Thank you Susan, President Kelliher, the Board of Trustees and all of you for allowing me to share in your special day.
Your story is my story.
I remember hearing a crash in the kitchen one day when I was probably 5 or 6 and vividly recall walking into the kitchen and seeing my mom sitting on the floor crying with the contents of a pot of soup on the floor near her. I later realized that she wasn’t hurt and wasn’t crying over the spill – she knew that if we couldn’t get help from a relative or neighbor, she would have to put her seven children to bed hungry. Hunger didn’t happen often, but since my dad was an 8th grade educated factory worker and retired after 34 years on the plant floor making $20,000 a year, things were lean and very insecure – especially if he was laid off, or something unexpected came up. Shortly after that, my mom decided to go community college and get a Licensed Practical Nursing certificate. I saw how opportunity and education changed our family in a significant way.
I started my educational journey at a small rural school in the Thumb in the little town of Memphis (Memphis, Michigan not Tennessee) with a population of about 1,200 people. My high school graduating class was just 65 students. I got married at 19, much to my parents’ chagrin – but we had a lot of fun, two amazing boys, who are my heart, and I went to SC4, the community college in Port Huron because I didn’t want to leave my husband to head off to college. There I fell in love with accounting.
To continue my education, I was fortunate to receive the President’s Scholarship here at Walsh. It enabled me to get my bachelor’s degree at Walsh without incurring any student debt.
I went on to take the CPA exam, to pass all four parts just after graduation in May of 1990 and to land a job at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in the audit department in the fall of that year. I think I was the only one in my audit entry class who was married, had already passed all four parts of the CPA exam and was not from the University of Michigan or Michigan State. I clearly took a nontraditional educational path compared with my accounting peers. I share this, because I know many of you in the room have walked a path similar to mine – taking an untraditional path to get your degree.
Thinking of my community college start, students like me enrolled in two-year programs typically do not go on in their education, let alone graduate. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, students in two-year programs typically have lower graduation rates than those in four-year programs. Only 13% of community college students graduate in two years, and only approximately 22% graduate in three years.
This could have been me. It could have been any of us. But we are here.
I persevered and worked hard – just like you persevered and worked hard to be here graduating today.
And this hard work changed my life…
I didn’t set out to be a leader – to be the CFO and Chief Administrative Officer of one of the leading private foundations in the country. I just did my best and took every opportunity that I could. At every step of my professional journey, I also made sure to surround myself with people I admire – to build my network – and to devote myself to work that I believe in.
I shared with you my background, and how income and opportunity had a profound impact on me as a child. I have learned that my ability to succeed was very different than many of you that have faced structural barriers to success.
It’s hard to believe, but I am celebrating my 25th year at The Kresge Foundation. I am grateful that I am working at an organization that is mission-focused – providing opportunity to others, just as I was given opportunity. It’s my wish for you, like me, that you can get up for work every day after 25 years still loving what you’re doing, and that your work is as fulfilling as my work at Kresge.
Seeing how important opportunity is, I am especially proud to work for an organization that has adopted equity as a core operating value. Equity means that every person — regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, zip code, health and ability status or any other consideration — has innate value and access to opportunity. This is fairness, justice and dignity for all. The fact that race-based disparities and structural inequity still exist today in America means that more work needs to be done to create a just and fair society.
I am proud to use my position and leadership at Kresge and in the not-for-profit sector to advance equity in our day-to-day foundation operations and among my peers in the field.
We all need to support each other so that there will be more non-traditional students moving into the professional workforce to support a more inclusive financial sector and beyond.
How can we make that happen? I encourage you to take risks, to develop your skills, to build your network, to seize new learning opportunities – not only about the technical aspects of your work but about yourself. I also encourage you to advance equity and opportunity for others whenever you can. Don’t just be an ally to your peers and those who come after you; be an accomplice in making the change. This means being self-reflective, flexible, working hard, taking the extra step and being a self-starter.
Just don’t ever let anyone say you came from a low performing school district or are starting too late – or any of the other voices we hear that work to hold us back. Don’t set limits for yourself! And don’t lose sight of how all of your hard work will pull together into an amazing career journey.
What you or others might see as obstacles are really catalysts, making you that much stronger and launching you into your future as a leader!
Your story is my story. And I want my story to be your story.
Congratulations, graduates! Enjoy the journey and make a difference!