‘Not If, But How’
Text of the 2014 commencement speech given by Amanda McMillian, Class of 1995
Good morning! Thank you so much for having me here on this very special day. Just about 19 years ago, I was out on that lawn, in my favorite sundress and my birkenstocks, running around hugging my professors and preparing for what in retrospect was an idiotic decision to start law school two weeks after graduation. It never occurred to me in that moment that I would be back for another commencement with the incredible and humbling honor of speaking to the Class of 2014! It is a particular privilege to speak to this class for the following reason:
A little over four years ago, as my brother-in-law Stephen Holloway was deciding where to go college, our family sat him down and said, “There is only one choice! You belong at Southwestern. This place was made for you. We don’t care how much it costs!” (Of course, I wasn’t the one paying for it…) Thankfully, he listened, and he graduates today—and now I get to stand up here and embarrass him in front of all these nice people. I could tell you all of the things we said to Stephen about Southwestern—the transformative nature of this very special place, the perspective and skills that only a small, liberal arts university could provide—but I think the best way for me to tell you why Southwestern was so very perfect for Stephen is actually for me to tell you in Stephen’s own words. Much to his chagrin, Stephen’s dad kept his valedictorian’s address from his high school graduation. His words apply today to you even more than his intended audience four years ago. He said that class (and now this class):
“has a drive to achieve that I’m proud to share with them…Though we may focus on trivial things sometimes, we are not trivial people. We each have a purpose to fulfill and we all must strive to discover and fulfill it….We will preserve and bring the world to greater heights than it has ever seen. But this won’t happen by being satisfied with less, for simply making do and then calling it quits. We must realize that we deserve better and work till we have it. We must do it with confidence, benevolence and integrity…We must stick to our principles and use them to shape the world into a better place for us and our children. As we go out into the world, we must realize the call to action we have and the responsibility on our hearts. No one said this life would be easy, but we do have the power to make it remarkable and lay the foundation for others to do the same.”
I’ve had the honor of getting to know some of you, and Stephen is right. You have an incredible drive to achieve. I am pretty sure that Noelle Webster will be running half the businesses in Georgetown before too long. And I’m not just saying that to get a free margarita. And you already have responsibility in your hearts. Last time I saw Nathan Tuttle, he was almost giddy, fingers crossed, nervously anticipating hearing back not from a graduate school, but from the San Antonio Clubhouse, a non-profit community that helps people recover from mental illness. He got the job, of course. Or Jessica Olsen, who is about to be a three-time delegate to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, where she will work tirelessly to give women a greater voice in the decisions made by our global community to address climate change. You each have a desire to change the world—and Southwestern has only nurtured and amplified that drive.
The challenge for you now is to keep it. Your ideals and your idealism are about to be seriously challenged when you leave this campus.
So, let’s go back to my idiotic decision to start law school two weeks after I graduated from college. Oh, and I decided to get a Masters in Political Science at the same time, because you get so much free time in law school. It was not long before I began to seriously question my abilities, my judgment, and my drive. I began to wonder if I really could do it. Then, thankfully, I had a small epiphany. The turning point for me was realizing that the question was not If I could do it at all—it was merely a question of How. Once I realized that, I was on my way.
My time at Southwestern helped me get to that realization, and hopefully it has helped you in the same way. Forget If. Throw If out the window. Let’s talk about How. By what means? In what manner? You can break How down into the Mechanics—or the tools—of How, and the Values of How.
Mechanics first. Aside from dumb luck (and I’ve had plenty of that), the tools that have helped me most with the How are the very tools that you have just spent a few years sculpting and honing. Critical thinking. Effective communication, whether written, verbal, or otherwise. Learning to view the world through a variety of lenses and meaningfully consider others’ perspectives. And the civil discourse that can only be learned—or perhaps forced upon you—in a smaller university setting. These skills are eminently translatable, and can enable you to be remarkably adaptive. They enable us to be the navigators and the translators of an ever-changing and increasingly complex world, to sift through the chaff of information overload—and there is a lot of chaff—and find the kernels of meaning.
You have also learned much about the critical tool of constructive engagement. This means actively seeking common ground and understanding, and creating a safe space for open communication and creative collaboration. As a society, we are getting worse at engaging with people who are different than us, and the extremes seem to dominate the discussion. In our neighborhoods, our news sources, and our online communities, we retreat to our echo chambers, agreeing passionately with those who are like us and dismissing those who aren’t. Individually and socially, this is dangerous and destructive. It is easy to look at the world as black and white. It’s also lazy. Your own incomplete understandings about “the other side” bleed into your analysis and cloud your own judgment if you are not careful. Walk into the room with an open mind and a collaborative spirit, and you can make great things happen.
Another important tool is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you are too comfortable, you aren’t doing enough.
I could also talk to you about the value of taking calculated risks and learning from mistakes, but I think President Burger has that more than covered.
I would tell you that if you go to law school, do NOT study for your evidence exam by watching Law & Order, but I am guessing that everyone else has probably figured that out by now.
Then there are the Values of How. No matter what your individual passions and ambitions are, there are some guiding principles that can help all of us figure out How to get where we want to be. Some of these you already know.
Do it with integrity, but not self-righteousness.
Do it with humility—and sass. (Yes, you can be humble and sassy at the same time!)
Do it with a sense of service—to your family, your community, and your constituents.
Do it with grace, adaptability, and forgiveness. Over the course of my career, I have often found myself being the only woman in the room, or in some other way being the Other, whether in meeting rooms or more casual spaces. Many of you will feel like the Other at some point. There will be many people who have no conscious intention of making you feel that way, but assumptions and stereotypes nevertheless creep in…and then comes the thoughtless comment, the forgotten invitation…the surprise that you actually might come back from maternity leave! Or that you might actually take paternity leave! In isolation they seem like little things. But they are not. They push us away from the How and back toward the If. Remember, though, that we all make assumptions and that we all suffer sometimes from preconceived notions. There will be times when you probably shouldn’t have to be graceful, or go out of your way to adapt to the mood in the room. But do it anyway. You can (and should) kick their butts in private later.
And one more value, easily forgotten at a graduation where we celebrate the end of school—never stop learning.
You have all done a lot of work to get to this point. The good news—and the bad news—is that you all still have a lot of work to do. You have received a gift—the gift of a liberal arts education made all the more special by the intimate community of a small campus. But this gift comes with strings. You are now duty-bound to carry through with your drive to achieve and the responsibility in your hearts. As alumni, we must collaborate, we must engage, and we must give. We must restore civility to national debate, and local little league games, and we must re-weave that magical web of community that connects us all and forces us to understand, appreciate, and maybe even celebrate each other.
And here’s where patience comes in. I know you all believe you are up to this task today. I know you all see in yourselves the ability to be change agents and make the world a better place. But here’s the thing: change can be agonizingly slow. In 1998, the year I graduated from law school, we reached gender parity in law school graduates, but only 15% of equity partners at law firms were women. Fast forward to today, and a whopping…16.5% of equity partners at law firms are women, and the number of female law school graduates is declining. But, meaningful change takes time, and patience. There will be many, many times when you feel that you have expended all that you have, and wonder if you have been defeated. You will fall back to the If, and question whether you can do this at all. And then you have to keep going. That moment—when you have to keep going anyway—is hard. You will feel very alone. You will miss this place SO. BADLY.
But—you are not alone. Look around. Look at your friends, your family, and us—your Southwestern family. As you have hopefully already begun to discover, the Southwestern family is not just your fellow students, the faculty and administration who have the privilege of walking these grounds every day. It’s also the parents, the alumni, and other dear friends of the university who can and will support you. We can help you with the How.
Remember too that as members of this family, we each have a responsibility to protect and enhance this community and the mission it serves. Your relationship with Southwestern doesn’t end today—in fact, it’s just beginning. Because You are Southwestern. You are here—and now going out there—to engage and transform. That mission—and what is so special about Southwestern—is that you have hopefully learned to use your heart as well as your brain. Southwestern has not only given you tools for a job; it has given you tools for life—a life in which you enrich not just yourself but the world around you.
We cannot wait to see what you do. And How you do it.