• Cassandra M. McZeal's ’92
    © Carlos Barron

Good morning, everyone.  And thank you, President Trombley, for that lovely introduction. Professionally, I’m used to giving speeches about mathy things or energy things or mathy energy things. A commencement speech is definitely a new challenge. You are all unique and individual, so it’s impossible to write a speech that works for all but I hope you’ll each find at least one thing in my story and my advice that you can take from today. 

I came to Southwestern in the fall of 1988 as a recipient of the Brown Scholarship.  I had never heard of this school, and until my high school counselor encouraged me to give Southwestern a look, I had planned to enroll in UT’s Plan II Honors program, the one and only school that I’d applied to at that point.  I was a Pell Grant student whose calculated parent financial contribution was literally $0.00.  I only understood college conceptually.  UT and SU were the first college campuses that I’d ever stepped foot on.  I didn’t know what it meant to major or minor in anything.  I had no idea what a fraternity or sorority was outside of the reruns of Animal House that I wasn’t technically allowed to watch.  I ultimately chose Southwestern after an overnight visit.  The beautiful campus, small classes, friendly students and welcoming faculty and staff worked their magic.  I knew Southwestern was where I belonged.

I was a reluctant math major.  Not because I didn’t love math, but because I had no idea how I would earn a living with a math degree.  I changed my major every semester – biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology – until the end of my sophomore year when my very wise and very patient advisor (who not coincidentally happened to be the chair of the math department) informed me that I had to stop vacillating and stick with a major or I’d never graduate.  And “Oh,” he noted, “by the way, the only classes you take every semester are in the math department.”  Face it, kid, you’re a math major. 

I met the father of my children at Southwestern.  We were married at Lois Perkins Chapel and held our wedding reception in the old Student Union Building.  The marriage didn’t last, but my little family endures.  My daughters, Maddie and Lena, are the most magnificent gifts I never knew I wanted. And, I’m an empty nester now.  My oldest graduated from college last year and lives in New Jersey.  My youngest is a junior in college in California.  I miss them a lot, but they (mostly) answer when I call.

I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon recently watching old home videos of the girls – as empty nester moms are naturally inclined to do.  My favorites were the ones of the ordinary afternoons and the ordinary conversations.  I fast-forwarded through the piano and dance recitals and choir concerts.  I want to go back to that young mama and tell her to make more ordinary videos of ordinary conversations on ordinary afternoons because that’s what life is – a string of wonderfully ordinary moments.   

So, what then would I tell my 21 year old self in May of 1992 at my own graduation from Southwestern? 

I would tell that young woman that some of the sagest advice she’ll ever get will be from her future kindergarten-aged daughter.  “Everyone doesn’t have to like you, Mama.” and, “You don’t get invited to every party.”  And, that she’d witness the most salient lessons in grit, perseverance, and determination watching her youngest daughter run anchor in a record-setting 4x1 relay after a season of injuries and setbacks.

I’d tell her that she’d learn the value of a liberal arts education and the power of storytelling.  And that throughout her career she will use what she learned in her sociology and psychology courses as much or more than what she learned in her math and computer science courses.

I’d tell her that the great friends she met in college days will still be dear to her decades later, and on the rare occasions when they meet, it will be as if no time has passed.  I’d tell her things won’t always be easy, but they are almost always alright.  She will love some things she thought she’d hate – like running a marathon or raising teenage girls.  And she’d hate some things that she thought she’d love – like partial differential equations or cheesecake.

I’d tell her she’ll discover that life is full of both tragic heartbreak and beautiful surprises.  There will be growth when she thought it was the end, and strength when she thought she was done.  Graduate school will be more challenging than she thought, but she has more in her than she thought.

I’d tell her she’ll be surprised to learn that her “weaknesses” are her gifts.  Never quite fitting in, gives her empathy for others.  Being a consummate childhood tattletale transforms into an adult who’s a fierce defender of justice.  I’d tell her that the girl whose suitemates nicknamed “Well Actually” will build a successful career in computational and data sciences out of her affinity for detail, patterns, and logical connections.  

I’d let her know that no matter how much money she earns, she will always be working class at heart.  And, in many ways, that’s an amazing gift as well.  Her family will continue to shape much of who she is and what she values. 

I’d tell her she’ll often be the only “whatever” at many tables she finds herself seated – geek, woman, African American, African-American woman, ally, working class, liberal.  And, she’ll take that seat anyway.

She’ll recite the second half of Micah 6:8 as a meditation and call to action:  seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with Your God.

Finally, I’d tell her that one day she will realize that Southwestern stands front and center in her origin story.  And thirty years into the future, she’ll stand in front of Southwestern University’s Class of 2022 and leave them with these five lessons.

Lesson 1:  Make Your Time Count

Believe it or not, thirty years will pass in the blink of an eye. I ran across an article on a website a few months back that illustrates this fact so perfectly. The website was called waitbutwhy.com and the article was called “The Tail End.”  In a post from 2015, the author lays out an average human life as a set of charts containing a series of dots.  The first chart has 90 dots, 1 dot for each year, the second has 1079 dots, 1 for each month, the third 4692 dots, 1 for each week, and finally 32,850 dots, 1 for each day. He muses after the final chart that “even a lucky person who lives to 90 will have no problem fitting every day in their life on one sheet of paper.” 

Sobering, but where the analysis starts to get really interesting is when the author looks at a human life in terms of not units of time but events – which leaves the reader wondering:  How many more books can I read in my remaining years? How many more trips to ACL Weekend 1 with my friends?  How many more vacations with my girls? 

Until my daughters went off to college, I saw my children everyday, and then four months a year in college, and for my oldest who lives in New Jersey, maybe 30 days over an entire year.  Given that this trend continues, and I live to be 100, I’ve already used up 80% of my time with my oldest child.  We are at the tail-end. Time is a most precious gift, and how I show up in that last 20% with her – humbled, present, and grateful – matters.  How we all show up everyday for our friends and family matters.  Make your time count.

Lesson 2:  Prove 1 Is Greater Than 0

One of the most fascinating mathematical proofs in real analysis is proving that 1 is indeed greater than 0.  It’s also the exercise that you refrain from telling family and friends about lest they think your fancy “degree” isn’t real.  It seems axiomatic and obvious, but from a philosophical perspective it’s quite profound.  One is greater than zero: Doing something is greater than doing nothing.  One person can make a difference.

In the book, Making Numbers Count, the authors tell the story of Muhmammed Yunus .  As an economics professor in Bangladesh, Yunus was troubled by the fact that villagers, who were too poor and risky for traditional banks, were instead forced to accept the usurious loan terms offered by moneylenders in order to purchase supplies needed to earn a modest living.  Convinced that very small loans could make a very large difference to poor people, Yunus offered his own money (approximately $27) and reasonable repayment terms to the villagers. Without having to pay outrageous fees to the moneylenders, the villagers – all women – were able to substantially improve their families’ living conditions, educate their children as well as repay those loans.  Yunus had pioneered the concept of microcredit and, in 2006, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. 

As the authors note, “‘Poverty in Bangladesh feels hopelessly large and complex.  The overall problem is depressing, but the power of 1 is that it focuses us on the tiniest day-to-day components of the overall problem in a way that shows us the potential for progress.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you put “Win Nobel Peace Prize” on your bucket list.  What I am asking you to do is to be vigilant for those “tiniest day-to-day components” of a problem that you care about. Concerned about childhood literacy?  Call your local elementary school and volunteer to read to a child.  Concerned about overcrowding in no-kill shelters?  Foster an animal.  Want to help your local United Way Agency understand the optimal allocation of limited resources aimed at addressing the most critical needs in your community – hypothetically? Mobilize a set of like-minded data-science colleagues to tackle the problem. You can be the 1.  Prove 1 is greater than 0.  

Lesson 3:  Claim Your Seat at the Table

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman to serve in the United States Congress and, in 1972, became the first black woman to compete for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.  But these “firsts” are not what made Mrs. Chisholm remarkable.  In her bid for her party’s nomination, she faced opposition from all fronts.  She was disrespected and dismissed, but she remained “unbought and unbossed.”  She knew she was unlikely to win the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency, but she ran anyway.  She knew she could pave the way for others. Mrs. Chisholm wanted her legacy to be that she had “dared to be a catalyst for change.”

As I mentioned before, I’m often seated at tables – conference tables and dinner tables  – where I don’t quite fit the norm. Being the “lonely only” can be, well, lonely.  I can only imagine the fortitude and determination that Mrs. Chisholm had to have possessed in order to continue to fight the good fight, stay true to her principles, and represent the many voices who were not at the table. This was literally her sworn duty, and she took her remit seriously. 

No matter your background or the affinity group you claim, don’t forget how lucky you are.  If the 7.7B people in the world were scaled down to just 100 people, only 7 would have college degrees.  No doubt, you’ve worked hard and earned your place in this graduating class, but never take for granted the just right circumstances that led you to today.  You are lucky and blessed and, in turn, have a responsibility to bless others. If you’re given a seat at the table, show up and show out.  Like Mrs. Chisholm, your unique voice and perspective are needed.  And, if you’re not given a seat at a table where your voice matters and needs to be heard, in the immortal words of Shirley Chisholm “bring a folding chair,” and claim your seat at the table.

Lesson 4:  Design Your Life

There’s a very popular course at Stanford called Designing Your Life. The course uses design thinking to help students build a “well-lived joyful life”. Design thinking is a technical discipline used to understand customers and create innovative solutions.  The premise of the course is that the same tools and techniques used to design products that people love can be used to design lives that people love.  The promise is that “(t)rue happiness” will come “from designing a life that works for you.”

While I did not take the course at Stanford, I did purchase the book by the same name – highly recommend, makes a great graduation gift.  Designing a life that works for me boils down to two things:  good people and good choices. What I choose to do everyday and who I choose to do it with matters.  

First, find your people; no, get yourself some good people.  Good people pull up.  Good people start the meal train when a loved one dies.  Good people make sure you get home safely from that party. Good people ask if they can pick up your kids on yet another random day off school and you have to work. Good people ask how your grandma’s cataract surgery went. Good people pray on your behalf – and text those prayers to you daily – when you find yourself lost in a season where you simply cannot pray.  Good people show up. Surround yourself with good people; be somebody’s good people

Regarding choices, the most pivotal choices that I’ve made have involved balancing work and family.  Both of my daughters arrived at the most professionally inopportune times in my career.  The first was born 3 months before defending my PhD, and the second was born 6 months into my first real job.  Work-life balance was a struggle from the starting gate.  However, luckily for me and early on in my career, I received the very best professional advice ever from another working mom, and it was simply “When your child is sick, go home.”  In other words, know what’s most important to you and act accordingly. Determine what that thing is for you, and let it guide your choices.  

You don’t have to know exactly what you’re going to do with your life but you are obligated to do the work to figure that out.  And you don’t have to do that alone. Use your good people, your parents’ good people, your new alumni network’s good people – build a team. And build a life by design – not by happenstance. Design your life.

Lesson 5:  Listen to Your Mom

When President Trombley asked me to give this speech today, I asked her why I had been chosen.  And among the lovely reasons she recited, one was simply “because you’re a mom.”  When my girls graduated from high school, I wrote them both letters telling them how much I loved them and providing a bit of advice for the future. None of the advice was about discovering your passion or declaring a major or choosing a career. It was simply my attempt at helping them navigate this vast and wondrous world as whole people deserving of love and belonging.  So, because I am a mom (and I understand the assignment, Dr.  Trombley), I’ll share this advice with you as well today:

  • Be quick to forgive and offer grace, but maintain your boundaries.
  • Respect others.  Everyone has a story.
  • Never apologize for who you are, how you feel, or what you think.
  • Always apologize when you are wrong
  • Love your body and respect it.  Eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep.  
  • Don’t stuff down your feelings.  They’re just feelings.  Let them come and go.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  Raise your hand.  You’re never the only one.
  • You will make mistakes, and that’s ok. Shake them off and make a plan. 
  • Oh, and things don’t always go as planned, and that’s OK too.  Embrace the chaos.
  • You can always change your mind despite what anyone says. 
  • “No.” is a complete sentence.
  • Ask lots of questions.  Everyone knows something you don’t.  Be curious about what that might be.
  • Join a club, a dance troupe, a sports team, a circus, whatever.  Give it a shot.  Say yes to life. 
  • Speak your truth.
  • Trust your instincts.  You know more than you realize. 

I am not your mom.  And I realize there are some in the audience today whose “mom” is not a part of their life for any number of reasons. And, so I’ll ask you to interpret the word “mom” very liberally and hear this next part in the voice of the person – regardless of relation or gender  – who loves you the very best as I take the liberty to stand proxy for them and say to you today in no uncertain terms and with my whole chest: You are all whole people deserving of love and belonging.  Listen to your “mom.”

Congratulations, graduates. Along with your families and friends here today, my heart is bursting with pride and anticipation for all the ordinary and extraordinary adventures ahead of you.  And, don’t forget your folding chair!