December Commencement Address by Sylvia Hill Fields

by Public Relations | Dec 20, 2017





Sylvia Hill Fields, B.A., M.A.

11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017


President Hipps, Archabbot Nowicki, faculty, staff, friends, family and graduates, I am honored to have been asked to speak with you today, and to share in your very, very special moment. It will probably remain one of the happiest moments of your life. Congratulations to you on your accomplishment. For many of us, it’s a family affair – graduation – and I’ll talk about that a little bit later. There has been a lot of help getting you to this moment. In a sense, this moment, being here, is like coming home, and I have great memories of this place.

Many years ago, when both Seton Hill and Saint Vincent College were single sex institutions of higher education, we shared a memorandum of understanding that permitted students to enroll in classes at the other university, and I believe we still do that today, to some degree. There was a shuttle bus, I remember, and as I pulled up this morning I could just see it in front of me. It ran between the two colleges, but the last run was at about 10:00 in the evening, that left Saint Vincent. And any decent Seton Hill College student had better have been on that bus. Now I'm not going to say, if I missed that bus or not, on occasion. I know some people who did and I can tell you their stories, but they’re just that, they are stories. But needless to say, the guys at that time did anything they could think of to get you to miss that bus, because they thought that was hysterical, and that’s all I’m going to say about that shuttle.  What I will say is that the institution from which you are to graduate today is one time honored, 171 years of educating and preparing leaders to take their place in this new world. An educational institution with a network that spans the globe, and is noted for academic excellence and service. Long before community service became cool and a thing to do, they were doing it here.

In the coming months and years you will begin to understand the weight of the name Saint Vincent College, and the way it opens doors, and that it stands for excellence. Students are prepared, and not just prepared academically, but prepared emotionally and ethically. You have chosen well; indeed, you have.

It was really difficult for me, when deciding what to speak about. There are so many things that I would like to say. I consulted friends and some of my co-workers and folks that I attended Seton Hill [University] with, their thoughts. And they seemed to come up with a variety of things, but what came up most was to keep it simple, keep it short and think about what life lessons you’ve learned along the way. If you had to equip them today, how would you do it? It seemed to me, that when I began to think of that, everything came back to leadership, both traditional and non-traditional, as well, but leadership, good leadership. So I thought what I would do would be to talk to you, just a few points, about leadership and my experiences, and what I’ve observed in my years.

I’ve learned that to be a good leader, and to be successful, you need to be a good listener. The most effective leaders are typically the best listeners. Keep in mind that God didn’t break the mold when he gave you your big brain, and that other people have thoughts. They express themselves, sometimes a little bit differently, and they have ideas that need to be heard. Trust me, listen every now and then and you might just learn a few new things. Don’t just listen to the people who are also formally educated, listen to the thoughts of the janitor, all the way up. You never know where that great idea is going to come from, or someone who’s going to bring out that point that you’ve overlooked. Be respectful. Acknowledge the contributions of others that were part of your achievements. As you rise, it’s really easy to look at a certain project or an initiative such as yours, and it’s really easy to stand there and receive the praise and the credit for it, but behind you are 10 or 15 other people who made it possible. Folks from the person who answers the phone in a way that encourages people, makes them feel wanted and respected and of worth, to my program officer who is, as I have told her, wicked smart. There isn’t a thing I do, or that Br. Norman spoke about today that wasn’t a combined effort. No one gets there without assistance. As a matter of fact, many of you are here today because of assistance, be it a spouse, a grandparent, parents, an older child, someone who watched the kids, cooked the dinner, sometimes for years, so that you could attend studies, study classes, sessions, group tutoring, or even dried your tears when you got your first D. And I know you got one. If we could just stop here and think about those people, and we could just please give them a hand in supporting you graduates in your accomplishment, I think that would be great.

In the fall of 1973, my mother and I were making the drive to Seton Hill, moving me in, and there was that awkward silence, that as a teen you know a talk of some sort is headed your way, and I was right. She had one. But it was just the two of us, and my mother had long been widowed, and I was, as I mentioned earlier, the first to go to college. She spoke of my father, she spoke of my parents, she spoke of my great-grandparents, some of whom had actually been enslaved in this country, some never learning to read or write, yet insisting and working hard, so hard, that their children could have this better thing that was education. She said, “You know, they’re all with us; they’re all with us right now, here in this car. You don’t see them, but they’re here this moment, and you are their legacy, their absolute legacy. They planted the tree from which I now enjoy the shade. I am who I am because of the sacrifices that they made. And if I could open a window of heaven and thank them, I most certainly would.

I also learned that when there are no leaders, you must rise up and become one. In 1963, my family faced a major crisis. My father, age 36, died suddenly at work. Previous to that my mother had been a stay-at-home mom. There were seven children ages 14 to 10 months. My mother stayed at home. I can remember coming home from school and smelling cookies or brownies, fresh bread – that was my life. That was my life until April 25, 1963, and then there was mass panic. And as a seven-year-old, well, we all took the news really hard, but I can remember thinking in the middle of my grief, it just hit me, oh no, she’s in charge. I had never seen my mother as a leader, I had only seen my mother as my mother, my father’s wife, who cooked great dinners, who was just beautiful in my eyes. I never saw anything else. So there were many changes in store for us. Some things stopped and other things started. In retrospect, what I actually witnessed at that time were some of the most fundamental principles in management being employed by my mother. There was no name for those principles back then. But she did things. She planned, and when she planned, there were family meetings, and we all sat on the floor and were listening to the plan. She engaged, she communicated, and she also instituted what we would now call gender-neutral division of work. There were five girls and two boys. Girls cut grass, too. “Get out there.” And boys wash dishes too. “Get into the kitchen, this is your dish day.” She carefully matched task to skill; some were good at other things. At my tender age, my job was the baseboards. So if you ever spend much time around me, I cannot help it, I swear to God, my eyes go straight to the baseboards. My job was to go around with a little cloth on my hands and knees and keep the baseboards clean. That was my job, to dust the baseboards. And at age 62, I’m still not over it. I think I was injured, maybe, by that, but I will look at your baseboards.

I would say that I have also learned to not ever be afraid to adjust your course, especially when you know better. It’s called course correction. You’ll do it every now and then, because every now and then you’ll need to adjust your course, especially when your course isn’t working for you, and you know it’s leading you over a cliff. Don’t let pride stop you from saying, “You know what, we need to stop, we need to rethink this. We need to slow it down, and we need to make a course correction.” Better to make a course correction than to make a disastrous mistake that you will regret because you knew better. You knew, you knew halfway into it that it wasn’t right.

My husband and I have two children, and we just experienced a major course correction within our family. As a matter of fact, I just moved all her stuff back in last night. Our 25-year-old is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, fluent Arabic speaker. She did an internship with the senate committee on foreign relations, met and fell in love with John McCain. I thought there was going to be a thing going on there. She began working with a Fortune 500 company after graduation making nearly $70,000 right out of college. We were talking on the phone one day and, you know, you can tell. For those of us who have children, you can tell when something’s off in your child’s voice, whether they’re in front of you or on the phone. And then she started to cry. She said, “I have something to tell you, and please don’t be upset with me.” I'm thinking, oh God, what was this? She said, “I love the people here where I work. I enjoy the people, but this is not what I want to do. This is just not it.” And I said, “Well, what is it that you want to do?” “All I want to do is teach children. All I want to do is teach the kid who comes to school in the morning who maybe hasn’t had breakfast. I want to teach the child who maybe had to get themselves and a sibling up and off to school.” That’s the child that my daughter wants to teach. I was never so proud of her, I told her, “You know it’s going to be two years back; you’ve got to get certified.” She said, “Yes, I know, I’ve got to get certified.” And I said, “Well, while you’re there, you may as well get a master’s degree in education. Get two birds killed with one stone.” So she’s back – in my house, in her old room, after three years of being on her own. We talked about the new rules. Word to the wise – before they come back, have that talk. Make those rules or you’re going to be right back doing dishes every day and cleaning her room.

I’ve also learned that you have to come out of your comfort zone, and get to know people you wouldn’t ordinarily know, people who are just a tad bit different from you. They may worship differently; maybe they look different. You might just find out they aren’t so different after all. I’d like to say that my upbringing was very diverse. Occasionally, you could hear someone’s grandma from the old country speaking in Italian, Croatian or some other language. And in case you’re wondering, yes I frequently make and serve haluski, and yes, I can polka. I had a very well-rounded upbringing. I was one of the first girls in my neighborhood to go off to college, as well as in my family. It was a really big deal for my family and I think it was an even bigger deal for my entire neighborhood.

In the weeks leading up to my departure for Seton Hill some really interesting things happened. Some of my neighbors were out, maybe cutting grass, and all of a sudden the lawn mower stopped or maybe they stopped weeding the garden. Mrs. Cline would come over, and she had a special name for me and she would say she was really proud of me. They would shake my hand. I don’t remember adults shaking my hand before age 17, even though I had known my neighbors all my life. Very proud of you. One neighbor in particular who was a good friend and her daughter was a good friend of mine, came up to me and said, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, and don’t doubt yourself. You go there. You do what you need to do, and you represent all of us. If you need to talk, I'm here.” I was very grateful for her saying those words, but it was not until many years later when I learned that she had been denied her chance. She had graduated at the top of her class, had received a scholarship, and her father, well meaning, and I’m guessing this was in the 40s, said that if you go to college and accept this scholarship you’ll never have a husband. You’ll never marry and you’ll never have children. This is why we forbid you to go. She missed her chance, and I will forever carry her in my heart. And every time I reach a milestone I think about her. She’s long gone, but she’s one more of those folks that I know is sitting in heaven and just clapping their hands every time I do something that I know makes them proud.

So why am I saying all of this? I just want to let you know we all want the same things. We all want the same things for our children, for our family, for our grandchildren. We all want that good education, we all want to succeed. We all want a decent job. We all want to come home on Friday and sit down and watch the baseball game or plant our flowers. We’re the same people. There’s no real difference. We are the same people. Never forget that. Never forget it. Opportunities to meet and to interact with people who are different from us are good, because when you get out there in the world of work, people do look different. You get people on your team who have different backgrounds and experiences, and as someone who has been in a position to assign teams, I don’t have time for people who have issues, I really don’t. You know, you just messed it up; you make more work for me. And sooner or later you’re gone, because I'm not going to sit around trying to figure out who you get along with and who you don’t and who this and who that. And I'm not by myself in that one. They may or may not tell you.

I want you to know, don’t ever be afraid. Don’t ever be afraid to speak up; in fact speak up often. Remember, our creator didn’t put us here with a spirit of fear; that comes from somewhere else. You acquired that through somewhere else along the road. If there are people in your group who cause stress or are the naysayers when you express a dream or a hope, they’re standing there telling you how that will never work, it could never happen, that’s that spirit of fear. Find a new friend; you want to surround yourself with people who inspire you and people who encourage you, and whom you can inspire and encourage.

And finally, yes finally, I was on a bit of a tear there huh? Finally, this is your story; good or bad, it’s really up to you to determine your story and where it’s going to go. Nobody can chart your course and nobody can write it for you. Believe in yourself and trust in your judgment and you will be just fine, just fine. Trust me. So, congratulations class of 2017. I'm proud of you and thank you. Thank you for inviting me.




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