A graduation message has to be personal. Those of us that are asked to deliver them have something to tell about the road that took us to where we are.
My story begins as a reluctant immigrant. Meaning, I didn’t want to come here. I was a young adult with a plan for my life, but my parents were progressive and forward thinking, and in the early ’70s insisted that “English would be a good skill to have,” so as I and my siblings finished high school we were enrolled in an exchange student program.
I was 17 years old when I first came to this community. The letter that welcomed me to the program read, “Congratulations, you will be going to Indiana,” which made the idea better since I had been a fan of the Indianapolis 500 race. But on that hot August day in 1973 when I arrived in Hope, Indiana, my life changed, and I was not prepared for it.
I suddenly couldn’t communicate fluently and I could not understand the customs and culture of small-town high school kids in the USA. Adapting from my hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, a city of 8 million to live in Hope, Indiana, was as difficult as anything I could ever imagine.
I did endure the school year, which became much easier when I made friends and improved my language skills. I went back home and enrolled in medical school to fulfill the dream I had since I was in the fifth grade, and when I completed my studies, in a twist of destiny I never expected, I followed my heart back to Indiana to marry the young man I had met in high school.
When I could not transfer my credits to Indiana University I went to work in several fields for many years while raising our children. What I learned in those years is that you have to be flexible and be willing to see possibilities. The lessons I learned during those years while I was doing things that I knew weren’t what I wanted to do in life, will prove beneficial later:
- To really change things, you have to be at the table where decisions are made.
- To address important community challenges, you have to know what is going on at the front lines.
- To have people follow you, you have to be passionate about what you are doing.
Most importantly, I also learned that where you cannot give in is in your values. Those are the things that are at the core of our being and are learned as we grow up. These values will keep you standing when the storms happen, and they will.
Message 1: Be clear on what are your non-negotiable values. That is, what you are not willing to compromise even in the face of challenges and difficulties. For me they include above all respect, then integrity, fairness, honesty, generosity, compassion and kindness.
So when I finally accepted that I was not going to be the surgeon I planned to be, I went to nursing school and went to work at Columbus Regional Hospital. And here is where my life took another turn I didn’t expect. Our community experienced the growth of the Spanish-speaking population, and I was the right person at the right time with the right set of skills. With my bilingual ability and my training as a nurse I could help both the patient and the provider understand each other, and also help our community understand both sides — not just in my field of health care, but in other fields like education, social services, even in political advocacy.
Message 2: When you have received the gift of skills and education, and when you also have the grace given to you by the creator in the form of your natural abilities, you should use them for the common good. It is a responsibility of those of us who can, to involve ourselves in volunteer activities, in the field you have chosen or other fields where you can learn more.
I was able to prepare our hospital to serve the Spanish-speaking population and many others of diverse languages and cultures. And I worked incessantly both at work and as a volunteer in the community, to ensure services where available, that people were being helped and had opportunities to improve. I’ve had numerous opportunities to make a difference both in the lives of people, and in our community, and for that I’ve received awards I never expected.
As my life has progressed, and success has come, I often have people say to me, “You are so lucky!” Which I actually resent, because getting to where I am has not been as easy as just being lucky.
So here is my last message: Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.
Things do not just happen to people. People with enough preparation inevitably stumble onto opportunities, but if you don’t have the preparation, the opportunities are too far, those two lines never cross one another.
That’s why it is so important that you are graduating today. You are ready to be one of those lucky people! And I am here to wish you the best!
Laura Hurt is the president of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana. She delivered the keynote speech at IUPUC’s commencement celebration May 7. This is an excerpt from it. Send comments to email@example.com.