2011 Valedictorian Address by Marlena Griffin

The following are the prepared remarks of Saint Mary's 2011 valedictorian Marlena Griffin at the148th undergraduate commencement ceremony of Saint Mary's College of California.

Good morning esteemed staff, faculty, Brother Ronald, trustees, parents, family and guests. Welcome. Good morning fellow classmates, we have traveled a long path together. Congratulations. Our graduation is truly a milestone. For many of us, this is the beginning of a promising career, an exciting entry into graduate studies or a much-needed break before the next chapter of our lives. Such changes bring up talk of the future.

For years, we students have heard the phrase "You are the future." For many of us, this phrase has become a cliché, a future time period when we will suddenly and drastically change the world. I imagined I would one day do something amazing like save a life or end hunger, but I never understood when I was supposed to begin this path or how. I'm sure many of you, just like me, have wondered: What does the future hold, and when will the future begin? Even the dictionary entry for the word future is much too long and vague for me to explain here, showing us that scholars struggle to define the word. What are we supposed to do with this vague future?

I know that when students hear that overwhelming word "future," we usually stop listening, probably because we fear being defined by what we will do, especially in the workforce. I'd like to use this honor bestowed upon me to disassemble the idea of future. Today, I'd like to use this honor to say something tangible about now.

A few weeks ago I was in yoga class, teetering between meditation and sleep, as many college students tend to do, when my instructor asked the class to meditate on the empty millisecond between each breath. For the first time, I recognized the existence of this pause, but it took me until a few days ago to realize that this pause actually represents an important part of our futures. To help you understand my yoga revelation, I have to back up a bit.

Saint John Baptist de La Salle, who founded the Christian Brothers, dedicated his life to building futures for students. He gave himself to those in need. He said, "Do not have any anxieties about the future, but leave everything in God's hands, for he will take care of you." These words are often misinterpreted. Many people will tell you that these words promise success, that you will attain what you set out to attain. You will be rich. You will have fine cars and homes. You will vacation in Cancun. However, these words offer no such promise.

What Saint John Baptist de La Salle really says here is: have no reservations about your plans-graduate school, a job or a new career-because your internal guidance will shape you into the person you want to become. He is saying, what you do is separate from who you are. Your plan for life is separate from your place in life. Actions are separate from being. Your values and your life choices are much more important than where you work or what you attain. After all, personality and values are indiscernible from a resume, a tax return or a portfolio. The person you are lies within the emptiness, the pause between each breath. In this suspended state we find the greatest richness of all: ourselves and our place in life.

We all recall struggling with the concept of the self through many seminar class discussions on destiny, mortality and fate. Yet, in a simple yoga class I learned that every breath I breathe determines the person I'm becoming. Our future begins again at each pause, at that tiny millisecond that is now, and the way to work toward the future is to be more present now. Every footstep we take is the future, and every choice, good or bad, which we've made since childhood is the future. My first moment of self-awareness was the future, as well as the first time I answered the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Today symbolizes that we are grown up in many ways, though we've had setbacks and challenges. I bet many of us could not imagine this day as we sat, nervously scanning the room in our first day of seminar. Not all of us have a set career path, and those who think we do may change course, because we have the tools to keep creating and recreating ourselves. I stand before you as a person who has changed my life path many times. (I am not the doctor, lawyer nor ballerina I planned to be when I was three). Despite many changes to our goals, Saint Mary's has made us into the people we want to be. Many people, including myself at one time, believe that a Saint Mary's education teaches one how to "do": how to acquire or gain. Though this can be true, I believe that a Saint Mary's education teaches one how to "be": how to become, how to fulfill.

I'd like to share that the true promise of the future is every moment. I stand before a group that I know will change the world. I stand before future CEOs, philanthropists, humanitarians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs and individuals who will make great strides in nonprofit fields. I stand before individuals who know that success is a term which transcends title or position, but a term that must be defined individually and internalized. I stand before individuals who will work hard and be rewarded with great emotional and spiritual wealth. I have seen my peers strive for excellence, and I have no doubt that the class of 2011 will uphold and exceed the fabulous name of Saint Mary's alumni. Though we come from many backgrounds, and the paths we take do not go in any one direction, we are all privileged with the gift of our education.

Class of 2011, please recognize that one day our breath will stop. One day our time will end, and the power we yield over death itself is the place in the world we create and the legacy we will leave for others. Though our stories may be told and our successes recounted, the only active part of ourselves we will leave on this earth is the place we've taken in life, the person we become and the ideas we leave for others. For many of us sitting here today, creating the place in the world does not mean drastically changing our lives. Not all of us will give up worldliness and take religious vows like Saint De La Salle, though today has revealed that we all look fantastic in robes.

Creating a place for ourselves means using the talents that we have discovered and honed into skills at Saint Mary's. Creating a place means remembering the Lasallian core principals, our seminar discussions and the place that Saint Mary's holds in our hearts. Because of the opportunity for education that we've been given, we are responsible for our futures and the futures of others. We have earned the opportunity to pass on our talents and knowledge to others. We have earned the opportunity to impact real, lasting change in our world. As long as we continue these pursuits in our community, we will earn a lasting legacy every moment for the rest of our lives.

I am privileged to speak for the whole graduating class when I say thank you. Thank you, Brother Ronald our president, the Christian Brothers without whom Saint Mary's would not exist, Sodexo staff, Able staff and all others in the Saint Mary's community who have contributed to our education. Thank you to our parents, teachers, administrators, board members, donors and alumni who sacrificed time, effort and money to give us our opportunities. The one thing I hope for all Saint Mary's graduates is that we can influence our communities and our world with the principles we have internalized.

I'd like to leave you with the words of Thomas Dreier, a noted editor, writer and theorist who said, "The world is a great mirror. It reflects back to you what you are. If you are loving, if you are friendly, if you are helpful, the world will prove loving and friendly and helpful to you. The world is what you are."

I believe that our place in life lies within each breath we take and our influence lies in the space we will one day leave for others. Saint Mary's class of 2011, we are not the future; we are every breath we take now. Thank you.