2014 Commencement Address: Dr. Regina Barreca

To the Class of 2014: You did it. You really did it. I want you to know that this is now on your permanent record. Did you get all those threats when you were a kid about how terrible things you did would end up on your permanent record?

I did. I wasn’t the world’s best student in high school, and why don’t I think you’re surprised to hear that? Maybe it’s for the same reason that, even after 27 years of teaching English at UConn in Storrs, nobody has ever come up to me and said “Gee, Dr. Barreca, what part of Connecticut did YOU grow up in?” I still sound like I’m from a poor Italian family in Brooklyn New York because that’s where I came from and I’ve never found a reason to distance myself from that starting gate.

Like many of you, I was the first in my family to receive a college diploma, to show up at a graduation in gown. This means I was the first one to be smart enough to rent a cap and gown that needed to have instructions indicating “FRONT OF CAP.” That makes us all feel very intelligent, doesn’t it? You can’t figure out how to get that thing on your head after all the time and effort you spent at college, so they give you instructions saying “FRONT OF CAP”? It’s a shock that the gowns don’t say “ZIPPER DOES NOT GO IN BACK” and “THIS END UP” so you know where to put your head.

Actually, I can never figure out what to do with my own hood so I shouldn’t speak. When I got a graduate degree at Cambridge University in England, I thought I was supposed to put it over my head like a Disney Princess, so you can see just how savvy I was about the whole graduation process.

I still don’t wear the hats. Hats weren’t made for short women with a lot of curly hair. You’ll just have to give me the benefit of the doubt about the hat. There are some things for which the ghosts of my hair-stylists aunts would never forgive me.

But the permanent record stuff: why didn’t anybody ever tell us that the GOOD things we did in school would go on our permanent records? Why aren’t kids told “You helped Ashley when she was upset? That’s going on your permanent record, young lady. And you, mister, you gave an original and creative response in class today. You don’t think THAT’S going on your permanent record? HA!”

Yet today, Class of 2014, you have evidence that good work and effort and showing up and paying attention actually DO go on your permanent record. You’ve earned your degree. Congratulations.

And I bet there were times when you didn’t think you’d be here receiving your diplomas, but you are. Isn’t that great? I bet there were days and nights (sometimes really long nights) when you wondered whether it was worth the stress, the annoyances and the money—not to mention all that adorable resentment from your loved ones for all the time you were spending on your schoolwork—to make this happen. But you did it.

This is your achievement. This is your accomplishment. This is why deserves a celebration.

Getting a degree is not just something that “happens.” It’s not an accident or an act of fate; it’s not inevitability.

You don’t just “get” a degree the way you get the measles or poison ivy—you earn it. It’s not something you just pick up, catch, or stumble into. And earning a degree not like what happens in The Wizard of Oz—you all know the Wizard of Oz, right? —where the Scarecrow, who has been wanting a brain the whole time because he feels inferior without it—finally meets the Wizard who’s willing to grant his wish. What the Wizard says, if you remember, is “I can’t give you a brain, but I can give you a diploma.”

Now, for those of us who work in education this can seem like a depressing line. A diploma in and of itself is a piece of paper, and it’s a piece of paper many of you won’t get until you return all your library books and pay all your parking fees—at least that’s how it usually works. But what it signifies actually matters; it’s not like getting a paper crown from Burger King or your hand stamped when you go to—not a club, I wouldn’t know anything about that—but to one of those county fairs; it’s currency. No, you cannot literally take it to the bank. I don’t mean to suggest you show up at Liberty Bank tomorrow and expect a roll of twenties.

But trust me: you’ll cash it in in other ways.

Because your diploma is nevertheless a bill of credit—you earned credits in your classes, right? You earned a certain number of credits for every class you completely successfully and these are meant to indicate how much you learned, how much information and more importantly understanding, you took away from the class. What you need to do now is make sure you use every single one of those credits, leaving no credit unused. You earned them—they’re there.

Think of it as a kind of credit card statement where you have all these credits already earned in your favor and all you have to do is figure out the best way to make use of them. It would be ridiculous to waste them, of course, since they’re right there, waiting to be used. It would be silly to have anything left over. These credits that have earned you your degrees, Class of 2014, are waiting for you to draw on them. Education conveys the portable property of knowledge—you will take it with you wherever you go, and nobody can take it away from you. It’s like what humor columnist Erma Bombeck said:

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'. “

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The same should go for your education. It’s a treasure—for some of you it might feel like a buried treasure but you’ll get over that. And yet it’s not something you have to guard or protect because somebody might take it away. Your education is really yours. You earned it. And that’s why we all know those “spam” ads filling our mailboxes saying “Get Your Bachelor’s Degree in Two Weeks” are about as meaningful as “Lose Fifteen Pounds In Three Minutes By Eating This Miracle Berry.”

So what advice can I offer today? Here are 5 points I hope you’ll take away as more portable property today—little things, like the toys in a happy meal, but hard-won lessons for me:

1. Thank those people who got you here. You might even take a moment to look around a wave to them so that they can see you—and if they’re not here, give them a good thought in your heart. We need our loved ones, our family, our supporters, our comrades and our friends with us during our times of accomplishment and celebration as much as we need them during our times of sadness and loss. Remember—it’s not that diamonds are you best friends, but that it’s your best friends who are your diamonds. They are supremely resilient, made under pressure, of astonishing value and tough enough to cut glass if they need to. Don’t be too hip to tell them that you love you and that you’re grateful they’re in your life.

2. Listen most carefully to those ideas with which you’re sure you’ll disagree. It’s the mark of an educated person to be able to listen and understand a position without needing to accept or share it. If nothing else, you need to have a clear vision of what the opposition is thinking. This works in relationships as well as in politics and at work.

3. Money and time are very much alike in one important way: if you want either of them, you’ll have to make them. You’ll never just “find” them—you can no more easily “find” the time for something than you can “find” the money for it. Don’t focus so much on making a living that you forfeit having a life.

4. Wherever you go, bring your sense of humor with you at all times. Bring your friends with a sense of humor. If their friends have a sense of humor, invite them, too. Take the world seriously but don’t take it personally; see the absurd but never lose sight of the glorious; don’t be afraid to laugh out loud and make trouble.

5. Manchester Community College is not the only one who should be giving you credit for all your work: you should be proud of yourself and your achievement. This is a day to remember, to enjoy and to cherish. It’s not just a silly ritual or even only a rite of passage—although I’m a fan of both, to be honest—but it’s also a moment, separated from ordinary days, for you to feel good about what you’ve done, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Thank you for letting me part of today’s journey. Bon voyage.

News Item Posted On: May 29, 2014
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