Nicole Stelle Garnett Offers Keynote at Holy Cross College Commencement
ACE Senior Policy Advisor was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa
Nicole Stelle Garnett is ACE’s senior policy advisor, the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law at Notre Dame’s Law School, and a Fellow in the Institute for Educational Initiatives. On Saturday, Garnett delivered the address for Holy Cross College’s commencement. She urged graduates to follow the example of the core values of ACE’s Notre Dame ACE Academies: Seek, persist, excel, love, and serve.
I’d like to reflect for a few minutes on the amazing gift that you have received here at Holy Cross. In this moment of celebration, I want to pause to remember that—over these past years—you have received not just a great education, but a great Catholic education in the Holy Cross tradition. There are many excellent schools in this country, but Catholic schools like Holy Cross College seek do something really unique, something that is deeply needed in our individualist, consumerist, secular culture. As Blessed Basil Moreau explained, Catholic schools educate not only the mind but also the heart. And they do so for a particular purpose, which, to borrow from Moreau again, is to “bring young people to wholeness in the image of Jesus Christ.”
What does it mean to be educated in both mind and heart? To be brought to wholeness? Maybe these are questions that your professors have asked you to consider, but—either way—I ask you to consider them now. And, more importantly, I ask you to consider how you can go forth from this place and lead lives that demonstrate that you have been educated in both heart and mind; lives that demonstrate that your time here has made you whole.
There is a best-selling book out right now called “Twelve Rules for Life.” I suspect that your parents would appreciate many of these rules—since they include things like “clean your room,” “stand up straight,” and “tell the truth.” But I haven’t read the book, and I don’t have time to cover twelve rules, so I’m not going to tell you any more about them. Instead, I want to talk about FIVE rules for life, rules that I borrowed from my colleagues at ACE, rules that go to the heart of what Blessed Basil Moreau meant by educating the heart as well as the mind. These rules are as simple—just one word each—as they are powerful: SEEK, PERSIST, EXCEL, LOVE, and SERVE.
My five-year-old, Johnny, loves to play hide-and-seek. I do not love to play hide-and-seek, so I am very grateful that his neighborhood friends share his passion for game. I’m always struck that the kids spend more time arguing over who gets to be the “hider” and the “seeker” than actually hiding and seeking. Johnny usually wants to be the seeker, which can create conflict. I don’t ask why—I fear that if I were to get too involved in the negotiations, I might be conscripted to be the permanent hider. But I do admire that my little boy prefers to seek–seeking is so much more fun than hiding in a dark closet behind the winter coats, waiting to be found. Seeking requires active engagement in the world, creative thinking, energy.
Don’t waste time waiting to be found—or worse, hiding from the world—go forth from this place and seek.
Of course, seeking can be hard work. Some of you may be seeking jobs right now. Some may be seeking a graduate degree in the fall. And you know, or you will know, that seeking can be frustrating, exhausting, even demoralizing. A few years ago, I had a student who was totally blind. Law school is always a challenge, but it is a particular challenge when you need special software to read your casebooks to you; when your professors use PowerPoint slides in class—and don’t bother to read them out loud; when you have to rely upon strangers to make sure that you don’t slip and fall on the icy winter sidewalks.
I am sure that she was frustrated at times. But do you know what I remember most about this student? I remember her smiling; I remember her laughing; I remember her beautiful voice cantoring at mass. She persisted, even in the face of the many frustrations that she faced because of her disability, she smiled, she laughed, she sang … and she graduated at the top of her class. Next year, she will serve as a law clerk on the United States Supreme Court. And that isn’t enough. Since graduation, she has taken up distance running. She runs with a guide, and she’s moved from the 5K to the 10K to the half marathon. I love to see her pictures on Facebook after a race. She is always smiling. Because she persisted.
All of us face our own obstacles, our own frustrations, our own icy sidewalks. Don’t give up: go forth from this place and persist, with a smile on your face.
It may go without saying that if you persist, you should also excel. After all, persistence without excellence is basically a waste of time. Whoever bragged, “I’m doing my best to be mediocre?” How uninspiring. But what does it mean to excel? After all, we each have different gifts and talents. We cannot all excel in the same way.
Unfortunately, our culture encourages comparisons. Social media is particularly pernicious, I think, because it creates the temptation and opportunity both to brag and to compare. And, in so doing, it fosters both pride and self-doubt. If you don’t know what I am talking about, check out the lunchbox ideas pages on Pinterest. If I am measuring my worth as a parent against the moms who send their children to school with sandwiches cut into the shape of math problems, I’m an utter failure. My kids are lucky to get cold pizza.
Comparison is not the path to excellence. Rather, as Teddy Roosevelt said, comparison is the thief of joy. To excel is not to measure your success against the achievements of others. But rather, to excel is to ask: “Am I better today that I was yesterday?” “Can I do better with the gifts that I have been given?”
Go forth from this place and excel: be better each day—better at whatever you are called you to do and be—than you were the day before. And, if you have kids, stay away from Pinterest.
If you leave today with no other message, leave it with this: you are created in the image and likeness of a God who seeks you and who persists in His love for you even when you fail to excel, when you let Him—and yourself—down. And, because you are loved, you are called to love. To truly love, not in a storybook “happily ever after” sense, but in the hard, self-sacrificial sense of depending on—and giving of one’s self for—others.
When I was your age, I considered independence to be a ticket to freedom and happiness, but life has taught me that I was dead wrong: nothing is more antithetical to true joy than being independent. My parents divorced when I was 12. After that, my brother and I were alone a lot. My mom worked, often late. We never went to church. Nobody came to dinner. One of the greatest gifts of my life—and a gift that I hope each of you will have in your own lives—is that our kids have had the opposite experience. They have grown up in a loving community, a community that depends on us for support, as we depend on them. Dependence, or at least interdependence is at the heart of love. And I love it that most days my kids ask, “Is anyone coming for dinner?”
That is not to say that dependence is easy, at least not for me. I’m sure, like me, you all have big plans. I am sure that you are incredibly talented, and I expect that you will all be successful. But whatever you do, don’t lose sight of what really matters. Because someday, you’ll find yourself asked to sacrifice for someone you love. You’ll find yourselves facing the decision of whether to go on a business trip rather than attend the final little league game of the year, or whether to give up your fancy job in Chicago or New York because your spouse wants to move home to Colorado Springs or Birmingham or South Bend to raise the kids near their grandparents, or perhaps even whether to answer the call to the priesthood or religious life. And if you are kind of people that I know you have been formed to be here, you will give of yourself, even when it is hard, for love.
Go forth from this place and love, remembering always the words of St. Francis, “It is in giving of ourselves that we receive.”
The final rule is SERVE. I know that you have been formed at a college that inculcates a spirit of service. But I will warn you: service comes easy when campus ministry organizes a Habitat Build for you or provides transportation to serve at Our Lady of the Road. When you leave here, service won’t be as easy. It will be one other thing that competes with the many other pressures in your busy life. And in the midst of your busyness, it will be tempting to forget to serve. Don’t. Remember each and every day that you are called to serve—serve your families, serve your communities, serve your nation.
You have been given many gifts, not least of which is a Catholic education at a place that sought to bring you to wholeness in the image of Jesus Christ, the greatest servant the world has ever known. So go forth from this place and SERVE, glorifying the Lord by your life.
SEEK, PERSIST, EXCEL, LOVE, SERVE. Five words, five challenges, five rules for life. St. Catherine of Sienna once said, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” I am confident that if you SEEK, PERSIST, EXCEL, LOVE AND SERVE, you will be who God meant you to be, who the people who loved, supported and taught you these past years at Holy Cross hope that they have formed you to be. And you will set the world on fire.