Outstanding Senior Jessica Kaufman’s Commencement Speech

Outstanding Senior Jessica Kaufman ’15 says words can have and endless impact on others and we should examine how we speak to each other.

(Photo by Laura J. Cole) (Photo by Laura J. Cole)

President McAllastar, Dean Richard, esteemed professors, Holt School administrators and staff, my fellow graduates, and honored guests, it is an honor and a privilege to stand before you today.

As adults, sometimes we forget the power of language. As children, we sing that sticks and stones may break our bones and words will never hurt us, but this isn’t true.

For many of you, this may be your second or third graduation. It is my first. I dropped out of high school in the 11th grade and I will never forget the words of my teachers. The majority of them said I would be a failure—that I’d amount to nothing in life.

I could take this moment to hope they are watching and say something about “eating their words,” but I’d rather focus on the one teacher who looked into my eyes and told me I would be something great one day. Señorita Hassell didn’t condemn, judge, or chastise me. She said I was capable, that I was valuable, and that I was going to figure everything out. Those words—words she didn’t have to say—have made more of a difference in my life than almost any others.

Words are powerful. They may not be able to break our bones, but they can break our spirit—our resolve. The words we speak to others. The things we tell ourselves when looking in the mirror. I know for a long time, I told myself I wasn’t capable of greatness. The day I looked in the mirror and told myself to keep working, keep pushing, keep trying to do the impossible, the whole trajectory of my life seemed to change.

It has been 12 years since I stood in that classroom with Señorita Hassel, but, when I think of my 16-year-old self and the way her words stood out from the others, I know on that day she made a remarkable difference in my life. It took a long time to see myself the way she did, but she was right. I am something. I did figure it out. And more importantly, her words inspired me to be someone with the power to speak positivity into the lives of others.

Language is a powerful tool. When used properly, it builds up the people around you, but, just as easily, when used carelessly it can destroy lives. Sometimes I wonder if she had not spoken so earnestly about my potential, if I’d be here now, on this stage, blessed with the opportunity to speak to you on our graduation day.

To say that accomplishing the feat of becoming a college graduate was easy would be a lie. During my time here at Rollins, I’ve taken a full course load. This year I took six classes in fall and five and a lab in spring all while working full time as a ballroom dance instructor, volunteering, tutoring, and serving as secretary of Sigma Tau Delta. Not to mention doing what is definitely the hardest job in the planet—being a single mom to my eight-year-old daughter Kendal. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been meaningful.

Last Thursday, I walked out of my favorite classroom in Orlando Hall, 215, for the last time. I shut off the lights and looked out the window, and I can honestly say there have been few moments in my life I will remember as well as that one. Rather than feeling a rush of relief that the endless cycle of reading, papers, and studying was finally over, I felt nostalgia. My eyes stung as I walked down the stairs and realized I’d never again sit around those round wooden tables with the classmates and professors I have learned so much from.

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

Today is a day for being thankful and remembering the experiences you have had here at Rollins. Most of those experiences have been a result of the excellent English department faculty who have invested their time, knowledge, and encouragement in my classmates and me. I want to thank those professors who nurtured me.

Dr. Aggarwal for showing me that poetry wasn’t just the stuff in the Norton Anthology, Professor Aufhammer for telling me my written ramblings weren’t nonsense but prose, Dr. Littler for feedback that made me take a stand and believe in my right to argue my opinions, Dr. Reich for pushing me to continually improve my craft. Finally the Holt staff, who work hard every day to bring non-traditional students the benefits of a quality liberal arts education.

I was fortunate to have professors so invested that they coaxed language out of me. Because of them, I seek to give others the gift of language that I deem priceless—the one that began in Señorita Hassel’s classroom so many years ago. 

As an English major, I have spent the majority of my academic life here at Rollins learning about language—its complexities, its mechanics, the proper and improper way to place a comma in a sentence. But I have also learned how it distinguishes us as people. Language is more than words on a page. It is the ability to express yourself fully and completely. It is the way you can expand your worldview through pages and ink.

What we have learned here at Rollins has changed our lives. One day you will look back and see how the words of a professor or the intention of a lesson shaped the way you see the world. For me, this occurred last semester in Language studies—a class all of my fellow English majors know to be a few exits shy of hell. In this, the hardest of my classes, I learned that many people in this country don’t have the gift of language in their lives. Language is directly tied to opportunity, yet 14 percent of adults in this country read at or below a 5th grade level, and 43 percent of those people live in poverty.

I was outraged when Dr. Cheng taught us about the children who graduate from public high schools without the ability to read and write—gifts I take for granted.  

So I made the choice to serve in the best way I know how—the way the English department here at Rollins has served me.

In exactly two weeks I will be loading my beat up Camry with all of my earthly possessions and driving almost 3,000 miles to the Treasure Valley in Idaho to join the ranks of Teach for America.

Because of what I learned in Dr. Cheng’s classroom, I made the choice to serve some children in Idaho by giving them the gift of language that I received here at the Hamilton Holt School—a choice that without a doubt will forever change my life.

The thing about service is that all of us can do it. It’s not always simple. We have different sets of responsibilities than the average Rollins student. As nontraditional students, we balance work, school, children, and sometimes in the midst of all these tasks we forget to give back.

I believe perhaps the easiest and most effective way to make a difference in people’s lives—to serve them—is to look at our language. How do we speak to our children? Do we tell them every day that they are valuable, and brilliant, and can be anyone? How do we speak to that single mom working the night shift who rings up our purchases a little too slow?

Using your language to tell people they matter—that you see their value is all it takes to change someone’s life. That is what Señorita Hassell did for me that day so many years ago, and it’s inspired me to do the same.

Mother Teresa once said “Kind words are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” I believe every person in this room will have a moment in their life where they directly impact another person with their words. Seize those opportunities to speak life into the lives of others—you never know how many people a few kind words will affect.

I ask you today: If you fully knew the impact of your language on another, how would you change the way you speak?

Thank You.