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Commencement | Dec. 2010: Graduation Remarks

2010 December Graduation Remarks by Dr. Geraldine Bednash

Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director,
American Association of Colleges of Nursing

December 16, 2010

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President McGuire, faculty, administrators, staff, and guests, and most of all, you the graduates, thank you for this opportunity to participate in this celebration of accomplishment and success. 

You graduates are following in the footsteps of many leaders who have paved the way for you in their journey through Trinity Washington University.  Significant women leaders in our society of today – including Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi – also graduated from Trinity.  You have a significant history to live up to.

And, I am also so pleased to speak at this commencement where the first class of entry-level baccalaureate nursing graduates are completing their program of studies.  This is happening just a few short weeks after the release of a very important report on the future of nursing titled “Leading Change, Advancing Health.”   This report told the world about the importance of having nurses educated in the pathway to our profession that you have taken – the baccalaureate degree.

So congratulations to you for this.  The chair of the commission who wrote that report also said that nursing is entering its golden age, so you are entering your profession at a time of unbelievable opportunity and potential.

Commencements are exciting events which recognize completion of a long journey and the beginning of a new one. 

Commencement after all means to begin – not to end.  When I was asked to speak to you today, I was honored to be in the position of providing a few words to you as you complete one journey and begin another.

I have been lucky enough to experience several graduations over my life. I do find myself a bit overwhelmed when I hear the introductory remarks about myself.  I remember a different person, many, many years ago, who left home at the age of 18 without any idea that she would be in this position today.

I have been privileged in many ways by the opportunity to go to college, earn graduate degrees, and overcome a number of obstacles, such as having no money when I went to college, and having no one in my family who had ever gone to college.

And I began my higher education in a women’s university, much like Trinity, which focused on preparing women to be leaders and find new options for their future.

I got to college by doing what I suspect many of you did, working at any job I could find before and during college so that I could support myself through those four years.  I had a paper route. I worked in a grocery store checking groceries. I baby sat and cleaned houses. I worked nights and evenings as a nursing assistant in any place that would hire me. And all the while, I knew that I needed to get this education.

I wonder today as I look out at you if you also believed you would get here and whether you are as surprised as I was when I finally finished that first degree.

I also never went to college planning to be a nurse.  I know many of my colleagues tell me that they were called to nursing. That from their very earliest days they can remember playing nurse, taking turns caring for their siblings or friends, and knowing always that they wanted to be a nurse. 

That’s not my story, and in fact I got here quite by accident. On that first day of college, back at Texas Woman’s University, we were instructed that we needed to declare a major immediately. All I could think was, “Yikes, what am I going to do?”

Now, my very best friend from high school, Betsy Roy, told me that she was going to be a nurse and that I should sign up with her. After all, she assured me, if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t lose many credits because almost everything would transfer to another major. So I said, all right, I’ll try to be a nurse.

Well I did and it was a fantastic choice.  Oh and by the way, Betsy is now a librarian

I can remember clearly walking into the auditorium in the black robe and cap thinking – “Wow – I did it!”

My memory of that undergraduate experience is crowded with thoughts about how naïve I was, how convinced I was that I had all the answers finally, and how I was sure that I would now be prepared for life given the fact that I had that degree.  Well, I was prepared for lots but I figured out quickly that I had a lot more to learn.

I was certainly ready for that first job I got in the U.S. Army which had very kindly paid for my last two years of college so that I could provide them with some years of service after I graduated.  The U.S. Army was my lifeline to a college education. 

My experience in the Army also gave me the chance to see the world that I never would have seen if I had stayed in San Antonio – my home town.  As the first person in my family to go to college and as a result of my chance to have this education, I have had a life very different from that of many of my family members.  I saw the world in a different way than I might have otherwise.  I had the opportunity to see other places, other cultures, other ways of providing health care, and other perspectives.

Over the years, however, I practiced nursing in many different places, in many different roles, and with a growing sense of commitment to what I had chosen.

I worked in critical care units, I have practiced nursing in hospitals, clinics, and the military. I taught nursing in a diploma program, a community college, and a university.  I became a nurse practitioner and cared for patients in a family practice clinic.  I became a lobbyist who advocated for federal funding to support nursing education and nursing research.

I have served as a policy maker, as an educator, as an advocate for this profession, and I hope as an innovator for change, but in all the different places or roles I have always been and continue to be a nurse.

Along the way to each of these, I found myself challenged in many ways.  I discovered early on that I would be tested by many obstacles and challenges.

Going to graduate school, having children and a husband, studying nights and driving children around during the day, made me wonder sometimes about my sanity. But all the while I knew that I would not be stopped by this and that the reward of having that education would make it worth while. 

I remember times finding myself in my car, alone, crying about the obstacles I thought were being put in front of me.  Feeling very sorry for myself, but finding out later that those obstacles were instead opportunities to learn new things about myself and new ways of moving ahead.

And again, in all the various roles I have had, I have been a nurse telling the story of what nursing does, how we affect people’s lives and well being and how committed we are to the patients we serve. 

All of you are here today because you have finished one part of that journey you will have called life. For those of you who entered to become a nurse, you will have a nursing career with experiences in which you will have a tremendous responsibility as the work you do affect’s people’s lives as you provide care and counsel to the people who lives are entrusted to you.

You will be privileged to see people’s joys, their sadness, and their success.  You will have privileged access to patients at times when they are the most vulnerable.  You must always understand this privileged access and hold it in sacred trust. 

You must always remember that you are carrying forward a legacy that was begun by Florence Nightingale, that stereotypical nurse with the lantern. She was actually a scientist, an author, a policy maker, willing to challenge the status quo, and constantly striving to improve the lives of the patients for whom nurses were providing care.  To envision her as a sweet, passive persona with the lamp lighting the night for patients is to miss her dramatic impact on what you will do today. 

So she provides all of us – no matter the career we have chosen – with a strong model for how we should engage in our work: To advocate for change, to influence policy, and to have a mission to seek excellence.

For all of you who are graduating today, these years at Trinity Washington University, I suspect, have been viewed as a stepping stone on the journey to your life’s work – a way to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to go about the important work of living now that you feel you are finally finished. 

But you are not finished.  You have only begun the journey.  And you must continue learning and challenging yourself over your life’s work.  You must remember the words of Malcolm Forbes who said, “The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open mind.”  A mind ready to receive much more.

I hope these years at Trinity have opened your mind to the wonders of the careers you each have chosen and to the possibilities that they bring to your future. 

You now need to use this education to do more than just earn a living – you must now realize the wonderful potential that it has given you and the multiple opportunities it has brought to you.

You who are graduating are among the most privileged and informed members of our society and you have an opportunity, and a responsibility, to shape the world of today and tomorrow. 

Clearly, the world around you today is markedly different from when I graduated.  But we had our own insecurities – the cold war, the Vietnam War, and the status quo that was being challenged by students across the country. 

Today, you see many of the same scenarios as challenges to the status quo are being raised.  And we should celebrate those who challenge us to think differently and help to shape good out of that rather than assuming that those who raise challenges provide evidence of a failed world.  How wonderful that we can be challenged to think differently and seek new ways to create good in our world.

Your challenge now is to consider also how an education that is envied by many in this world can be used to create excellence and a life in which you will not only receive the benefits of this nation but contribute to the whole of what this nation represents.  John F Kennedy was right in his assertion that we need to think about what we can do, not what others can do for us.

I envy all of you who are graduating because you will see an amazing world filled with changes that we can’t even begin to imagine.

For my profession, nursing is so different from what I saw as an undergraduate that if I practiced today like I was taught then, I would be sued for malpractice. 

So for each of you, whether you are entering nursing or some other career, the world will be unbelievably different than it was for me and is even for you now.

But remember that Albert Einstein said that it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent species that survive, but those who are the most responsive to change.

Your experiences here have prepared you to respond to the changes you will see. You must embrace the opportunity to respond to that change and enjoy the ride of a new and changing world that you will create.

So here are some parting thoughts and few pieces of counsel.  Speakers at these events are obligated to give a little advice, you know.

You must remember that the secret of success is not to live your life always worried because you might make mistakes.

Instead, challenge yourself to learn from the inevitable mistakes you will make in life. 

Look to them as proof that you are not living a safe and secure life but are instead working to explore your fullest possibilities.

Excellence comes from individuals who take risks, have a willingness to experiment, and to engage others in the search for excellence.  

So, occasionally you will need to take risks and do something scary.  

Remember what that famous philosopher Wayne Gretzky said: “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

So try new things, new jobs, and new places.

Remember also that you have faced many challenges to get to the graduation ceremony today and that you overcame these and succeeded. See those challenges as an opportunity to test your growth and find opportunities to learn new ways to achieve your goals.

See yourselves as members of a global society, see the world.  Meet people who don’t look like us or speak our language. Many of you here today have lived the experience of moving to new places and you have succeeded.  Keep seeking those new experiences.

Mark Twain said seeing other places and other cultures is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness.  Broad wholesome and charitable views of humanity cannot be acquired by staying in one little corner of the earth all one’s life. 

Bring the best that our nation represents to those other places you will visit or live and bring the best they represent back to this one and your life. 

But most of all hold true to the values that have been embodied in the excellence represented by this fine University as you move through your life’s work.

I look forward to watching you move through your careers and I envy the changes you will see and experience.  You will see opportunities that I never imagined were possible.  And know that with this treasured and envied education you have received also provides you with the ability to change the world and create a better one.

I salute you all for the end of this first part of the journey of your education. And I wish you joy, success, prosperity, and a life filled with meaning!


For more information about Graduation, students should contact Dean Meechie Bowie at 202-884-9611 or via e-mail at commencement@trinitydc.edu. For media inquiries, contact Ann Pauley, Media Relations, at 202-884-9725 or pauleya@trinitydc.edu.

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