The text of the student commencement speech I delivered at the graduation ceremony at St. Catherine University on December 21, 2017 in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I would like to begin with a story—a story from the Jewish tradition, as told by author and physician Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen¹:
In the beginning was the Ein-Sof, the infinite, holy source of life, out of which our world emerged as a great ray of light. Yet no sooner had it emerged than there was an accident which caused the vessels containing the light, the wholeness of the world, to break, and the light to scatter into countless fragments that fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden even today. The human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible again, and restore the innate wholeness of the world. In Hebrew, this task is called the tikkun olam. The restoration of the world.
As we gather at this moment of completion and prepare to cross into the next phase of our lives as graduates, let us take a moment together to reflect, to remind ourselves why we took this journey. For each of us, that reason will be different: a new career direction, better opportunities, to make connections in a field, or to pursue an interest in greater depth. Yet whatever brought us here, what we discovered at St. Catherine University was a community that is truly passionate about social justice, diversity, and integrity. Our classes and our education were infused with these principles. In essence, we came to St. Catherine to help heal the world.
When I began the Master of Library and Information Science program three years ago, it was to pursue a career transition into librarianship. I wasn’t sure what kind of librarian I would be, but two chance meetings the year before helped me recognize that a habit of organizing my (and other people’s) bookshelves, and helping strangers find information they needed might not only lead to a career but also a life’s calling. In a project for my first course, I interviewed an educator who works with children of immigrants and refugees. The challenges that these communities faced when seeking information became shockingly real for me. I hadn’t before realized that seemingly everyday things like signage or the layout of a building, things I took for granted, could be a barrier for someone else. In another course, I learned that people in rural Appalachia were sent to the library by overworked county clerks to fill out complex government forms with no assistance.
These stories broke my heart, and they enforced my belief that access to information is not a mere privilege but a human right that shapes pathways to health care, human services, education, and career development. A career as a librarian truly became a calling for me. All this took place at St. Kate’s, within a community of peers who each brought their own story and their own human-heartedness to our fight for social justice. Whether in group work or on a community service project, we pursued this consistent question: how can we help heal the world?
This, in my experience, is the unique quality of the graduate community at St. Catherine University. While we gain the skills and experience to be successful in our field, we are also encouraged to view each project as an opportunity to build compassion, love, and justice into our goals. We learn that a career must be more than an end in itself — that it has the potential to develop our unique gifts so that they can be used to help and to heal.
Today we live in a deeply divided and wounded world. It will take all of us, sharing the whole of our knowledge and humanity, practicing radical empathy and human connection, and collectively realizing our capacity to seek out the hidden light in each event and person we encounter. It is then that we begin to restore the wholeness of the world.
So graduates, here at the end of 2017: Know who you are, hold onto what is true about you, and nourish the values that shape your life’s purpose. Remind yourself of this every morning, in every seemingly endless meeting, and even with every success. Remind yourselves why you started this journey. And wherever you go, no matter how tired or busy you are, remember to look for the light.
¹ “Listening Generously.” In On Being. July 29, 2010. https://onbeing.org/programs/rachel-naomi-remen-listening-generously/.