Commencement Address

Permission to begin again

By Javacia Harris Bowser

Graduation season is upon us. In the months of May and June graduating seniors across the country will find themselves listening to speeches meant to help them tackle their futures fearlessly (or fearfully, if the speaker takes the shock and awe approach).

But are they really listening?

I don’t remember a single word from any commencement address from any of my graduations—not grad school, not undergrad, and certainly not high school. This has nothing to do with the fact that I’m in my late 30s and my memory is starting to fail me nor does it speak to the quality of the speeches. I, like most graduates, was just eager to get the pomp and circumstance over with so I could get to the real celebration with my family and closest friends.

I think we are more in need of a commencement address later in life than on graduation day. We are more in need of a motivational message when we’re years into a career only to realize it’s not what we really want to do. We need words of encouragement most when we’ve been pursuing our passion for over a decade and fear we’ll never make an impact or an income. We need inspiration when we realize that while we were working our five-year plan, eager to settle down, we simply settled.

It is in these moments of life that we need a commencement address. We need permission to begin again. We need permission to start over, to burn it all down and rise from the ashes, to build the life of our dreams from scratch.

You’re never too old to have childlike faith in yourself.

Remember when you were a kid and believed you could be anything in the world?  A doctor, an astronaut, a famous singer or ballerina!  There was a time when I wanted to be the first female president of the United States. When I was a teenager I wanted to launch my own print magazine.

Sometimes we let go of dreams because our goals and interests change. For example, while I make it a priority to keep up with the news and vote in every election I can, I realized I’m not interested enough in politics to run for any office. But sometimes we let go of dreams because our rational selves, our self-doubt tells us to do so. How on earth could someone start a magazine with journalism in such a tumultuous state?

This is when we need to take a cue from those graduating seniors. This is when I, as a teacher at a fine arts school, think of my students like the one who believes he will one day be an Oscar-winning filmmaker or the one who believes she’ll one day be a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

We need a commencement address when we feel we’re too old to go after our dreams.

In a TEDxWomen interview with writer Salamishah Tillet, feminist icon Gloria Steinem defines aging as “becoming more of my authentic self.” But she goes on to point out the irony of aging for women. When we are girls we are fearless and fierce, climbing trees and plotting plans to rule the world because of that childlike faith we have in ourselves. Then, Steinem says, we are stamped with gender roles and become confined by society’s stereotypes of what a girl should and should not be.

But then we age. And as we age we become more and more liberated from the notion that it is necessary to conform. We can, if we allow ourselves, become that fierce, fearless girl again. “You’re the same feisty person, but now you have your own apartment,” Steinem says with a laugh.

To be clear, I’m not trying to offer you a simple “Believe it and you will achieve it” kind of message. You’re old enough to know it’s not enough to be a dreamer. You must be a doer, too. You’ve got to put in the work. And you’re also old enough to know that even hard work doesn’t guarantee you success.

But I believe that becoming the woman you’re meant to be happens when you remember the girl you used to be and when you decide to define success for yourself.

Last year in her advice column for the New York Times, writer Roxane Gay had this to say to two readers who worried they were too old to pursue writing careers: “The older I get, the more I have to say and the better I am able to express myself. There is no age limit to finding artistic success.”

She went on to say, “Artistic success, in all its forms, is not merely the purview of the young. You are not a late bloomer. You are already blooming.”

So I invite you to commence. I implore you to begin again. Figure out how you—not your social media feeds—define success. Then write the vision, make it plain, and boldly go after the life of your dreams.

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