in and looking around and thinking “ok, if we all went out tonight, it would be me and the professor who wouldn’t get carded”. I felt OLD. I felt out of place.

I had Professor Tom McGlynn for Drawing and Professor Ed Minus for English II. And although Professor Minus has retired from teaching, I invited him to join us here this evening, but unfortunately he was unable to make it. I took to college like a cat to milk. It was exactly what I had imagined. Mark Twain was right when he said: “Education is wasted on the young”.

When Professor Minus assigned the first essay he said “You can bring your work to me as many times as you’d like up until the date it’s due, and I’ll offer you feedback.” I thought to myself, ‘Your kidding right? I can bring my essay to you AS MANY TIMES AS I WANT until it’s due? AND you will give me corrections?’ (somehow that almost seemed like cheating... but hey, he was the professor, so I figured, if he was gunna let me bring it to him over and over, I’d kinda be crazy to not take advantage of it.’)

So, that is exactly what I did. I found out his office hours and I worked around them. I had a system. I would bring my essay in on Tuesdays; he would mark it up in red pencil and hand it back to me. I would make the corrections and bring it back on Thursdays. I was astounded that a teacher would allow me an infinite amount of times to ‘get it right’. Back and forth. I would make the suggested changes, he would offer new ones. One time I brought in my paper and he had his red pencil poised. He read and read, and then placed his pencil on the desk, without making a single mark. I waited. He smiled. I asked him “Is it an A?” He laughed, and said with his South Carolinian drawl; “Yes, Ella, it’s an ‘A’.” Realizing the essay wasn’t due yet I asked him: “What can I do to make it an A+?” He laughed and pointed to the door. (I think it might have been then that I realized I really loved school!)

I got involved, really involved with Phi Theta Kappa. I came to RVCC a college drop-out and left RVCC an honor student, and now I am being named a Distinguished Alumni.

From RVCC, I transferred to Montclair State to complete my Bachelor’s Degree. At the end of my time at RVCC I was so enamored with higher-ed I knew I eventually wanted a job at a college. At the end of my time at Montclair I did a pointed search for graphic designers in higher-ed within northern NJ and came across the position at New Jersey City University. After being employed at NJCU for about two years I started hearing my dad’s nagging voice in my head, asking me if I was fulfilling my potential, reminding me that working at a university I should be taking full advantage of the opportunity of earning another degree tuition-free, an amazing benefit of my job.

I received my Masters Degree in Educational Technology in 2005 from NJCU and am currently studying at Marywood University for a Master of Fine Arts Degree, a terminal degree within the Arts. It’s been a hell of an academic journey, but it won’t be over when I earn this final degree. I’ve now taught a couple college level courses and have since found my new passion. I love both teaching and learning from my students.

Never feel as if a community college education is second rate, because it’s not. I am so proud to be an alumna of this school.

You will walk out of here this evening with only one thing that NO ONE else has. You will be the only person alive who has sole custody of your life. Not just your life at a desk, or your life on a bus, or in a car, or at the computer. Not just the life of your minds, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul. You have been and will continue to be in charge of what will happen to you. Your life has been and will continue to be filled with choices; choices made by YOU.

I’ve sat in your seat. I know full well that each of you cannot wait to get out of here… to celebrate, and make your mark in the world, but for now, I suggest that you look to your right, and then to your left, and understand, if only for this moment, you could not be here without the help of someone else; your parents, your professors, your children, your spouse, your friends. Remember, our souls are a culmination of our experiences and are nothing without our loved ones.

Here is what I like to think my life’s resume consists of: I’d like to think I am a pretty good mother to two children. I have tried very hard to not to let my work stand in the way of being a good mother. I show up. I listen, I laugh (often I’m told, quite loud). I have tried to be a good friend to my husband. I have tried to make my marriage vows mean what they say. I show up. I listen. I laugh (often I’m told, quite loud). I know that I am a good friend to my friends, as they are to me. I have one friend who I have known just short of all of my life. Without her and so many others, there would be nothing to say to you tonight. But I call them on the phone, and I meet them for lunch, we go to the theatre, or to dinner. I show up. I listen. I laugh (often I’m told, quite loud).

I would be rotten, or at best just plain mediocre at my job, if those other things weren’t true. You cannot be really first rate at your work if your work is all you are.

So here is what I want you to walk away with tonight:
Go out and get a life. A real life, not a manic pursuit of the next promotion; a bigger paycheck; a bigger house. Do you really think you’d care so very much about those things if you found a lump in your breast or worse yet lost your spouse or child? Get a life in which you stop and watch as an eagle circles over and through the water-gap or the way a 6 month old baby scowls in deep concentration when he tries to pick up a cheerio with his thumb and first finger. Get a life where you share what you’ve learned with someone else. Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you back. Surround yourself with those who you respect and who respect you, people who you believe in and who believe in you. And remember that love is not leisure, it’s work. Each and every time you look at your diploma, remember that although you may have earned your degree, you are still a student, still learning how to best maintain your connection to others. Pick up the phone. Call your Mom. Hug your Dad. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Get a life in which you are both generous and gracious. Tithe. Work in a soup kitchen. Give without the expectation of receipt and you will receive far more than you could have hoped for.

On my dad’s tombstone there is a Kurt Vonegut quote that says: “We’re all here to help each other get through this thing; whatever it is.” That really is a concise synopsis of my father’s life, and I have tried very hard, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not so much, to live up to that lofty goal. But it is the one thing in life I have found to be life’s deepest and most honest truth.

The reality is, all of you want to do well. But if you do not do good then doing well will never be enough. But as you enter the workplace the most important thing to remember is you only get one chance to make a good first impression. ONE. The manners your mother taught you actually will FAR outweigh all of the book smarts and your portfolio for that first meeting. Your portfolio or academics may get you in the door, but your smile, your demeanor and your manners will land you the job. I remember as a child whenever we received gifts from outside of our immediate family we were expected to write a Thank You note. My mom was a stickler for them. We were expected and DID write those notes. What a chore it was. But if I can offer you one piece of professional advice it’s “Always listen to your mother!” She usually knows what she’s talking about! Interviewers have short memories. A thank-you note is your final chance to make yourself stand apart from all of the others who want the same position. If you have the time, a hand-written one leaves even more of an impact. Always smile and be polite. Look them square in the eye and be proud of where you came from and who you have become. It's one of the simplest things you can do. Your mother told you to always say it. By expressing it -- or not -- you can change a person's mood and perception of you in just an instant. Who knew two words could be so powerful?

At this point in my life, all I can say is it’s truly an amazing honor to first be considered and then ultimately be awarded the respected title of “Distinguished Alumni” from Raritan Valley Community College. Although my higher education officially started at Kean College of New Jersey, in my mind I feel it really began here at RVCC.

So now I say to the Distinguished Alumni Committee who chose me for this honor, and to Liz Mitchell who nominated me, to the Board of Trustees, to Dr. Crabill, to the faculty and staff but most of all to all of YOU for listening to me this evening “Thank you for this honor!” and “CONGRATULATIONS for a job well done!! Walk tall and be proud of this school. This school, and all it stands for, is incredibly proud of you!!”