Keynote: Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins

Carolyn Jefferson-JenkinsPresident Crawford, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff, my fellow honorees, and most especially to the graduates. Thank you very much for such a warm welcome.

It is a great honor for me to have been selected to give the commencement address during this long-awaited commencement weekend. I'm delighted to be able to speak to such an impressive group of graduates in this new normal though I miss the excitement of being there in person. Well, you made it. This is your moment, but not yours alone. You share it with the family, friends, supporters, and even haters that motivated you to get to this point.

Today is a day filled with the history of this moment of achievement when you get the recognition that you earned. Pat yourselves on the back. This is one of many memorable moments you will have in life.

When you look back in 50 years as I am doing today, you will reflect on the love of family and friends of Miami University in circling you and cheering you on. You will find reassurance in the legacy to love, honor, learn. I carry on the legacy of Western College for Women and now Miami University. I am forever tied to Oxford, Ohio, committed to following my passion and sense of purpose as I persevere to make this world a better place.

I'm honored that the leadership at Miami thought that my career of public service, rooted in my experiences here, could serve to inspire you as you undertake this next phase of your life's journey. My message is supposed to be inspirational, but I want to make it aspirational as well. I asked myself what advice I could give that will have any influence on you at all.

When I sat where you sit today, I was in the midst of the greatest social revolution this nation has ever witnessed. The 1960s and 70s was a time of political and social change, unprecedented in its impact on society, until today.

The events that influenced my life; Sputnik, a man walking on the moon, the transistor radio, and color television, women working outside the home and in roles other than secretary, teacher, nurse, or librarian, brought about many unforeseen possibilities. It was just a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which brought to for a need for a national reckoning with racial injustice would still exist.

In all honesty, I don't remember what the commencement speaker said, and many of you won't either. But just for the next few minutes, I want you to put aside the excitement, the anxiety, and open your heads and hearts to what I am about to say.

If you don't remember it, you can always google it later, an opportunity that I didn't have, and relive the moment. I hope that you will. When the Jefferson family station wagon with the rear seat facing backwards, rounded the corner on route 27 for the first time in 1970 and entered the gates of Western College for Women, an entrance which no longer exist, my excited anticipation turned to angst.

While I was aware of what was occurring in the world, it seems somewhat removed from my day-to-day existence, but my 17-year-old world was about to change forever. I had no idea how big my world was about to become. As the first person in my family to attend college, I didn't know what to expect.

I had a firm belief that education was the great social equalizer, as did my parents. Despite the fact that my mother had a fourth-grade education and my father an eighth-grade education, they knew they wanted better for their children.

College was a dream, one that was about to become a reality. I entered this strange world with people from lives far different from mine, lives I'd never been exposed to. What a difference, what a responsibility, what an opportunity.

My most cherished memories in Oxford were when we gathered to be inspired to create anarchy, to be challenged, and engage in civil disobedience. Yes, all right here on the Miami campus. And four years later, when the Jefferson station wagon turned on to route 27 for the final time in May of 1974, my 21-year-old world had been expanded, a tremendous journey was about to begin. You are embarking upon a similar journey today.

As you prepare for this moment, I am sure you have heard many cliches. You've been told that you are the creators of a new normal. You have been told that a degree is a badge of honor. You've been told that you are entering the adult world at a time of unparalleled uncertainty. You've been told that the creativity of this class will shine. You are now being told that the world needs you and it does.

If you remember nothing else, remember this, you were made for a moment like this.

Sometimes you will find the moment, and sometimes the moment will find you, but in either instance, you are eminently prepared. The Miami experience has empowered you to seek your passion and purpose. It has instilled in you a sense of global responsibility. It has allowed you to succeed and to fail, to deal with the challenges of a global pandemic, remote learning, virtual events, a reckoning with social and racial injustice.

This commencement is a testament to the fact that despite any adversity, you have risen to the occasion with purpose and intention. You will always remember this celebration and reflect upon it at different moments in your life when the uncertainty in the world causes you to question everything around you.

Every success, every perceived failure, every high, every low. I challenge you, I dare you to continue to use your unique talents in the places where you will show up, in the streets, in the board rooms, in the halls of justice, in the legislature, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in your actions, in your head, in your heart.

I want to leave you with an excerpt from Robert F Kennedy's Day of Affirmation speech to the National Union of South African students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa on June 6th, 1966, on what the University call the Day of Reaffirmation of Academic and Human Freedom.

I selected this quote because of its relevance today. It is often referred to as a ripple of hope.

Kennedy said, ''Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events and in the total of all of these acts will be written the history of this generation. Each time a man, [the pronoun of the times], stands up for an idea or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

This is your day of reaffirmation. You are the new keepers of our great American dream. Every time you remember the legacy and lessons of Miami University to love, honor, learn and commit to carry them with you as you take the next step in your journey.

Every time you ignite your inner activist, every time you expose social and racial injustice and go about the business of eradicating it.

Every time that you overcome adversity as you have done this past year, every time you make an intentional decision to make this world a better place.

Every time you make courage more contagious than fear. Every time you seize the moment when life gives you an opportunity.

Every time you relive the Miami experience, you reaffirm that you are made for a moment like this. By accepting the degree that you receive today, you acknowledge that this is what you are called to do, to expand the ripple of hope.

To the Class of 2020, congratulations! I leave the fate of the world in your hands and I am confident that it will be better because of you. Go forth and do great things. Thank you.