This evening, I am delivering the baccalaureate speech at Upper St. Clair High School, my alma mater, in Pittsburgh, PA. The administration gave me a very simple guideline: “We prefer the message to be inspiring.” Over the past several months, I have reflected back on my experiences since high school graduation, searching for stories that might prove interesting to the Class of 2017. It is my hope that the speech below will do the trick.
Congratulations, Class of 2017! It is an honor to be here with you today to celebrate your graduation from Upper St. Clair High School.
I want to thank the Upper St. Clair administration for inviting me to speak here today, and of course, I have to thank my teachers at Upper St. Clair for their tremendous support and dedication. They ignited my passion for the arts, humanities, and sciences, and I imagine that many of you can point to teachers who have shaped your lives in significant ways. I’m proud to call Upper St. Clair my alma mater and am thrilled to celebrate your achievements today.
As you prepare to head off to college or to begin your professional careers, I imagine that you’ve thought about what your future might look like. Perhaps you’ve dreamed about making it on to the varsity rowing team, or dreamed about interning at Google, or dreamed about joining a top-notch research lab so that you have a better chance of getting into medical school. I imagine that you’ve already started working towards your dream, making certain sacrifices to stay focused and eventually achieve your goal.
I’m now going to give you somewhat controversial advice, advice that might initially shock you: I want you to give up on your dream. I know that this sounds ridiculous. Give up on my dream? What kind of advice is that—certainly not the kind of advice you expected to hear today, but give me a second to explain. I want you to give up on the idea that you—the dynamic, multifaceted, amazing person that you are—can be defined by a single, linear path. You are more than that. Your brilliance is bigger than one dream. Your potential is best realized through multiple dreams, or what I like to call a dreamscape—a vision of success that embraces your diverse passions and weaves them together into a dynamic tapestry.
Today, I want to start a conversation about redefining success through the idea of a dreamscape, not a single dream. Let us abandon the idea that success is defined by sacrifice, and instead embrace the idea that success is better defined by the inclusion rather than exclusion of your many interests. Success is about cultivating your diverse talents, especially the ones that provide you with a sense of happiness and gratitude. Success requires being open to new directions and surprising turns on life’s journey.
When I was your age, in fact, when I was sitting in one of these very seats, I had a very specific vision of my one dream, or, at least what I thought was my dream. I wanted to be a professional golfer. I started competing when I was eight years old, and became one of the highest ranked junior golfers in the country by my senior year of high school. In that year, I was co-captain of the USC Girls’ Golf team, working with my teammates to bring home our 12th WPIAL championship title in a row (shout out to USC Athletics!) And in that year, I was recruited to play on the Yale Women’s golf team, an NCAA Division I team, and a stepping-stone to the pros.
Leading up to that point, I thought success meant sacrifice. I thought it meant pushing aside any activity that got in the way of my dream of becoming a professional golfer. In middle school, I started to drop activities that weren’t “essential.” First it was soccer, then softball, tennis, and eventually volleyball. I found myself passing up opportunities to audition for the fall play and the high school musical—activities that I had really enjoyed in middle school. I said “no” to the chance to travel abroad so that I could compete in golf tournaments to increase my chances of playing collegiate golf.
In making these sacrifices, I thought I was making progress towards my dream, and in a conventional sense, I was. Friends, family, coaches etc., praised me for my focus and commitment to the game. But, in denying my passion for the arts, in neglecting my interest in activities outside of golf and my intense wanderlust, I became unhappy. Even after competing successfully on the Yale Women’s Golf team for two years, playing the best golf I had ever played in my life—exemplifying “success”—I was still unhappy, and I became dispassionate about golf.
After deep reflection and many long conversations with my team, my coach, and my family, I made one of the hardest decisions in my life. I decided to quit the golf team. I decided to give up on my dream.
In the wake of that decision, I felt many conflicting emotions: I was tremendously relieved. I was also scared and sad. In a way, I was mourning the loss of my adolescence and my sense of self. From age 8 to 20, I had been a golfer, and not just a golfer, a great golfer. It’s how people knew me, understood me, and related to me. There was no plan B. There was no safety net. Who was I, if I wasn’t a golfer? Who was I, if I didn’t have my dream?
Although I felt lost, my network of friends and family supported me after I left the team. My parents, in particular, were with me every step of the way. My support network encouraged me to pursue what had been quiet passions, secondary activities: singing, volunteering, history, and a strong desire to travel internationally and visit major cities across the globe. They helped me realize that quitting the golf team wasn’t a failure. Rather, it was a crucial step in pursuing my real passions, a crucial step towards recognizing and acknowledging what my dreams really were.
Although, I had trimmed down my involvement in non-golf-related activities, I had never completely given them up, not even in college—they brought me significant moments joy that were too essential to my sense of self to give up. In my sophomore year of college, I auditioned for and joined the university choir and an a cappella group called Something Extra. I was never happier than when I was singing with my friends. Singing renewed my spirit when my relationship with golf became increasingly strained during my sophomore year.
Fostering my passion for singing also encouraged me to pursue my other interests. I started taking more and more history classes, for example, worrying less about what requirements I needed to fulfill for the biology major, and more about what classes inspired me, what classes drove me to produce my best work not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I took everything from Ancient Egyptian history to a class on the life-long political rivalry between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton (That’s right. I thought Hamilton was cool way before the smash hit musical came out on Broadway).
In hindsight, I realize that I was beginning to weave my dreamscape—my tapestry of diverse interests and activities that made me happy, fueled my creativity, and ultimately made me feel successful.
It was at this time, my sophomore year of college, that I remembered a book that my Aunt Noreen had given me in eighth grade. It was a book on dream journaling. Dream journaling is a process in which you write down your goals and aspirations on paper. My dream journal contained dozens of lined pages. It held dreams about all aspects of my life: from academic goals to travel destinations. The idea behind this practice is that if you can commit to putting your dream in ink, you are more likely to achieve it—that in the simple act of dragging a pen across paper, you start a process that fundamentally shifts your perspective, where you subconsciously begin to look for opportunities that will bring you one step closer to achieving your goals. Eventually, that subconscious activity snowballs into a conscious effort to, for example, apply for an internship abroad, so that you can experience what it’s like to live and work in another country; to master a new language, so that you can conduct research in international libraries; to commit to cardio training, so that you can hike Machu Picchu without developing altitude sickness – these are all examples from my own life, from my own dream journaling experience.
This became a very effective tool for me my sophomore year of college. I keep a dream journal to this day. I haven’t achieved every dream that I’ve written down, but I have accomplished many dreams. I even accomplished dreams that I thought were impossible because I was scared. I was afraid of failing, and my fear made it difficult for me to acknowledge the dreams that were swirling in my head. Dream journaling helps to alleviate the pressure by taking one small step forward, by simply writing it down and acknowledging it as a goal.
One of my “impossible” goals, for example, was making it into Yale’s elite a cappella group, Whim ‘n Rhythm—a group of the top female singers in the senior class. Even before I officially got to Yale, I knew about the group because they performed at orientation weekend. I was mesmerized by the performance of those 14 women, standing in a perfect horseshoe on stage. Their ethereal harmonies made my heart beat faster. The powerhouse soloists took my breath away. The more I learned about the group, the more interested I was in being a part of it. In addition to being a tight-knit social group, the senior women took a world tour after graduation every year, visiting places like the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. Friendship, singing and international travel…could it get any better? But I didn’t think that dream was possible. First, I was a golfer, not a singer, and I thought I would never be able to juggle a schedule of being on the Women’s Golf Team and in Whim ‘n Rhythm at the same time. Secondly, I didn’t believe that I was good enough to be in the group even though I had been in choir since the 4th grade, had vocal training and showed a lot of promise, and above all, demonstrated tremendous passion for it. I was my own worst enemy because I didn’t believe in myself.
Dream journaling helped me to set aside those anxieties. It took me weeks, perhaps months, to admit to myself that I wanted to be in Whim ‘n Rhythm, to write down my dream of singing with the group. But once I did, the pieces started falling into place, and I steadily became more committed to becoming a better singer, more committed to auditioning, and those efforts paid off. I made it into Whim. The summer after I graduated from Yale, I went on tour with an amazing group of women. We traveled to Hawaii, Japan, Singapore, India, Egypt, Israel, and Italy—singing in some of the most majestic cities and breath-taking landscapes I have ever seen.
One of the most magical moments of that tour took place in Cairo on a day trip to the Pyramids at Giza. As you can imagine, my inner historian was thrilled. I remember stepping onto the first rung of a series of ladders that led up into the central burial chamber that was suspended in the heart of the Great Pyramid. It was surreal. And I climbed, one rung at a time, and eventually made it into the pharaoh’s tomb. When I stepped inside the surprisingly small room, there were tourists walking around, taking photos, talking to each other. I got lost in my own thoughts, losing track of time as I traced my hand along the dark walls imaging what it must have been like thousands of years ago. And then, I noticed that the room had gotten very quiet, the other tourists had left, and it was just my singing group. And we decided to sing. We came into a circle, put our arms around each other, and sang one of the oldest songs in our group’s repertoire, “We Are,” which was originally performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock. It was like we entered a dream world. I had chills running up and down my spine. “We are” is a song about interconnectivity among family members—the people who shape you in inedible ways, the people whose sacrifices enable you to succeed. The lyrics read: “We are our grandmothers’ prayers. We are our grandfathers’ dreamings.” And as we sang, I reflected on the beauty of travel, the greatest gift that it gave me: gratitude. Gratitude for new experiences. Gratitude for my supportive family. And a deep sense of gratitude for the journey that brought me to that moment, a journey that included a childhood dedicated to the pursuit of golf, and eventually a decision to take a leap of faith and pursue a different passion, singing.
I imagine that dream journaling can actually prove useful for you, too. I encourage you to try it. To sit down and write, or type, or text, or post about a dream and see what happens…it could be as simple as “I’m going to make it through this baccalaureate speech without falling asleep” to “I’m going to Antarctica” or better yet, “I’m going to Mars.”
And I encourage you to be creative. Yes, feel free to write down your dream job, or your dream salary—traditional markers of success. But, I more so encourage you to define success in new ways. Perhaps success to you means consistently practicing yoga every day, or learning a coding language like Java or Python, or having Beyoncé follow you on Instagram. Define success in your own terms, for your own sense of fulfillment.
Now, I want to return to the idea of defining success through a dreamscape, by identifying and cultivating your passions. Right now, there are likely many of you who do not know exactly what your college major will be or what you want to do for a living. And that’s okay, in fact, it’s good – be open to discovering where your interests truly lie as you head off to college or as you start your careers. Your dreams will reveal themselves to you, often in unexpected ways.
For those of you who have a more definitive sense of your professional life, I encourage you to be open to new dreams, to new ideas of what can bring you a sense of happiness. When I started at Yale, I thought I wanted to be an evolutionary biology major. In fact, I had a very specific kind of evolutionary biology I wanted to study – the development of ultraviolet feathers in Birds of Paradise—these are birds that live in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and are known for their spectacular mating rituals. I essentially wanted to be the Jane Goodall of tropical birds. As you can imagine, my pointed pursuit of biology didn’t leave much wiggle room my first year of college. I was too busy trying to take all of the required classes for my major: calculus, chemistry, physics etc. It wasn’t until my sophomore year, when I started taking courses outside of my intended major, that I found subjects that really inspired me. And, by the fall of my junior year, I decided to declare not as a biology major, but as a history major. And here is where things really start to get interesting…
What I love about the discipline of history is that it really lends itself to the idea of a dreamscape. History let me build a professional journey out of my personal interests and passions. When most people think of history, they think of words like: “presidents” or “battles” or “boring.” What many people do not know is that history is much more than the study of politics or military strategy. In fact, history can be the study of anything that happened in the past, really. It’s a very malleable discipline.
I chose to specialize in the culinary history of the United States, and specifically that of the city of New Orleans. I fell into this specialty mainly by coincidence, but then came to realize that it drew upon my long-time interest in food. My family actually owns a gourmet food business here in Pittsburgh. I was raised around food, and raised by people who were immensely passionate about the sale and distribution of artisan products.
Over the years, as I’ve conducted research for my doctoral thesis, my other passions have found their way into my professional life in very surprising ways. For example, I became increasingly interested in studying the influence of European and African culinary cultures in New Orleans, so I began conducting research abroad in places like Paris, Sicily, and Morocco.
I honed my language skills in French and began to learn Italian so that I could read historic documents in these places, but more importantly, so that I could talk to people who worked as food vendors, or had grandparents who operated a food stand in the central square or along major streets. By developing new language skills, I was able to make connections with people whom I would have otherwise never been able to communicate with, whose stories aren’t in the archives—stories that can only be discovered through in-person conversations. Learning this valuable lesson, my research has since taken me to even more countries including Peru, England, Germany, Iceland, and Spain.
Singing, believe it or not, has also found its way into my dissertation research. Or rather, my knowledge of singing and of music theory enabled me to focus on a part of food history that many culinary historians have not examined in great detail: street food vendor cries. In the colonial and antebellum periods, and even as recent as the early twentieth century, hundreds of food vendors worked in the streets of major American cities. You can think of them as the food truck vendors of the past. They carried their wares in baskets or set up stalls right on the streets. To catch the attention of potential customers, these vendors cried out songs about the foods they were selling, similar to an advertising jingle on TV. They sang short songs, one of which I’ll sing for you now. “Horseradish! Horseradish! Good ol’ tongue never lies! Grind your horseradish for your wives. Horseradish! Horseradish! Horseradish!”
And, it is at this stage in my speech, that I have to thank Ms. Milovac for being such a positive influence on me and encouraging me to find ways to keep singing beyond high school. I never would have guessed that Pantheon choir would have shaped my dissertation, but there you go!
I’m making a point to study these cries as part of food vendors’ business practices, but also to share this part of America’s sonic past with Americans who grew up in an era where most of the street food vendors are gone. And my colleagues are fascinated and engaged by my work because no one else is studying food history in this way. My approach is refreshing. It’s new at a time when it seems like everyone has already written about everything—about major battles, about every president, about economic trends. And my analysis is successful because it truly is reflective of my interests. The sense of excitement that I bring to my work is contagious; it inspires my colleagues to think more creatively about their own work.
I encourage you to find ways to bring your passions into your professional life. You might be surprised how flexible some “traditional” careers can be. And for those of you who already have a specific vision of your future, I want to impress upon you that a dreamscape can enrich your dominant dream. My colleague, for example, is passionate about drone technology and flies drones for fun. She is also a practicing lawyer and is currently expanding her law firm’s focus on technology. In fact, she has recently launched a new commercial space, robotics, and drone practice at her firm, marrying her passion for drone technology with her legal practice. Her experiences are exemplary of the ways in which a dreamscape can bolster your career and your personal life at the same time.
As you head off to college or to your job, I encourage you to look for ways to weave your tapestry of interests both in and outside of your professional life. Don’t limit yourself by being conventional. Conventionality is over-rated. Create your own sub-specialty, and one that truly fulfills you as a person, and is reflective of your dreamscape.
Remember, you know yourself best. You know what gets you out of bed in the morning. Don’t ignore or suppress your passions. They are there waiting for you to acknowledge them, to pursue them, and weave them into a dreamscape. In doing so, you will be able to grow and expand and change the world in ways that you couldn’t even imagine.
Don’t be afraid if your dreams change over time. They’re going to change because you are going to change. In the coming years, you are going to acquire a wealth of experiences that will shift your worldview. Embrace that change. I went from a biologist to an historian. From a golfer to singer, cook, travel blogger, and museum curator. What will you become? How will you evolve?
I’ll leave that up to you.
Congratulations, again, Class of 2017!