By John Sullivan
Lesley University’s undergraduate Commencement is where celebration and perseverance come together. This year, they had to persevere through downpours.
“It’s raining out there, but the sun is shining on you graduates,” said Lesley Board of Trustees Chair Hans Strauch, with a grin, perhaps hearing a few good-natured groans at the quip. “That’s one of my classics.”
Though a fusillade of rain hammered the covered Leader Bank Pavilion, and family and friends arrived thoroughly soaked. Yet, the mood beneath the canopy was a mixture of mirth, relief and a sense of accomplishment among undergraduate students and graduates of our Threshold Program for neurodiverse learners.
Lesley President Janet L. Steinmayer and Commencement speaker Erik Weihenmayer – an adventurer and 1993 Lesley alumnus (M.Ed., Middle School Education) who was the first blind hiker to summit Mount Everest – urged, the new graduates should ascend real and metaphorical summits, and persist.
“The work you do, that all of you do, is essential as we all climb up this hill,” President Steinmayer said. “I can tell you that here at Lesley we are all inspired every day by you- who want to make our world better. You know the Lesley motto: ‘I would have perished had I not persisted.’ I hope your time at Lesley has made that a truth you will carry with you.”
“It’s professors who taught me how to be and how to serve,” Weihenmayer said.
“Today is a day of celebration. It’s a day of accomplishment.” “I think what doesn’t get talked about enough is the struggle.”
Weihenmayer related his story of losing his sight at a young age, and then his life as an adventurer, rock-climbing, mountain-climbing, kayaking in the Grand Canyon.
There were setbacks. The year before his successful summit of Mount Everest, there was a spectacular, dangerous failure, with one hiker plunging 150 feet, needing to be loaded into a bag that provided full-body hyperbaric pressure.
Other setbacks on the way to living a “no barriers life” were less dangerous, but no less humbling. One day while walking through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Weihenmayer’s guide dog somehow led him into a concrete barrier, sending the skilled hiker sprawling on his back, bloodied and covered with spilled coffee.
“I guarantee you I wasn’t saying all barriers are mental, then,” he quipped.
Undergraduate student speakers also discussed the importance of perseverance.
Kirsten Medina, the designated student speaker from our College of Art and Design, discussed the challenges she faced coming to the United States from her native Philippines when she was 14 years old.
She feared never being able to fit in, either at her high school or at Lesley. Though she made friends and connected with her teachers in the early days, “I always felt out of place,” she said.
“There were those who doubted me and doubted the life I wanted to pursue. And I almost believed them,” she said.
However, her journey took her to the Commencement stage of Leader Bank Pavilion, having served as a peer mentor and a teacher assistant.
“Through my leadership experiences at this university, I always felt in the right place,” she said.
Yes, she had to overcome struggles, but Lesley’s supportive atmosphere and sense of family, as well as her own drive, positioned her for success.
“I have suffered through many personal challenges, and I know I will face many more in the future,” Medina said. “As we head out into the world and go our separate ways, remember that you will not always be motivated. You will not always succeed. You are not perfect, but no one is asking you to be. Tune out those who seek to doubt you and tune in to what you feel ready to fight for.”
Yadira Alvarado, the student speaker for our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, shared her story, tracking her life from her days as a teenage single mother, through earning an associate degree to finally taking the Commencement stage as the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“We all have our own individual stories. And I hope that my personal story inspired all of you to continue to add to yours no matter how many obstacles you may have to encounter,” Alvarado said. “Those obstacles are placed in your path as a test to see how determined you are to succeed.
“Life is a test, and the quality of the life you live is not determined by a pass or fail grade, but of dedication, commitment, perseverance, and resilience. Our life stories are uniquely ours. But it is up to us to determine how we would like our story to end.”
Lesley Art + Design faculty speaker Kate Castelli also highlighted the importance of perseverance.
“It's no small feat to begin something and see it through to the end. I think it’s important not just to celebrate what you’ve accomplished, but to acknowledge that today is also an ending,” said Castelli, professor and chair of the Department of Illustration. “We often talk about the courage it takes to begin, to take the literal and proverbial first step on the journey. But I think it takes as much, if not more, courage to make it to the end.”
The other faculty speaker, Professor Lisa Fiore, chair of Education in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, talked about the hard stuff in life.
“We learn to be afraid of hard stuff – hard stuff hurts. Hard stuff often exacts a price,” Fiore said. “Sometimes hard stuff leaves scars – some are invisible, but we know their edges well.
“People who write for young children know that hard stuff is compelling, and that fear is a primal, motivating force.”
Fear, and his determination to face it, propelled Weihenmayer up his first rock and, eventually, up Mount Everest.
“These fears, they conspire against us and they freeze us,” he said, unless one keeps climbing, “reaching out in the darkness.”
But keep reaching, keep connecting with others. Keep trying.
“There is a German proverb that says, ‘To begin is easy, to persist is art,’” Castelli said. “You're sitting here today because you did persist. You kept a commitment to yourself despite detours and roadblocks and steep inclines.”
President Steinmayer earlier indicated that the Lesley community is here to encourage students and alumni and every stage of their journey.
“I wish that, having learned from our wonderful faculty, staff, and community to climb high, that you will attempt mountains, and enjoy the journey,” Steinmayer said. “… And I wish that you will make every day, and every journey, count.”
“This is your moment,” said Alumni Association President Albert Myers ’18, who pointed out that he and his classmates had the same sort of torrential rain at Commencement.
“Everyone who sits here today is the future,” Myers said. “And no one can take that away from you. No one can take your Lesley education away from you.”