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My 2020 Commencement Address

As most of you know, my full time job is director of an alternative high school. My school runs on trimesters, so our summer semester ended in August and not in June like traditional schools. We hosted a virtual graduation ceremony yesterday with  33 graduates, as my school has about 75 students each semester. 

It was such a beautiful ceremony and I couldn't be happier with how everything turned out. I was nervous that hosting a ceremony on Zoom wouldn't feel the same as being in person with everyone, and although there were some disadvantages to a virtual setting, I think that this ceremony was the most heartfelt and personal than the previous three I've hosted. Students and staff who spoke were honest and teary eyed. Our teachers and students were both happy and sad to say goodbye to one another - happy to be stepping into a new chapter of life and sad to not see each other every day in class anymore.

Our students are at-risk and disadvantaged youth aging anywhere from 15-22 years old. They come to our program because for whatever reason, they weren't functioning well in traditional school. Our program offers a holistic and therapeutic approach to education, where we create an intimate and family like environment for our students. We're like a home away from home for them, as most of their home lives don't offer much support or guidance. 

I love directing a program with a mission like ours, as so much of what I do with Struck Inside Out is uplifting and inspiring others to reach their full potential. I know that I'm meant to be doing this work, and I'm so grateful that I have all of these different outlets to offer positivity to people. Whether it's talking one on one with students, creating curriculum, writing a blog post, sharing a meditation, creating an IGTV video, or even talking with some people when I bartend, I try to see every job and activity that I have as a way to spread inspiration to others. 

I know most of you love when I share my commencement addresses on the blog, so here's the speech I gave yesterday for our graduation ceremony. Even though you won't understand some of the references I mention, I hope it will offer the same encouragement to you as I intended to share with my graduates.

Well, it has been quite the year so far, hasn’t it? Normally I’d be behind a podium staring out to all of your faces and looking into your eyes to recognize how far you’ve come, but for this year, Zoom will have to do. For it’s really not about physically being together to celebrate your achievements, it’s the mere act of coming together in whatever form, to honor how far you’ve come, despite any obstacles or challenges you’ve endured. Given the circumstances of this year and all of the changes the pandemic brought us, you certainly faced many unexpected hardships.

Change is an interesting thing. We try to hide from it and avoid it as much as possible, yet it’s the only constant in our lives. Oftentimes when we’re first met with change, we can’t see any good that comes from it. Even if there’s a silver lining, we don’t usually notice it right away, because our desire for normalcy and comfort is greater than our desire for the new and uncharted. And yet, time after time, change greets us and we still try to run in the other direction.

In this year’s case, there was no running from the pandemic. Well, I guess you could try to run, but even if you fled the country, there was no escaping the coronavirus no matter how far you ran.

And funny enough, the very things that you tried to escape while you were in the building with us, were the very things that you missed the most in quarantine. For example...

Dave singing ten different Billy Joel songs at our open mic nights, George’s watchful eye if you tried to sneak into his class late, Mark’s hour long pep talks about the meaning of life or his obsession with miniature trains, Richard catching you on YouTube or Facebook instead of doing the assigned work on Google Classroom, Raquel discussing UFOs and life on other planets in Astronomy, Ashley encouraging you to write one more page in your weekly journals, and me relentlessly asking you to sing at open mic nights, ask questions at the college fair, or volunteer at an upcoming event. (Although, I’m pretty sure you don’t miss that last one all too much).

All of these seemingly ordinary moments that you tried to run from when you were in school, are precisely what makes us a family and exactly what creates our home away from home. 

Some of you graduating today didn’t experience the transition from in person classes to virtual ones. Your last days at HECS were filled with the moments I just spoke of, and I’m sure you’re really grateful for that, as are we. But the majority of you here today did experience one of the biggest changes of your life, and you handled it with such grace, ease and adaptability that you proved to yourselves how strong willed and resilient you are.

If you were to ever experience a pandemic, now may have been the best time for it to happen, because the struggles that you experienced in the last few months have taught you more about your willpower and determination to succeed, than most other experiences prior. What better time to learn about the nature of your courage and fortitude than before entering college and the working world?

One of my favorite parts of doing this work with all of you is seeing how much you grow and change as a result of being in our program. Many of you told me in your initial intake that you thought there was something “wrong” with you for not continuing in traditional school, or that you felt self-conscious attending an alternative program. Then, after your first few days or weeks with us, it was as though a light turned on and you saw yourself for who you truly are.

You’re someone who’s strong enough to know that when something isn't working for you, to try another route. You’re someone who when met with difficulty, rises to the occasion and experiments with new ways of being. You’re someone who faces your fears head on and trusts yourself enough to know what’s right for you. You’re someone who continues to show up for yourself, each and every day, even when it feels like the hardest thing to do. 

You, graduating class of 2020, are the alternative. Your ability to embrace and adapt to new and different methods is what sets you apart from the rest. Your power lies in how you’re able to see what most other people can’t see and do what other people can’t do. 

Call upon the strength you summoned to finish high school, either under these current circumstances or not, and take it with you whenever you need it. You’re capable of handling anything, going after your heart’s truest desires and becoming anything you want to be.

You did it! We are so proud of your accomplishments and honored to be part of your journey. Now go out there and show the world what you proved to us - that you’re already becoming who you were meant to be.


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