Saint Vincent College
2018 December Commencement Address
Dr. Helen K. Burns, R.N., Ph.D.
Saturday, December 15, 2018 – Robert S. Carey Student Center
Good morning to everyone, particularly Archabbot Douglas, Br. Norman, Dr. Smetanka, Fr. Killian, Dr. Kellam, parents, grandparents, guests and most importantly, graduates, because today is all about you. I consider it a privilege and honor to serve as one of the voices bringing a message to you as you graduate from one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the country. I am very humbled to be here today, more so after being informed that upon hearing about today, one of my children was quite amazed that I was asked to speak. I think the comment was, ‘What? They ask football coaches and presidents to speak – why did they call her?’ My response upon hearing this was, ‘I have no Idea, but I really try not to second guess Br. Norman’. So here I am, and I’m going to give it my best shot.
I do have to tell you a story. The very first graduation I ever attended was right here at Saint Vincent. The ceremony at that time was in the Basilica. I was a spirited toddler, and my father was graduating. The class processed in, and my mom let go of my hand to wave at my dad. I guess I was thinking, ‘hey, I can do this. This seems like a good idea!’, and I took off down the aisle, climbed into the pew, and sat on my dad’s lap for the entire ceremony. So, my connection to Saint Vincent is long-standing.
Fast forward several years. My graduation from the Greater Latrobe Area Hospital School of Nursing was in this very building, in the original auditorium that was here. You know, I’ve learned a lot since graduation. I’d like to tell it all to you, but I only have a few minutes. So, I’d like to share a couple learnings that rise to the top for me. From my humble experience, here’s the point – we are not all going to be celebrities, but each of us can achieve greatness.
So, my number one learning is being great means being genuine. Know who you are. What do you want to happen in your life? Do not be content to just be successful. Set your plan to fulfill the highest, most authentic expression of who you are, and the greatness that you can achieve. It has nothing to do with a paycheck. You must have a vision for your life. Set a direction for where you want to go and get into the driver’s seat.
Another point – show up in the most authentic version of the real you. In your jobs, relationships, and every endeavor. Another opinion I hold is that greatness is determined by service, and the significance you can bring to your service. Regardless of your major, those who are most successful have the paradigm of service – be it through nursing, teaching, mathematics, history, the social sciences and all of the schools here at Saint Vincent. Success is being excellent at whatever you do. Let excellence be your hashtag. Let it become your brand. When you are excellent, other people remember you, and you stand out. It does begin by making choices. Doing the right thing and making the right choices will always bring the right thing back to you. Each of you have enormous success. People won’t always like you, and will not always be happy with you, but you hold the responsibility to reach your potential. The biggest choices begin with you. Always be motivated by asking yourself ‘what do I want to be in this world?’ We get a chance every day to do better, be better, and do what we are created to do. It is a blessing from God that should not be squandered.
Number two – it is essential to practice gratitude. According to Robert Emmons, arguably the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, gratitude has two components. First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we have received. The second part, he explains, is recognizing that the sources of this goodness are often outside of ourselves. We recognize that other people, or a higher power, have given us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives. For example, how many of you have already accepted a job? If you could see the look on your parents’ faces right now, you’d recognize the look of gratitude. Gratitude isn’t just a concept we should visit annually over holiday turkey. It is a mindset that has been scientifically shown to impact body and mind. It improves sleep, eases depression, boosts immunity and lowers stress. What’s really great is that you can conjure it anywhere, whether admiring the summer sky on a sunny day, or enjoying a cup of ice cream after a long day, my favorite. No matter the size, shape or occasion, any bit of thankfulness is guaranteed to do you good.
Here’s a quick mental exercise. Sit for a moment and think, ‘who deserves my thanks’? Chances are, the list will include your parents, siblings or respected faculty. But when you dig deeper, you may discover less likely beneficiaries. The impetuous decisions you’ve made, serendipitous advances or even ordinary objects that have, perhaps by some fluke, conspired to improve your life.
Be grateful for moments in life where you’re tested to do the right thing when it’s not easy to do and when nobody else is around. These are the times that build integrity. Be grateful for the times that you struggle, when others do not agree with you or support you. These are character-building opportunities. One of the things my parents taught me, and I will always be grateful for the gift, is to never let anyone else ever define me. I’m really grateful that I’ve had a lot of really good, honest and genuine people help me who care more about my long-term success than about temporarily hurting my feelings. Do not let this day end without expressing your most genuine appreciation for those who got you to this milestone achievement, and never forget that your achievement is not exclusive to you. It comes with responsibility that is to be shared personally and professionally.
My final learning for you: being successful takes grit. Grit is the exceptional stamina that individuals demonstrate to achieve high performance. People strong in grit are always striving to improve. Make the sacrifices necessary to achieve, and remain in love with what they do. Research shows that grit predicts high performance in a variety of domains. As an individual, the top components for grit are passion and perseverance. It’s about the most difficult challenges you overcome, and how you did it. It’s about establishing specific, difficult goals that can build grit in you as an individual and contribute to your impact over time.
When faced with a challenge, don’t allow yourself to become overwhelmed. The way through a challenge is to pause and think, ‘What’s the next right move? What can I do in this moment to make things better?’ Don’t awfulize. That may not even be a word, but it’s a word that I use. Don’t turn things into awful. Don’t turn away from what’s hard to do or painful. Examine it, challenge it and find someone to help you.
As I said earlier, learning continues after graduation. No matter what you do next, remember that you will only be fulfilled in your life and career if you view every day as a chance to learn something new. I’ve spent my life working in a profession that has filled me with a sense of purpose and passion. I hope the same for each of you, and that you will find that sense of mission that impacts the lives of others every day.
To the phenomenal class of 2018, congratulations. You are meant for something special. May the excitement that you feel today stay with you in your life, and throughout your entire career. Congratulations.