Holt Outstanding Senior Kendra Davies’ Commencement Speech

Holt Outstanding Senior Kendra Davies ’16 says that when it comes achieving dream goals, it takes growth, grace, and grit.

Holt Outstanding Senior Kendra Davies ’16 (Photo by Scott Cook) Holt Outstanding Senior Kendra Davies ’16 (Photo by Scott Cook)

My fellow graduates, honored guests, esteemed professors, and Holt School administrators and staff. It is a privilege and an honor to stand before you today.

I do not believe my story is entirely unique. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of you. I know I am not alone in this room and that my story represents some of you or someone you love and our stories are seldom shared on these platforms because, statistically, we do not make it here.

Like some of you, it’s really my past that makes this day so extraordinary.

(Video by Simple Thought Productions)

Sixteen years ago, I was a high school dropout. I struggled with addiction. I was a selfish and sick person who thought very little of the world, or community, and even less about myself.

When I registered at Valencia nearly eight years ago, I’d never finished anything. I believe they call it a “non-traditional student,” which I’ve come to realize is a euphemism for “older, focused, and here-on-purpose.”

It has been anything but a straight line or an easy path. During my college career, I have been a mother, full-time employee, part-time employee, a laid-off employee, an unemployee, a wife, an ex-wife, and most recently, a fiancé, an entrepreneur. Really, I’m just another Holt student, dealing with competing priorities.

If you were to ask me how I got here, I would say the journey began at least 16 years ago, and the themes have been growth, grace, and grit.

Growth happens outside the comfort zone and so, by definition, is uncomfortable. Author Ann Lamott calls doing things that make us uncomfortable “weight training for life.” In my own experience I have seldom had great joy without equally great, awful, and messy pain. In fact, each of the things I am proudest of in my life started with an impossibility—something I did not think could happen or that I did not think I was capable of doing.

A short list of things that I am sure you all can relate to include: Going back to college; passing college algebra (kind of), statistics (twice); reading Plato! (with the help of a dictionary and thesaurus, of course); successfully submitting my poetry to be published in an ACTUAL LITERARY JOURNAL; and being the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Non-traditional is lookin’ pretty good!

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Growth is building up your tolerance for failure and risk. It is not just in those things that are graded or measured. It has already happened for you many times in life and will continue far beyond today. It happened every time the odds were stacked against you—when even the people who love you shared your doubts. It happened in every moment you decided to look at what Dr. Brenè Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston, calls the gremlins in your mind, who said “you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not blank enough.” And then you replied, “Maybe, but I am going to try anyway.”

So if what you want to do next in your life is write a book, get a PhD, be an actress, forgive someone, or start a business, our own combined experience indicates it is often only a bit of willingness and a single small step—outside your comfort zone—that stands between you and that thing you want.

The rest is grace and grit.

I’ll continue with another Brenè Brown quote, because, let’s face it, she’s the Shakespeare of vulnerability and growth. She said, “Grace is the whisper when you are standing in front of the dark that says, ‘I can’t make this less scary for you, but I can remind you that you’ve walked through it before.’”

In my experience, grace is often something you don’t know you need until you get it.

My mother and I had a pretty rough relationship for the first half of my life, but when I hit rock bottom and burned all the bridges I had, she was there, as usual.

She was living in Germany at the time and offered to let me live with her on two conditions: 1. That I get my GED and 2. I go to college when I got there.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Although I often felt behind in life, my mother would always tell me “you are right on time.” So I got my GED and became a college student for the first time at the University of Maryland in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 2001.

Even though I dropped out after only two semesters, my mother and I had three wonderful years together, travelling all over Europe, eating amazing food, and laughing. And just as I was starting to appreciate her in a way I had never experienced before, our time was cut short when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 small-cell lung cancer.

She was given only a 10 percent chance of living a full year from diagnosis, and because my mother is stubborn, she lived 363 days.

For each of those days I was her primary caretaker. The experience of being a caretaker and of seeing the power of unconditional love that my mother radiated transformed how I saw the world. Her love was so freely given—not just to me but to everyone who came to see her in those last few weeks.

Perhaps her whole life she was just trying to tell me there was another way to live, but it was in those last few years and in her dying that she showed me true grace. There she was, despite all of the bad things I had done in my life, even those things against her, and she still believed I was worthy and deserving of love.

Her last wish was for me to be happy, and it would, quote, “make her happy if my happiness included graduating from college.” Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Grace is not reserved for only those huge life moments. It’s also in the unearned kindnesses between strangers and the seemingly undeserved second chances we get in life.

It is the donors for the Holt Scholarship Fund, without whom Rollins wouldn’t even be a possibility for many of us. They could put their money anywhere, and they choose to invest in us.

As I look around and see our family and friends fill this space, thank you for your grace. Going back to school is a decision that affects everyone around us. It is possible to do this without support, but it is so much easier with it. If you all are anything like my family, you made it possible for your graduate to actually get to class. You watched the kids. You covered for us when we missed dance recitals and games. You found a way to pay our car payments when we got laid off. You gave us a place to live so we wouldn’t have to drop out again just to make ends meet. You worked harder so we could focus on our education.

Finally, when we wanted to quit, it was nothing short of your grace that reminded us that we are stronger, smarter, and braver than we knew. You all have carried us—sometimes kicking and screaming—to this finish line.

Without you, we would not be here. To my people, and to all of the friends and family who know and understand what I am talking about, I say thank you.

Grit is defined as courage and resolve, strength of character. In the field of positive psychology, grit correlates to success twice as much as IQ. In short, growth leads to grit. And I believe it is contagious.

Whether you realized it up to now or not, your act of showing up is grit. I’ve watched some of you face your worst fears of speaking in public and felt deep admiration as you spoke your words, voice shaking and so brave.

Some of you took a dance class in the fall because you wanted an “easy” class—then you learned you would have to perform in Attitudes, the fall dance showcase. I attended those performances, and I watched in awe as you faced your—and my—biggest fear of being seen. I watched your bodies of all sizes and shapes and ages make something beautiful and rhythmic. You, my friends, are a bold and gritty bunch, and I have been inspired by what I have seen you do.

Keep showing up. It facilitates your growth and is a beacon of light for anyone struggling to find their own grit.

To the faculty and staff who have been living examples of how to advocate for those with no voice, to be an ally, and to stand up in the face of injustice—thank you for demonstrating what grit is and how to practice it.

In Dr. Lisa Tillmann’s Incarceration and Inequality class I had the opportunity to advocate in front of actual state representatives for better resources and laws for the mentally ill in the corrections system. I have never had a class that challenged me as much this class did. However, I was encouraged and inspired by Dr. Tillmann’s work, and because she believed, I believed.

In Dr. Lori Coffae’s Documented Investigation class, I wrote a medical narrative about my mother’s passing, and it was the first time since she died that I had actually told the entire story.

These are just two examples but by no means the only of instances where my experience at Rollins became more than just getting a degree. It made me a better person. There have been many a Rollins professor who’ve dropped the gauntlet at my feet, and I am grittier for rising to meet their challenge.

I believe the greatest disservice we do to ourselves and each other is not celebrating how absolutely magnificent we are! For us, the gremlin in our minds might protest, “Why should I celebrate now what I should have done 10 or 20 years ago?”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

For me, this, being here on this stage, is a miracle. It defies all of the odds. It is the culmination of all my little choices to try despite the voices who said I couldn’t or that I wasn’t smart enough. I want to implore you, because your life is also made up of a million little choices, to try. Share your story, because you are bold and wonderful and someone else desperately needs to hear that what you have done is possible.

Even when my mother said she wanted me to graduate from college, I am sure at the time she probably meant “just pass.” Being your 2016 Outstanding Graduating Senior, graduating Summa Cum Laude from one of the most beautiful and highly regarded colleges in the nation, in all honesty is probably blowing her mind. So if you are trying to downplay this HUGE accomplishment into something that’s not a big deal, or if you have a family that isn’t celebrating you (and I know what that feels like, too), know that today WE celebrate you.

To this graduating class of 2016, for your growth, your grace, your grit, I ask that you not play small today or ever again. Whether it’s taken you a couple extra years or if you’re on the extended-decade plan like me, in the words of my mother I want to assure you: YOU ARE RIGHT ON TIME.

Congratulations and thank you.

Davies and Dean of the Hamilton Holt School David C.S. Richard. (Photo by Scott Cook) Davies and Dean of the Hamilton Holt School David C.S. Richard. (Photo by Scott Cook)