Video: Holt Outstanding Senior Shannon Burrows’ Commencement Speech

With pride and gratitude, Shannon Burrows ’19, the outstanding graduating senior from Rollins’ Hamilton Holt School, reminds her fellow graduates that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.

Photo by Scott Cook Photo by Scott Cook

Video by Simple Thought Productions

The following is a transcript of outstanding graduating senior Shannon Burrows ’19’s address to graduates during Rollins’ 2019 Hamilton Holt School commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 11.

Good morning, Rollins board of trustees, Holt school administration, distinguished professors, honored guests, and my fellow graduates.

I want to let you know ... that today is my birthday! Thanks for coming out; I think we’ve had a nice turnout. This is going to be a great celebration. And I hope it isn’t presumptuous, but I got you all a little something. In a few minutes President Cornwell will call you up individually to hand them out.

It was just four years ago that my husband and I shared a bottle of wine at lunch on Park Avenue. Afterward, we went for a walk on the Rollins campus. I was enamored at the beauty of the grounds, the history of the school, and the sense of community I saw around me. I wondered, could I be a student here? Emboldened by the wine and determined to find out, I sat down in front of a Holt admission counselor within the hour, ready to be told how ridiculous I was for thinking a 40-year-old mother of two could get her degree. A week later, I received my acceptance letter. That was the most expensive bottle of wine I’ve ever purchased.

All my life, I’ve wanted to be an author, a novelist. I’ve worked as a freelance writer, a technical writer, and a medical writer, but never a writer of fiction. As a new Rollins student, I was ready to pursue that dream.

Naturally, I majored in psychology. My thought was I would learn about the darkest aspects of the human condition—the psychoses and depravity that an unhinged mind is capable of. I would take this knowledge into my creative writing minor and create Hannibal Lecter crossed with Voldemort.

And what better place to start than with Dr. Stacey Dunn’s Psychology of Relationships course? When I told my girlfriends I was taking Psychology of Relationships, they all said, “Oooh!” and when I told my husband’s friends, they said to him, “Ugh, sorry, man.”

When class began, I expected to listen to the lecture, take notes, and take tests. But that’s not what happened. Dr. Dunn’s class was fiercely challenging in unexpected ways. We didn’t learn about the depravity of an unhinged mind. Rather, we learned how to be compassionate, understanding humans capable of having deep and meaningful relationships.

As we learned how to navigate healthy relationships, we also shared things from our own lives. We talked about our own experiences with depression, loss, love, joy, and how we handled failure and success. We learned to be grateful for what we have and grateful for who we are.

I was blown away by the vulnerability of my classmates. I learned that I’m not alone. I’m not the only 40-something student balancing work, life, and school. I’m not the only parent who felt guilty for missing a baseball game or not tucking her kids into bed because she was in class. In all my classes, I was with my people—all of us a little scared and a lot tired, and all of us desperately grateful for the opportunities we have.

Oh, and I also learned about Hannibal Lecter.

All of you, the professors, and the Holt student body exemplify the best of the human condition. You’ve shown kindness, resilience, and compassion. During group presentations, I saw you support the classmate who was terrified of public speaking. In workshop classes, I witnessed thoughtful feedback and encouragement for the writer who doubted himself. At the crosswalk on Fairbanks, I saw someone share their umbrella with perfect stranger who was caught in the rain. At the coffee shop in Olin Library, a student offered spare change for a person who was a few cents short. Professors spent extra time with students who were struggling to grasp difficult concepts, gently encouraging and always believing.

In my Positive Psychology class, we were given the assignment to start a daily gratitude practice. Each day, we had to write at least three things we were grateful for. From this assignment, I wrote my first book titled Dear Sam and Max: 88 Letters of Gratitude. Each day, I wrote my children a letter sharing the things I was thankful for. Some days I wrote about big things like when I got a scholarship from one of Rollins’ generous donors. Sometimes, I simply said, “It’s been a rough day and I’m thankful it’s over.” But most of the letters were about everyday things like going to the farmers market or playing catch in the backyard.

Writing these letters to my kids transformed my thinking. It drove home the lessons on gratitude in ways a textbook never could. It instilled in me the idea that gratitude truly is the antidote to fear.

After four classes with Dr. Dunn, I also learned that there are other professors at this institution.

In Dr. Matthew Forsythe’s Fiction Workshop class, he taught us to embrace creativity and take chances with our writing and with failure. He encouraged us to write just outside our comfort zone. One lesson he taught us was about the concept of chance and choice in a story. It’s an idea for crafting the plot—of how the events in a story happen either from choices that the characters make or by chance encounters along their journey. We experience this in our own lives.

Our encounters with chance and choice drive everything we do. We choose to enroll in a class that fits our schedules or fulfills a requirement, and by chance we meet the professor who changes our entire lives and sends us in a direction we never expected.

It was my choice to enroll at Rollins and it was my choice to minor in creative writing and to be a writer, but it was chance that the professors in the writing department taught me more than just writing. I learned how to give thoughtful criticism in a constructive, compassionate way. I also learned how to take criticism, which is an important skill no matter what your career path is.

I learned to trust my instincts and be vulnerable in creativity. Dr. Forsythe was instrumental in this because he came to understand me and was able to push me outside of my comfort zone.

For example, I’m a bit of an overthinker. I can be quite analytical, which is great for psychology, research, and editing, but it’s not so great for drafting stories. Once Dr. Forsythe saw this in me, he helped me push past my own mental blocks and trust my instincts. “Shannon, just write,” he’d tell me. I was resistant at first, explaining to him all the reasons that overthinking was a good thing. I brought him spreadsheets and Venn diagrams and peer-reviewed studies on why planning ahead is always better. And he’d just ask, “So how’s the story coming?”

He was always patient, gently nudging me in the direction he knew I could go. I’m so thankful for that because he was right: I was getting in my own way.

As nontraditional Holt students, there is a lot standing in our way, yet we made the choice to pursue our education even when the chance encounters of life threatened to derail us—things like full-time jobs, families, and commutes, or worse, I-4.

We struggled to strike the work-life-school balance. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve had to fight to be here. We had to rearrange work schedules to accommodate our school schedules. We had to miss Little League games and secure child care. Being adult learners isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.

But none of this would have been possible without the sacrifice and support of our friends and families. For me, those people are my husband, Patrick, and my two sons, Sam and Max.

Patrick, you’ve been my strongest supporter. You never let me feel guilty for missing family movie night to study. You were my caretaker. After my four unexpected surgeries, you woke up in the middle of the night to make sure I had my medicine before the pain got out of control. You took off work to drive me to school and back, working weekends to make up for what you missed so that I didn’t have to miss class. Thank you for all you’ve done for me. And thank you for ordering that bottle of wine!

Sam and Max, I know the past four years haven’t been easy. You’ve had to share me with my school schedule and homework. Max, last night I missed your performance in your last-ever elementary school play so that I could attend baccalaureate. Sam, you missed your playoff game last night so you could support me. Thank you for understanding and for being so incredibly patient. Stay curious. Hold on to your creativity, and when life gets scary—because it will—remember what you’re grateful for to help you move past your fear. I love you as everything I see.

I know I’m not the only one who has profound gratitude for those who supported us. Picture those people in your mind and offer up your thanks. Then take a deep breath and thank yourself for getting you here.

But after the celebrations, we must get back out there and continue to effect positive change in the world. We will take our lessons in business and psychology, music and education, and carry on as global citizens, responsible leaders, and parents who model for our children. And when we have chance encounters with the Hannibal Lecters and Voldemorts of the world, we’ll be equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to defeat them.

These lessons of creativity and gratitude are what I’ll carry with me after graduation. Rollins taught me to embrace the creativity that will lead us into the future. I don’t mean in just the arts, but in tech and entrepreneurship, business and politics. Creativity is the driving force behind every successful endeavor. In fact, I’ve already taken these lessons and applied them to my own business We’ve created an online writing community centered on helping writers improve their craft.

I’m grateful for the incredible faculty who brought their best every day and encouraged me to do the same. I’m thankful to be a part of the class of 2019, who showed up on the sunny days and persevered through the rain. We showed up and today we can show off, for we are what determination looks like.

Graduates, today we celebrate our great achievements. Thank you!