What if *I* Gave the Commencement Speech?

I participated in 5 commencement ceremonies this past Friday and Saturday, one for graduate studies and one for each college at the University of Southern Indiana. Each time, I donned my regalia, carried a gonfalon*, and sat as a member of the platform party. Some elements of the ceremonies were the same, but each had its own student reflection and commencement speaker.

In the space of about 26 hours, I heard 5 commencement speakers…which led me to think…what would *I* tell the Class of 2019? What would I say during a commencement speech?

So…here’s my stab at some advice for graduating students. Or for non-graduating students. Or non-students and other people. Any people. For whomever happens to be reading this blog. I think this is kind of my all-around life advice, but let’s pretend it’s a commencement speech.

*I cannot say “I carried a gonfalon” without immediately thinking “I carried a watermelon” and I really wish that we had started dirty dancing with our gonfalons. ALSO: a gonfalon is a fancy-ass word for a banner. When I received the email inviting me to be a gonfalonier at our ceremonies, I had to google it. Yup. So much for that PhD. ALSO ALSO: in case you’re wondering, I carry a gonfalon because I’m the Director of our Honors Program and the Honors Program now has a gonfalon! It’s kind of exciting! Almost as exciting as a watermelon!!

Image of a drum, two drum sticks, and the words “Drum Roll Sound.” Cuz I’m cheesy like that.


Head shot of me looking really goofy in my regalia and tam with bright red lipstick. (My lipstick looks on point!)

Graduates! Or whoever’s reading this blog! Congratulations on graduating! Or not, if you’re not graduating–that’s cool too. Congratulations on just being awesome enough to read this blog.

A lot of commencement speakers urge you to work hard, to seize every opportunity, to leave your mark, to follow your dreams no matter what.

Yeah, that’s all well and good. I mean, I’m not going to tell you NOT to do those things. But I want to focus on a few things that I find more important.

FIRST, be your own best friend. And by this I mean: Be gentle with yourself. Watch your self-talk. When you hear that little voice in your head, the one you use to talk to yourself, make sure you’re talking to yourself as kindly and gently as you would talk to your best friend. Think about it. You would NEVER tell your best friend that they are a failure, that they look horrible and disgusting, that they are stupid, that they are a loser, that everyone hates them. And yet? We say these kinds of thing to ourselves all the time.

Stop it. Tell yourself that you tried hard and you’re still learning, tell yourself that you’re smart and capable and worthy of love.

Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to your best friend. Be gentle.

SECOND, you’re going to hear a lot of crap about what you should and shouldn’t do with your body. Watch sugar. No, watch carbs. No, actually eat only raw food. No, you should actually fast half the time. Actually, now we’ve discovered you should eat only pink, polka-dotted foods…

Here’s what I believe: eat intuitively, move joyfully, and radically love your body.

Eat what you want to, what your body asks for, and ENJOY what you eat. Move in ways that bring you joy, whether that’s running marathons, dancing in clubs, hula-hooping, splashing in the pool with your dog, knitting on your couch, gardening, making funny faces, high fiving someone, having a thumb war–whatever it is for you.

Most importantly, embrace radical acceptance and love for your body. It doesn’t matter if you’re thin or fat or average, tall or short or in between, able-bodied or living with a physical or mental disability or illness. Love yourself. You’re the only you you’ll ever have. Love. Don’t seek to control and shape and tame your body like it’s some kind of enemy. Embrace yourself and love yourself right this minute. Your body is not a project to be fixed. Your body is lovely. Right now.

Eat intuitively, move joyfully, and radically love your body.

THIRD, make time to engage in creative play. That might mean painting or drawing, writing fiction or designing web art. But it could also look like playing board games or Dungeons & Dragons. Playing tags with the neighbor kids. Going to the arcade. Crocheting Marvel superheroes. Make time for creative play.

FOURTH, be your most authentic self. That’s it. Be yourself. Surround yourself with people who encourage you–who make it easy for you–to be your authentic self.

If you’re like me, you may have grown up with people thinking you’re too much. I’ve always been told I have too many opinions. I care too much. I think too much. I talk to much.

Or maybe you feel like you’re not enough. If only you were more This, maybe that person wouldn’t have dumped you. If you were more That, maybe you’d have more friends. If you had more The Other Thing, somebody would like you more and give you some kind of opportunity.

You know what?

None of that is true. I’m here to promise you–PROMISE YOU–you are enough. You are enough.

You are not too much. You are not too little. You are exactly enough. You, just as you are, this most authentic you.

Be you. You are enough.

FIFTH–and this is the last point, I promise–be nice. Every person you encounter, from the jerk who tailgates you on the Lloyd Expressway to the boss at your new job, from your own parents to the person working the drive through at Starbucks, from the custodian to the President of this university–every single person is going through something that you don’t know about. Treat everyone you meet as if they’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got at that moment, because that’s probably true. Assume the best about people, until you’re sure of the opposite.

David Foster Wallace talked about this much better in the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. If you want to hear a REALLY good commencement speech, please listen to his.

But you didn’t get David Foster Wallace. You got me.

And I think these five things are the best I have for you.

  • Be your own best friend, with gentleness and compassion for yourself.
  • Eat intuitively, move joyfully, and radically love your body.
  • Make time to engage in creative play.
  • Be your most authentic self. You are enough.
  • And be kind. Always.

Thank you.

Picture of a bright orange goldfish on a white background. The fish is looking at you. AT YOU. If you have no idea why there’s a fish, follow the link to David Foster Wallace’s speech. You’ll be glad you did.

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