President Sands, esteemed faculty, proud parents, devoted friends, wet siblings… congratulations to all of you. But most importantly, congratulations to the Virginia Tech class of 2017!
I am honored to be with you and this San Francisco summer day feels just like home, just like it does with anything with “Tech” in its name.
I’m so delighted to be here with my friend, Regina Dugan. As you just heard, Regina used to run DARPA – for real! – and now she is developing breakthrough technologies at Facebook. In Hokie terms, she’s our Bruce Smith. And she is just one of so many alums doing amazing things around the world.
Today, class of 2017, you join them. And I’m thrilled for you. And thrilled for all of the people who are here supporting you – the people who have pushed you, dried your tears and laughed with you from your first day to this day. Let’s show them all of our thanks.
Commencement speeches can be pretty one-sided. The speaker – that’s me – imparts her hardearned wisdom… or at least tries to. The graduates – that’s you – you sit in the rain today and listen like the thoughtful people you are. Then you hurl your caps in the air, hug your friends, let your parents take lots pictures of you – ( post them on Instagram, just one idea) – and head off into your amazing lives… maybe swinging by Sharkey’s for one last plate of wings before you go.
Today’s going to be a little bit different because I’m not going to talk about something I know and you don’t. I want to talk about something the Virginia Tech community knows all too well.
Today, I want to talk about resilience.
This university is known for so many things. Your kindness and decency… your academic excellence… your deeply-felt school spirit. I’ve spent time at a lot of time at colleges – yes for work, but also because I might want to relive my 20s just a little.
Few people talk about their school the way Hokies talk about Virginia Tech. There is so much pride and unity here -- such a deep sense of identity, and I am going to prove it by asking you one simple question:
What’s a Hokie? [I am!]
That’s it! What you might not realize is that that Hokie spirit has made all of you more resilient. I’ve spent the last two years studying resilience because something happened in my life that demanded more of it than I ever would have thought possible.
Two years and eleven days ago, I lost my husband Dave suddenly and unexpectedly. Sometimes I still have a hard time saying the words because I can’t quite believe it actually happened. I woke up on what I thought would be a totally normal day. And my world just changed forever.
I know, important day - it’s raining, and I’m up here talking about death. But I promise you there’s a reason – and even one that’s not even sad.
Because what I’ve learned since losing Dave has fundamentally changed how I view this world and how I live in it.And I want to share it with you, on this day because I think it’s going to help you lead happier, healthier, and more joyful lives. and you deserve all of that.
Each of you walked a very unique path to reach this day. Some of you faced real trauma. All of you faced challenges. disappointment, heartache, loss, illness – all of these are so personal when they strike – but they are also so universal.
And then there are the shared losses. The Virginia Tech community knows this. You’ve stopped for a quiet moment by the 32 Hokie stones on the Drillfield, as I did with President Sands just this morning. You’ve joined your friends for the “Run in Remembrance.” You know that life can turn in an instant. And you know what it means to come together, to pull together, to grieve together, but, ultimately, to overcome together.
After Dave died, I did something I’ve done at other hard times in my life: I hit the books. With my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist who studies how we find meaning in our lives, I dove into the research on resilience and recovery.
The most important thing I learned is that we are not born with a certain amount of resilience. It is a muscle, and that means we can build it.
We build resilience into ourselves. We build resilience into the people we love. And we build it together, as a community. That’s called “collective resilience.” It’s an incredibly powerful force – and it’s one that our country and our world need a lot more of right about now. It is in our relationships with each other that we find our will to live, our capacity to love, and our ability to bring change into this world.
Class of 2017, you are particularly suited to the task of building collective resilience because you are graduating from Virginia Tech. Communities like this don’t just happen. They are formed and strengthened by people coming together in very specific ways. You’ve been part of that here, whether you knew it or not. As you go off and become leaders – and yes, you will lead, you are destined to lead – you can make the communities you join – and the communities you form – stronger.
Here’s where you start.
You can build collective resilience through shared experiences. You’ve had lots of those: jumping to “Enter Sandman,” - I saw that this morning, it’s incredible. Enduring the walk across the Drillfield in the winter (kind of like Jon Snow at the Wall), finding new loves and then NEW new loves, being there for each other through triumph and through disappointment. Every class, every meal, every all nighter has added another strand to a vast web that connects you to each other and to Hokies everywhere.
These ties do more than connect – they support. Nearly 30 years ago, a very talented young man made it from a very underprivileged background all the way to college, but then he didn’t finish. And when he dropped out, he said, “If only I had my posse with me, I would have graduated.” That insight led an amazing woman named Deborah Bial to create the Posse Foundation, which recruits high-potential students in teams of 10 to go from the same city to the same college. Posse kids have a 90 percent graduation rate from some of the best schools in the country.
We all need our posses – especially when life puts the obstacles in our path. Out there in the world, when you leave Virginia Tech, you’re going to have to build your own posse – and sometimes that’s going to mean asking for help.
This was never easy for me. Before Dave died, I tried to bother people as little as possible – and yes, “bothering people” is what I thought it was. But then my life changed and I needed my friends and family and colleagues more than I ever could have thought I would. My mom – who along with my dad is here with me today just like yours are here with you – stayed with me for the very first month, literally holding me as I cried myself to sleep. I had never felt weaker. But I learned that it takes strength to rely on others. There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on.
Building a posse also means acknowledging our friends’ challenges. Before I lost Dave, if a friend was going through something hard, I would usually say I am sorry – once. And then I wouldn’t bring it up again because I didn’t want to remind them of their pain. Losing my husband taught me how absurd that was – you can’t remind me I lost Dave. But like I had done with others, when people failed to mention it, it felt like there was a big, old elephant following me around everywhere I went.
It’s not only death that ushers in the elephant. You want to completely silence a room? Say you have cancer, that your father went to jail, that you just lost your job. We retreat into silence just when we need each other the most. Now, not everyone is going to want to talk about everything all the time. But saying to a friend, “I know you are suffering and I am here with you” can kick a very ugly elephant out of any room.
If you are in someone’s posse, don’t just offer to help in a generic way. Before I lost Dave, when a friend was in need, I would say, “Is there anything I can do?” And I meant it kindly – the problem is, that question kind of shifts the burden to the person in need. And when people asked me, I didn’t know how to answer the question. “Can you make Father’s Day go away?” Here’s a different approach. When my friend Dan Levy’s son was sick in the hospital, a friend texted him and said, “What do you not want on a burger?” Another friend texted from the lobby and said “I’m in the lobby of the hospital for a hug for the next hour whether you come down or not.”
You don’t have to do something huge. You don’t have to wait for someone to tell you exactly what they need. And you do not have to be someone’s best friend from the first grade to show up. If you are there for your friends, and let them be there for you – if you laugh together until your sides ache, if you hold each other as you cry, and maybe even bring them a burger with the wrong toppings before they ask – that won’t just make you more resilient, it will help you lead a deeper and more meaningful life.
We also build collective resilience through shared narratives. That might sound light – how important can a story be? But stories are vital. They’re how we explain our past and they are how we set expectations for our future. And they help us build the common understanding that creates a community in the first place.
Every time your friends tell their favorite tales – like, I don’t know, when Tech beat UVA in double overtime – you strengthen your bonds to each other.
Shared narratives are critical for fighting injustice and creating social change. A few years ago, we started LeanIn.Org to help work towards gender equality – helping women and men form Lean In circles – small groups that support each other’s ambitions. There are now more than 33,000 Circles in 150 countries. But It wasn’t until I lost Dave that I understood why Circles are thriving – it’s because they build collective resilience.
Not long ago, I was in Beijing and I had a chance to meet with women from Lean In Circles across China. Like in a lot of places, it’s not always easy to be a woman in China. If you’re unmarried past age 27, you’re called sheng nu – a “leftover woman.” And I thought the word “widow” was bad! The stigma that comes from being a leftover woman can be intense. One woman – a 36-year-old economics professor – was rejected by 15 men because - wait for it -- she was – too educated. After that, her father forbade her younger sister from going to graduate school.
But more than 80,000 women have come together in Lean In Circles to create a new narrative. One Circle created a play, The Leftover Monologues, which celebrates being “leftover” and tackles the topics too often unspoken, like sexual harassment, date rape, and homophobia. The world told them what their stories should be, and they said, actually, we’re writing a different story for ourselves. We are not leftover. We are strong and we will write our own story together.
Building collective resilience also means trying to understand how the world looks to those who have experienced it differently – because they are a different race, come from a different country, have an economic background unlike yours. We each have our own story but we can write new ones together – and that means seeing the values in each other’s points of view and looking for common ground.
Anyone here a little bit anxious about your future? Not sure where the future is taking you? Sometimes me too. And you know what helps you combat that fear? A very big idea captured in a very tiny word: hope.
There are many kinds of hope. There’s the hope that she wouldn’t swipe left. Sorry. There’s the hope that as you sit here your stuff will magically pack itself. Sorry. There’s the hope that it would stop raining. Double sorry. But my favorite kind of hope is called grounded hope -- the understanding that if you take action you can make things better.
We normally think of hope as something that’s held in individual people. But hope – like resilience – is something we grow and nurture together. Just two days ago, I visited Mother Emanuel church in Charleston. We all know about the shooting that took place there just two years ago, claiming the lives of a pastor and eight worshippers. What happened afterwards was extraordinary. Instead of being consumed by hatred, the community came together to stand against racism and violence. As a local pastor Jermaine Watkins beautifully put it: “To hatred, we say no way, not today. To division, we say no way, not today. And to loss of hope, we say no way, not today.”
That was the theme of maybe the most touching Facebook post I’ve ever read – and let’s face it, I’ve read a lot of Facebook posts. This one was written by Antoine Leiris, a journalist in Paris whose wife Hélène was killed in the 2015 Paris attacks. Two days later – two days – he wrote an open letter to his wife’s killers. “On Friday night, you stole the life of an exceptional being, the love of my life, the mother of my son. But you will not have my hate. My 17-month-old son will play as we do every day, and all his life this little boy will defy you by being happy and free. Because you will not have his hate either.”
Strength like that makes all of us who see it stronger. Hope like that makes all of us more hopeful. That’s how collective resilience works – we lift each other up. This might seem very intuitive to you Hokies because these qualities of collective resilience – shared experiences, shared narratives, and shared hope – shine forth from every corner of this university. You are a testament to courage, faith and love – and that’s been true, not just for these past 10 years, but for over a century before then. This university means a lot to you, graduates… but it also means a lot to America and to the world. So many of us look to you as an example of how to stay strong and brave and true.
This is your legacy, Class of 2017. You will carry it with you – that capacity for finding strength in yourselves and building strength in the people around you.
Virginia Tech has given you a purpose, reflected in your motto, “That I May Serve.” An important way you can serve and lead is by helping build resilience in the world. We have a responsibility to help families and communities become more resilient – because none of us get through anything alone. We get through it together.
As you leave this beautiful campus and set out into the world, build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strike, know that deep inside you, you have the ability to get through anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.
Build resilient organizations. Speak up when you see injustice. Lend your time and your passion to the causes that matter. My favorite poster at Facebook reads, “Nothing at Facebook is someone else’s problem.” When you see something that’s broken and there is a lot that is broken out there, go fix it. Your motto demands that you do.
Build resilient communities. Virginia Tech founded the Global Forum on Resilience four years ago, and it’s doing outstanding work in this field. Be there for your friends and family. And I mean in person – not just in a message with a heart emoji. Even though those are pretty great too. Be there for your neighbors; it’s a divided time in our country, and we need you to help us heal. Lift each other up and celebrate each and every moment of joy. Because one of the most important ways you can build resilience is by cultivating gratitude.
Two years ago, if someone had told me that I would lose the love of my life and become more grateful, I would have never have believed them. But that’s what happened. because today I am more grateful now than I ever was before – for my family and especially my children. For my friends. For my work. For life itself.
A few months ago, my cousin Laura turned 50. Graduates, you may not appreciate that turning 50 happens soon and feels old – but your parents do. I called her that morning and I said, “Happy Birthday, Laura. But I am also calling to say in case you woke up this morning with that ‘oh my God, I’m 50’ thing. Don’t do that. This is the year Dave doesn’t turn 50.” Either we get older, or we don’t. No more jokes about growing old. Every year – every moment –even in the pouring rain –is an absolute gift.
You don’t have to wait for special occasions – like graduation – to feel and show your gratitude to your family, your friends, your professors, your baristas – everyone. Counting your blessings increases them. People who take the time to focus on the things they are grateful for are happier and healthier.
My New Year’s resolution last year was to write down three moments of joy before I went to bed each night. This very simple thing has changed my life. Because I realize I used to go to bed every night thinking about what I did wrong and what I was going to do wrong the next day. Now I go to sleep thinking of what went right. And when those moments of joy happen throughout the day, I notice them more because I know they’ll make the notebook. Try it. Start tonight, on this day full of happy memories – but maybe before you hit Big Al’s.
Graduates, on the path before you, you will have good days and you will have hard days. Go through all of them together. Seek shared experiences with all kinds of people. Write shared narratives that create the world you want to live in. Build shared hope in the communities you join and the communities you form. And above all, find gratitude for the gift of life itself and the opportunities it provides for meaning, for joy, and for love.
Tonight, when I write down my three moments of joy, I will write about this. About the hope and the amazing resilience of this community. And maybe you’ll write that I finally stopped talking.
You have the whole world in front of you. I cannot wait to see what you do with it.
Congratulations and go Hokies!