I recently was honored to deliver the commencement address at the graduation ceremony of TEC Connections Academy, one of only two public online K-12 schools in Massachusetts. While the students graduating from this unique school have certainly pursued a non-traditional path, the thoughts I shared with these remarkable young people are I believe relevant to all of our recent high school graduates in the class of 2016.
The great Massachusetts writer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with saying, “Do not go where the path may lead; go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.”
In today’s world where technological advancements and cultural norms are evolving so rapidly, Emerson’s advice is more salient than ever. Today’s high school graduates head into a future that will value their diversity of experience and ideas to help tackle the challenges that lie ahead, some of which we have only just begun to identify and may not yet fully understand.
We will need creative problem-solvers who bring a variety of perspectives and are not afraid to see things a little differently from everybody else. Young people will need to be comfortable pursuing a path that may not always be clear, with perhaps unexpected twists and turns taking them places they could not imagine as they leave the relative comfort and security of high school.
I shared with the TECCA graduates a bit of my own personal journey, which has had its share of unexpected destinations. I was born and spent much of my childhood in apartheid-era South Africa. I never imagined that my family would immigrate to the United States, but that’s what happened when I was 12 years old. I attended a public high school in New Jersey, went on to college in Boston, and then began a career in the software industry.
My first foray into public service and politics began when my oldest daughter, who is now a junior in high school, was back in kindergarten. At that time our economy went into a recession, which led to deep cuts in state education funding and layoffs of teachers. I joined other parents in volunteering in my daughter’s school library so that it could stay open for the students. That experience led me to become more involved in the community, including local government.
I surprised my family and friends in 2008 when I made the decision to run for the state legislature. When I graduated from high school (or college for that matter) I never would have predicted that I would one day have the honor of serving in the Massachusetts Senate. My personal journey has certainly been challenging and unpredictable, and who knows what twists and turns may still lie ahead.
Our high school graduates today may be heading off to 2- or 4-year colleges, joining the military, engaging in community service close to home or around the world, or entering the workforce. But regardless of the immediate direction they are taking, they will all no doubt face their own unexpected circumstances — both opportunities and challenges — in the years ahead.
Graduation is not the end of a story but simply the conclusion of a chapter. Each of our graduates is the author of their chapters still to come. I urge them to embrace the wisdom of Emerson and be comfortable leaving their own trail. Congratulations and best wishes to the class of 2016!