Words to Live By: Alumni Reflect on
Their Commencement Advice to Classmates
Every year, one outstanding senior is selected to address their graduating class, faculty, families, friends, and distinguished guests at the ceremonial rite of passage known as Commencement.
The student commencement speech is an important tradition at the Farquhar College of Arts and Science for many reasons.
"The tradition of inviting a graduating student to address the commencement audience is a long-established part of the commencement ceremony because it reflects in both literal and symbolic terms the considerable achievements of all of the graduates," said Lynn Wolf, Ph.D., associate professor at the college, who has been a mentor to past student commencement speakers such as Jennifer Pereles Labovitz (Class of 1997).
"This speech celebrates the significant passage of all of the graduates into their future lives," Wolf said. "The address by a student who exemplifies diligence, commitment, community involvement, and high achievement, who is articulate and reflective, and who speaks directly peer-to-peer about a shared and valued experience, makes the ceremony even more meaningful for both the graduating seniors and the guests.
"The speaker is joining his or her peers and speaking with them and for them, as they all take this important step into their future lives."
As NSU celebrates 50 years of achievement, the college asked several past student commencement speakers to reflect on their speeches, and whether the words they shared with their peers on graduation day still resonate in their lives today. These alumni revealed how their messages to classmates—and their experience as undergraduates at NSU—shaped their futures in significant ways better understood with the passage of time.
Click on the names below to read their stories.
Jennifer Pereles Labovitz - Class of 1997
“Independence is not something you claim. It’s thinking and making choices free from society’s pressures or nudging. It’s nudging. It’s individuality. It’s what made my education a choice and not an obligation to family tradition. It’s what gives us our voice.”
Jennifer Pereles Labovitz, B.A., Liberal Arts, in her commencement speech to the Class of 1997
When Jennifer Pereles Labovitz spoke at her graduation from the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, she urged her classmates to “move beyond the expectations placed upon them” and “think for themselves.”
As the student commencement speaker for the Class of 1997, “I suggested that we not be contained by narrow ideals or confining aspirations.”
Sixteen years later, her words hold true in in her life, but in an unexpected way.
“The underlying theme of my speech—to think for oneself—still resonates today,” Labovitz said. “I am a proponent of not following or believing in anything you don’t truly understand, and I attribute this philosophy to my education.
“However, at age 21, I believed that thinking for oneself would lead to lives that were dramatically different from our parents. I spoke about not being confined to typical roles—jobs, careers, marriages. With age and experience, I have learned that fitting some stereotypes is inevitable and sometimes necessary.
With “three young children, a husband, a house, and a job, life is always throwing unexpected issues at me,” said Labovitz, who lives in Tarrytown, New York. “I have filled conformist shoes. However, I did not reach this place in my life because it was expected of me or because I sought to fit in. Every choice I’ve made has been my own.”
As a mentor to Labovitz, Wolf remembers her former student as “intellectually engaged and curious,” and one “who really enjoyed discussing the works we read” in literature courses.
“I remember that Jennifer’s insights were exceptionally mature; she really related to the works we read on a deeply human level––exactly the way the best readers and thinkers engage in reading literature,” Wolf said.
“Not only was Jennifer a perceptive thinker and an articulate writer, but she also had a very upbeat and enthusiastic personality––the kind that encourages others around her. I am delighted, and not at all surprised, that Jen has found many ways to employ her intellect and emotions.”
Since her graduation, Labovitz has pursued a career as an interpretive designer and writer for museums and public experiences. Some of her projects have included The College Basketball Experience in Kansas City, Missouri; ImaginOn!, a children’s library and theater in Charlotte, North Carolina; and a September 11 tribute at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City.
“If I could give the speech over, I would still suggest that the greatest gift and obligation that education brings us is to think for ourselves,” she said. “However, I would clarify that thinking for oneself is vastly different than thinking about oneself. I now understand the obligations we have to each other, the human connection and human experience.
“I would offer that the pursuit of individual rather than common or collective interests is often not the better choice. I have learned that experiences are heightened when we participate in them with others. Only through meaningful experiences with one another do people learn and feel fulfilled. While we are individuals, we are all connected.”
Carolyn Renae Griggs - Class of 2000
"When I first arrived here, I was tattered and torn like the eagle that is weary from the constant hunt. I found a safe place to commence the process of renewal. I have grown new wings and because of the extraordinary people who have touched my life, I have learned to soar. Because of the incredible people at this university, I have been renewed in mind, in body, and in soul, and like the eagle, I have identified my goal and I am keenly focused so that nothing will distract me ... No matter where my vision may take me, no matter how far I may travel from here, I have a compass in my heart that will always bring me back to NSU, which I will always consider my home."
At the end of her career as a police officer, Carolyn Renae Griggs was eager to turn her life in a different direction. She enrolled as an undergraduate student at NSU with a mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty over how she might fit in at a college campus.
"I'd always had this different way of viewing the world. It was so important for me to belong somewhere," said Griggs, a psychology major and the student commencement speaker for the Class of 2000. "When I arrived at NSU, I was a non-traditional student in my mid-30s, and I had been in police work since I was 21.
"I went into [law enforcement] as an optimistic 21-year-old who wanted to help people and make a difference. And I left ready to blow my brains out. I didn't know who I was anymore. This was the impetus for wanting to go to school so much."
At NSU, Griggs found a home. Her years in law enforcement gave her a rare insight into human behavior, and she gravitated toward a psychology major with a minor in criminal justice.
"I had hundreds of hours in studying behavior and interviewing suspects and getting confessions. Psychology was a natural progression," she said. "In the beginning, I thought, I'll just augment what I already know. Instead, I realized that I would rather learn more about myself and the people I'd worked with. I started to gravitate toward the issues of domestic violence and suicide within the police community. I wanted to drag this issue out of the closet."
Griggs excelled as an undergraduate and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. She won a prestigious Truman Scholarship which allowed her to study forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
She credits her college success to fellow students and professors at NSU, including her mentor, Ellen Flynn, Ph.D., a former assistant professor and coordinator of the undergraduate psychology program at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences. Flynn is now an assistant professor at the graduate School of Education at the University at Bridgeport in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
"Renae was very eager to learn," Flynn said. "I was able to help her with career planning, and eventually I supported her scholarship proposal for a master's degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"It seemed to me that Renae was well-suited for forensic psychology because she had both extensive knowledge in criminal justice and psychology. Her background as a police officer also positioned her well for that scholarship.
"Renae had the motivation to be an excellent student, but her decision to attend school and the rationale for studying psychology was not clear when she arrived in my class. It was through our discussions that her career goals were revealed and her life story began to have purpose and meaning. I think Renae found an empathic listener with me, and through that student/faculty engagement, Renae found herself."
In the years that followed, Griggs worked as an advocate for victims of domestic violence, including those within the police community. Today, she lives on a farm in Central Florida where she works as a holistic wellness coach and also cares for animals in need.
"I wanted to work one-on-one with people, but I didn't want to be a therapist. Someone introduced me to coaching, and it was a perfect fit," she said.
"If not for the environment at NSU, none of these things would have happened. It wasn't just the faculty or the academic environment—the student body, too, embraced me. I learned to build bridges. I found a part of myself. I came into my own. I discovered my value. Every single day, there was an experience that took me one step higher."
Reflecting on graduation day, Griggs said: "That speech came straight from my heart. I had never really shared my personal experience before, and there I did it in front of thousands of people. You could hear a pin drop. I was so nervous, and yet I was very intent on being as authentic as I could be."That was truly the beginning of a very long and inspirational healing process. My healing began there. On that day, I didn't have that perspective. But that was the first step."
Elaine Hammil Porter - Class of 2005
"The truth is graduation is not the end, but the beginning. Many of us will move on to higher levels of education, many will go into the working field. But whatever the direction, choose well and reap the benefits of your seed sowing."
On graduation day, Elaine Hammil Porter had only begun to reach her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.
Almost a decade later, the student commencement speaker for the Class of 2005 is a pediatric resident in her final year of training at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia.
"The focus of my speech was that we have in our hands the tools to carve our own future, just by continuing the hard work that brought us to that point," said Porter, who majored in biology at the college. "The same fire should be instilled and burning within us to give us that momentum to achieve our heart's desire."
For Porter, that desire was always to pursue a career in medicine.
Growing up in Jamaica, "my peers often scoffed at my decision to become a doctor, knowing how challenging this task would be for a rural girl," she said. "I never wavered in my quest."
After graduating from high school, Porter moved with her family to the U.S. "This was a tremendous undertaking–coming into a new environment and culture. But I held steadfast to my dreams, and each obstacle became another building block to achieve my goal."
After enrolling at NSU, Porter worked two jobs while taking full course loads each semester. As a student, she presented at the Undergraduate Student Symposium. She conducted research for almost two years and served as a teaching assistant for four semesters to Dimitri Giarikos, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant director at the college's Division of Math, Science, and Technology.
After graduation, Porter postponed medical school for financial reasons. She worked for two years at a South Florida high school—teaching Earth Space Science, Anatomy and Physiology Honors, and AP Chemistry–before enrolling at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
In a recommendation letter to a medical school selection committee, Giarikos described Porter as "an extraordinary individual with strong leadership abilities, great drive, and determination."
He noted her outstanding scholarship including her work in the laboratory, earning a spot on the dean's list every semester, serving in several honors societies, and her volunteer work with young children.
"As a faculty member, I have learned that students tend to keep distant from faculty," Giarikos said. "That isn't the case with Elaine. I got to experience her sense of humor, her warm personality, and demeanor...Her desire and fire is what drives her."
Emily Schmitt, Ph.D., associate professor and associate director at the college's Division of Math, Science, and Technology, remembers Porter as a hard-working student and campus leader.
"This was especially inspirational considering she left rural Jamaica to attend college in the U.S., worked several jobs simultaneously to pay for college, and finished her pre-medical requirements in a little more than three years," Schmitt said.
In her graduation speech, Porter credits her professors at NSU for helping her maintain an unwavering determination.
"There have been numerous occasions when professors have taken the time to share with us some well-considered and invaluable advice, which I have found to have a great impact in my personal life," she said at the time.
That advice helped shape her future and still rings true today, she said.
"There are two statements from professors that ring true. 'Whatever you do, do it well, and enjoy what you do as you will have to deal with it for the rest of your life.' And two, 'take time for relaxation and always find time to impart what you know to others.'"I can definitely say I have lived both and have no regrets. As I quoted in my speech, graduation is not the end, it is the beginning. My moment at that time was truly the beginning for me ... and has taken me to the place I am at right now."
Carlos Garcia - Class of 2010
"My story really is no more remarkable than any of yours. You each carry a unique tale of perseverance and determination, which has led you here. The truth is that you are all just as deserving of being up here as I am. I don't hold any great secret to life. I didn't get here by making all the right decisions or always making the right choices, but what I did do was pursue my dreams. And I believe you are all here because you've decided to pursue yours, and in my eyes, that makes you just as brave as any firefighter or soldier."
Dream big, find and follow what you love to do. That was the commencement message psychology major Carlos Garcia had for his Class of 2010 classmates on graduation day.
"When we dream big, we stretch the limits of who we are and what we can accomplish," Garcia said in his speech. "If there is one thing I have learned in life–if you do what you love, the rest will fall into place. And if you are doing what makes you happy, you will find your success."
Garcia was already doing what he loved–working as a firefighter-paramedic–when he returned to college after a 10-year absence to pursue a bachelor's degree in psychology.
Born in Cuba, Garcia's family emigrated to the U.S. when he was two years old. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school and served six years, including a tour of duty in Iraq.
He continued to work as a firefighter-paramedic while he went to college and graduated as one of the Outstanding Students of 2010.
Garcia credits his success in part to his mentor, Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., associate professor and coordinator of psychology research at the college.
"When I first encountered Carlos as an undergraduate student, I was very impressed with him—his thinking, reading, and writing abilities were in line of what you would expect of a top-notch graduate student," Tartar said.
"He and a student co-investigator completed what was essentially a master's level research project. He presented his research at the Southeastern Psychological Association where his talk was very well-received and this research was ultimately published in the scientific journal, Neuroendocrinology Letters.
"Aside from his strong intellectual and research abilities, Carlos also has a wonderful, easy-going nature. Although he is extremely intelligent, determined, and perseverant in his work, his interpersonal skills are incredibly strong. I think this unique and helpful balance of traits will enable him to be an amazing clinical psychologist," Tartar said.
Garcia is pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology at NSU's Center for Psychological Studies. He hopes to one day use his education and training to help others, including firefighters, and to help save lives from "the inside, out."
"My advice to the graduating class was to always dream big and never set limits to the number of things they can accomplish," he said. "I wanted each one of them to know that they already possessed the passion to create the lives they wanted. All they had to do was pursue their goals with confidence.
"Those principles and ideals continue to guide my life today. I feel that I can overcome any obstacle that comes my way."
Looking back, "there is nothing [in my speech] that I would say differently. I love my field of study and can't imagine doing anything else. I have found my calling in life. My parting message to the graduating class was, if they pursued what they loved, they would find their success and happiness.
"I truly think I have found both."