A Commencement Address for those Graduating from Schooling as we Knew It
Shortly after colleges closed and sent their students away to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I received a very special call. Zelia, an alumni from The Met Sacramento reached out to some of my BPL colleagues shortly after arriving back home. One of my dear colleagues heard her describe her interests and knowing me well said, “you need to talk to Eva!"
“Lecture classes don’t always allow me to work on real world issues, and after being sent home, I feel like it's an opportunity to find real work with real impact!” Zelia spoke with passion and purpose. She shared a long list of experiences that sounded more like a mid-career applicant than a college student. She could seamlessly connect the dots between her experiences by sharing what she learned with each one. “That’s what happens when you start your career as a teenager in a Big Picture high school,” we laughed. With enthusiasm and urgency, she said, “I want to know how non-profits faced with big changes shift and transition their workforce around new work that still feels authentic to their mission.” In my mind, I thought, “Oh, we’re the right match. We’re going to have fun!”
As I look forward to the work I’ll be doing with my new colleague, my very first BPL intern, I wrote this note. But really, it’s not just for Zelia. It’s for all the young people who are being sent away from their schools. Those who may be asking themselves, “how do I shift and transition while staying authentic to my purpose?”
To Zelia and all the Strategists That will Emerge from this Pandemic
In many ways you don’t need this note. You are driven to action on your own and you’re a generation that knows you can learn anything you desire by looking it up online and by finding the right people. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Emma Gonzalez stand as prime examples of what your generation can do.
But my journey has taught me that there are not a lot of guides for how to become a strategist or a leader for people like me. There was no career pathway from Tijuana to becoming the Chief Program & Strategy Officer for the organization I love that had me spending time at some of the most prestigious universities in the world and doing real work with students, parents, and educators to improve outcomes for young people.
My parents knew they don’t make pathways for people like us. “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar” (There is no path, there’s only the path made by walking) they would sing to me as a child, quoting a song from Joan Manuel Serrat that became an anthem for many of their generation. With that ethos and as immigrants to this country, they showed me how to walk steadfast and deliberately even when walking against the current and upstream. I guess that’s the immigrant equivalent of “uphill and in the snow both ways.” They also taught me how to dance and sway creatively past obstacles while keeping my own beat. To make your own path you have to stay authentic. For me, authenticity is not a choice but a matter of survival.
Zelia, you want to know how to stay authentic to your purpose so let’s talk about purpose. One of my favorite ways to talk about purpose is through the concept of Ikigai. It is the Japanese concept that means a “reason for being.” Ikigai is often visualized as the space in the center of a venn diagram showing the overlap between:
what you love to do,
what the world needs,
what you're good at, and
what you get paid for.
For me, my ikigai is my work at Big Picture Learning. The time I get to spend in that space is a joy, an honor, and a privilege. I love strategically building our collective capacity to grow our impact in the lives of young people. The world certainly needs more engaged young people doing meaningful work to solve some of our pressing problems. Thankfully, so far I’ve proven my skill and continue to be paid for my work. Reaching my ikigai is a big milestone for me that was not probable. As an immigrant, it can seem like the only consideration is the “what you can get paid for” circle and that the "what you love to do” or “what the world needs” circles are luxuries. But I learned that I was not able to sustain myself if I was not also attending to the other circles. It was definitely a risky path to take, but the injustices I saw in my path were impossible to ignore. I could not only focus on my own profit. I had to also address these injustices and in that combination, I found strategy and my ikigai.
I had an executive coach tell me once that I had a lot of talent as a strategist. But he also warned me that strategic thinking is a big dividing border in a lot of businesses. He said to me, “it is considered a divider between those who move up into leadership and those who are not considered leadership material.” Unfortunately, I know too much about borders and glass ceilings so I am determined to make some cracks in that strategy divider for people like us, Zelia.
So for Zelia and any other young people trying out their strategy skills, here is a primer. Some of you may also find your way to your own version of ikigai by taking this path.
You know what moves you already, now dig deeper. What gets you going? What needs to change in your community? Whatever you’re passionate about, seek to know more. Why are things that way? Dig into the history, data, policies, and anything that will tell you how we got here. Find the people that know about the issues you care about. If something doesn’t feel right, find out why it is this way. Go beyond narratives that blame the victims and scapegoat groups as lazy or simply unfortunate. You know better, look with a critical eye.
Another world is possible, make it so. Dream beyond what anyone tells you is reasonable or even possible. If joy and laughter are not present in your vision of success, then you’re probably not going far enough. Look for those already defying the odds and find out what they know. There is much to be learned from those you aim to serve.
Partner up. Don’t fall prey to the myth of the hero. No movement has been the work of any individual. Unfortunately, college essays and just about every application makes it feel like this is an individual competition. The problems of today are not solo endeavors. Join forces with others, get good at making collectives be smarter than the sum of their pieces. It’s the only way to make large scale improvements.
Sharpen your tool. Being a do-gooder is not good enough. To be excellent you need to know the gap from where you are to where you want to be. Get comfortable with that gap. Practice, practice, practice your craft and skills whatever they may be-- teaching, organizing, researching, building, coding, speaking. Be humble and steadfast. You are the tool in your craft. Sharpen your tool and take care of yourself.
Without kindness and love everything will fizzle. The work is hard. I already told you there may be no pathway. You will mess up, you will fall. You may feel bruised, and self-doubt may kick in. Kindness, especially self-kindness and love are essential elements in your journey. Note that kindness and excellence are not at odds with each other. This one took me a while to understand -- taking exquisite care of yourself is a vital part of being a strategist.
Looking at my list, I realize that unintentionally I’ve written you a graduation speech. Consider this my graduation address to the class of 2020 and all the students who are graduating from schooling as we knew it and moving on to focus their efforts and talent towards real world challenges.
Class of 2020, I feel your grief over the milestones you expected to have this spring, especially the celebrations you deserved to have in those iconic robes. I feel that loss and I certainly hope that you and your school communities find ways to make up for those milestones. Your accomplishments are certainly worth celebrating! But I also hope that you never go back to believing that you have to graduate in order to do big things for our world. The world is real and you’re needed now. You’ve graduated from schooling as we knew it, and you’re ready.
Zelia, I’ve got work for you, let’s get to it!
To the young people that may be reading this blog, we’d love to hear from you. In many of our schools it is a tradition that all students give their valedictory speeches. With this blog, we’d like to invite BPL graduates to start writing theirs and share them with us. We’d love to feature them in this blog as we begin to celebrate your graduations. If you are interested in sharing your own graduation or valedictory speech, fill out the contact us form on this page.