When you have been out of school for a decade or two, the thought of getting back into the classroom might be filled with fear, doubt, and caution about your abilities to take those first steps. You might wonder, “Can I really do it?” It was a question I asked myself for years until I decided in the fall of 2015 to enroll in Carroll’s master of education program.
In one of the classes, the assignment involved writing a graduation speech. I share with you "The Graduation Speech I Never Gave" (not formally anyway) with a message for those of you who ever contemplated making that leap back into the classroom as an adult learner.
Here is "The Graduation Speech I Never Gave":
Welcome graduates, families, and distinguished guests. My name is Linda Spice. I stand here today as a proud Pioneer who first crossed Carroll’s commencement stage in 1989 when I obtained my bachelor’s degree as a first-generation college student. One marriage, two daughters, four jobs, multiple life adventures and 30 years later, I am here again, this time as a candidate in the master’s in education program.
This was a journey that we adult learners embraced fully, even with all of the day-to-day challenges that sometimes threatened to defeat this dream. A lot of life is happening in the course of three, four, five years, however long it takes for us to conquer a degree. Between presentations, readings, and papers due, there are marriages to nurture, maybe divorces from which to heal, sick kids to cure, job changes to juggle, and deaths in families to mourn.
That last one almost toppled me. In my third semester of this program, my father, Joe, was diagnosed with stage four bone cancer. It was the fall of 2016. One day his leg numbed and he fell. The next day he was in the emergency room and admitted to the hospital. In the course of two months, his health worsened as he continued to fight against the inevitable. He never returned home. He left us a few days after Thanksgiving that year. Although he is not here with us physically today, I know he is still present. Dad, this one is for you.
In the months before his death, I traveled back and forth from Wisconsin to Indiana almost every weekend to help care for him. During his long naps, I quietly read chapters and wrote my papers on the cold ledge against the window inside his hospital room. I tried desperately to keep up with my coursework although my heart was breaking. A retired steelworker who spent his life in the Gary, Indiana steel mills, he wanted more for his children and grandchildren. He was a firm believer in the benefits of a good education so I had no choice. I had to keep up. And with the support of family, friends, and faculty, I did keep up, evidenced as I stand before you today.
In these life challenges, I was never alone while inside a classroom of adult learners all facing their own hills to climb. You name it, we’ve been through it, and survived as we sit here in our caps and gowns to tell about it. To those friends and family who provided support through words, hugs, tissues for tears, and smiley face emojis via instant message, thank you. To those instructors who provided support, understanding and the flexibility that adult learners need to juggle the pursuit of a degree and life, thank you. To those of you sharing the stage with me today, thank you. Thank you for being my peer instructors, my group facilitators, my panel discussion team, my fellow adult educators.
Together we learned. Together we conquered. Together we add a master’s of education degree to our list of life’s accomplishments as we set forth, hopefully, to better our organizations, our communities, and our world with all we have learned.
Part of my learning in the civic and community engagement strand of Carroll’s master’s in education program took me deeper down a path where I had already walked several steps. As I worked to develop a capstone project in my final semester of this program, it was waiting for me at Literacy Services of Wisconsin (LSW), a non-profit organization in Milwaukee. There I have coordinated projects with agency leaders to share written and video stories of inspiring students and the tutors committed to improving their lives through education. Through the capstone project, I deepened that work with staff to help develop a marketing strategy that will now allow them a stronger platform of written, visual, and social media paths to share more of the agency’s stories. These stories of struggle and triumph are so worth sharing.
For more than 50 years, LSW staff have been dedicated to a one-on-one classroom approach through three strands of educational classes where adults learn to read, tackle English as a second language, and transform with confidence as they earn their high school diplomas. And isn’t that what we all want when we enroll in a class? When we seek to learn something we don’t already know? To transform from the person that we are to the one we know we can be?
For these adults, some who struggle to read a street sign, to fill out a job application, to make a doctor’s appointment—seemingly simple tasks many of us might take for granted—the challenges are often mountainous. Like mountain climbing, becoming an adult learner—no matter what level—has its own fears and risks. But once you make the climb and reach that peak, the reward comes when your mind and eyes open to a view of what is on the other side waiting for you. Maybe a new job. Perhaps a higher salary. Or for someone just learning to read, as those students at LSW find, it could be a feat as wonderful as simply sharing the words inside a book with your child for the first time. For each person, though, there is certainly a new sense of self in simply knowing, “I did it.”
The journey is never easy for any adult learner and sometimes taking the first steps down a desired path is the hardest part. For those of you sitting here today having ever contemplated going back to school or to those who have made it through school, “What next?” might just be one of many questions you face. You might contemplate questions of timing, the consideration of balancing it all, the wonder of whether you have what it takes to climb the mountain before you, the worry of a long tumble ending in a big bruise of failure. I pushed aside the fear, the contemplation, the worry of failure.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
To my fellow graduates, you have taken your strength, courage, and confidence to the top of the mountain today. Enjoy the view and embrace the new possibilities on the other side. Thank you and congratulations.