The Path to a Meaningful Life

Sinclair Community College Commencement

Photo by Andy Snow

Faculty, friends, families, and — of course — Class of 2017. Congratulations! You did it! How very, very happy and excited I am to share this moment with you in “The Big Room”. Thank you for inviting me to be your commencement speaker.

Tradition dictates that my job today is to offer you some advice on what to expect as you leave this place and enter the “real world”. And I shall, a little — about leading a meaningful life. But, frankly, most of you already live in the “real world”.

So the honest truth is: I didn’t come here today to inspire you. I came here because you — and your college — inspire me. As one student put it: “Sinclair has the buzz.” You know what? Yes, it does.

This is a place where anyone with a desire to learn and to get ahead; to take their career to the next level, or start a new career altogether; to complete their education, or embark on further study; to grab a second chance, or make a fresh start, can pursue their dreams. That’s always been the promise of education in America. But it’s not always been the reality. Which is what makes Sinclair such a special place.

In today’s America, the path to a meaningful life runs right through community colleges like Sinclair. Some of our country’s top business leaders, scientists, astronauts, and athletes have all walked that path before you. And now, Class of 2017 — through your resilience, through your persistence, through your brilliance — you have earned your right to walk along it too.

Students like…

Angelia Yarbrough — Ever since high school, Angelia’s passion was to run her own business. For four years at Dayton, she’s juggled her studies with three jobs and raising two kids — most nights getting to bed at 4am and then back up again at 6.30. Today, she’s graduating as an entrepreneur major, the proud owner of two businesses, and preparing to transform Sinclair’s Disability Services. What a force of nature! Congratulations, Angelia.

And how about Steven Roberts. Steven was out of high school for more than a decade, casting around, not quite knowing what he wanted to do. Four years ago, Sinclair gave him a fresh start — and he’s grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Despite helping raise three kids and holding down a job at Trader Joe’s while he completes his education, Steven’s been on the Dean’s list for all five semesters. Today, he’s graduating with a paralegal major and ready to make good on his ambition to — as he puts it — “help people help themselves”. Congratulations, Steven, there is nothing more noble than that.

These are the small victories that make a big difference. They don’t get a lot of publicity. But they are what futures are built on. In fact, Angelia, Steven — and everyone one of you — are proof that it doesn’t matter where you’ve been; what matters is where you are going.

So, where are you going? All of you have committed time, energy, and money to this endeavor, and that investment is about to be rewarded handsomely. Whatever comes next — whether it’s more study, or whether it’s work — my hope and conviction is that ultimately you will all go on to good, rewarding careers.

Sinclair has prepared you for that. With courses in healthcare, advanced manufacturing, logistics, robotics, and more, no other school in America is equipping people better for the modern workforce. And I have seen how this approach has established Sinclair and its students as essential cogs in the engine of Dayton’s economic rejuvenation. This is truly the community’s college. And you should be incredibly proud to say: “I am from Dayton, Ohio — and I graduated from Sinclair.”

You might be surprised to hear me say that there will be times when you feel anxious telling people where you came from. You’ll be somewhere that makes you feel like you don’t belong; that you are not good enough for that job; that you don’t have the pedigree of the other people in the room; that you’re somehow out of your league.

I know that feeling. We all know that feeling — because it happens to pretty much everyone at some point. It has probably already happened to many of you. It even has a fancy psychological name. It’s called impostor syndrome — and while you can’t avoid it, you can prepare for it.

It happened to me when I left my parents and six brothers and sisters in Reno, Nevada, to start my internship in medicine in San Francisco. I sat around a large table with my 25 new colleagues and sank lower and lower in my chair as introductions began. All I heard was “Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, Johns Hopkins…” When my turn came, I said, “University of Nevada”. And then finally I heard someone announce, “University of Kentucky”. I looked up, and smiled. In that moment, I had found one of my tribe. And more importantly, over time, I realized that I not only deserved to be around that table; I could be there as myself — my genuine self: Sue Desmond from Reno, Nevada.

Much as I appreciated the generous introduction from Chairman Connelly, and while everything he said is true, it is not all of who I am.

I am also the second of seven kids. The last one, my sister Jen, was born after I started college. And I was looking at an old picture of myself as a college freshman recently, and I was wearing an apron. I was a student, cooking dinner for mom, dad, and six kids — trying to help my mom while juggling homework and my ambition to go to medical school.

And I am also a doctor who returned from working in Uganda to find no funds available to continue as a faculty member at UCSF. I’d applied my learning and skills to the problem of AIDS in Africa. I’d expected the professional equivalent of a ticker-tape parade when I returned home and instead found myself hustling to get a job to pay the bills.

The point of telling you all this is not to gain sympathy or curry favor but to persuade you that shortcomings, failures, bad luck, heartache — they are all an inevitable part of being human. No meaningful life is lived as an unbroken string of successes. And today I want to encourage you to lead a meaningful life. Don’t limit your ambitions to making a living; challenge yourselves to live a meaningful life. A life where you don’t just to make a dollar, you make a difference; you don’t just settle for personal happiness; you fulfill a noble purpose. No job, regardless of the pay or perks, can take the place of a meaningful life.

So in pursuit of a meaningful life: two pieces of advice: first, be genuine. Show up as your true self, revel in your individuality, embrace your uniqueness. Know that every new experience will make you feel a bit uncomfortable. In those moments of discomfort, remember that who you are deep down and what you’ve learned throughout your life to date is what got you to that opportunity. Never hide what makes you, you.

Second, be grateful. You’ll depend on others throughout your life, and you should welcome that and remember to say thank you.

I remember coming home after the first week of medical school, and putting my head on the table and crying, and telling my dad that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cram everything in. I just couldn’t succeed. And I remember him not just patting me on the back, but also pointing out the ridiculousness of what I was saying. I’ll always be grateful for that moment.

Every one of you has someone like that. Indeed, many of you are here today because of someone else. Someone in your family, or maybe someone at Sinclair. Someone who had the dream of a meaningful life for you, before you even had it for yourself. Because they believed in you, they wanted you to succeed. That’s why they put just as much into this as you did. Maybe they worked extra shifts to help pay tuition, maybe they looked after the kids to allow you to study, maybe they sat up late to encourage you when you felt like giving up. And now they are sitting here — prouder of you than you can possibly imagine. Listen, today is your day. No one’s going to deny you this moment. And certainly, not your faculty or families. But do — amid all the congratulations and the celebrations — remember the selflessness of all those who ultimately made it possible for you to be here.

Being genuine and being grateful are two values that have helped me live a truly meaningful life as a daughter, a sister, a freshman-in-an-apron, an impostor, a doctor, a scientist, and a philanthropist…

And no one embodies those values better than one person who not only encourages me to be true to who I am, but has also helped me in countless ways ever since I first met him around a table at UCSF. Remember that guy I told you about from the University of Kentucky? Well, he is Nick Hellmann, my husband, of the last 30 years. And those years have been more meaningful and wonderful than I could have ever imagined on the day I sat in a seat like yours in Reno, Nevada.

Graduates, as you turn to whatever comes next, embrace yourself and embrace others. And ask yourselves: How will I lead a meaningful life? Then astonish us with your answers. It’s your future. Make the most of it.