Burlington College Commencement Speech, 2007

My birthday party this year was canceled. I had invited twelve people, chosen an arctic theme, and decked my house with blue and white streamers, ribbons, and balloons. I had even hand-picked items for the goody bags based on each person’s interests. The day of the party, I was ready to go.

There was one thing I hadn’t planned on: an ice storm. My dad had always called it the curse of a February birthday. I hadn’t chosen a snow date, and so the whole thing was off. The goody bags I distributed anyway, and the food, well, it was mostly frozen hors d’oeuvres—plenty of festive fireside eating during the coming weeks. The decorations, I took down and packed away; there was always next year. The one thing that did not come down, however, was the penguin-shaped piñata I’d stuffed full of treasure and strung up in the back yard.

It seems like every Saturday my boyfriend, Nathan, would wander through the kitchen and point out the window.

“Aren’t you ever going to take that thing down?” he’d say.

“One of these days,” I’d answer. I liked looking at the sad reminder, probably for the same reason I like studying pictures of abandoned amusement parks.

“That candy and stuff you bought is going to be crap,” he’d respond.

Everybody out in this world has a metaphorical piñata in his backyard. Somewhere out there there’s a stockbroker who’s dying to play jazz cornet. There’s a receptionist who’d rather be feeding sharks at Marineland. There’s a medical assistant who wants to prove the existence of life after death. My point is, everyone has a passion. But there are those people who only dream of chasing those passions, and those who go out there and do them despite the fear of taking the plunge, taking a risk, making a change.

When I first discovered Burlington College I had been staring at my metaphorical piñata for quite a few years. In my heart of hearts I wanted to write, but I had spent most of my time making excuses not to—I had to get a better job, or find a way to bring in more income, or I was too busy having a simple, uncomplicated life. Then one day I came across the Burlington College ad. The ad touted a low-residency program, which meant that I could go back to college for writing and still keep my life relatively intact. And it made me think. It made me think about what I wasn’t doing. What I was supposed to be doing. Following my call. When the Spider Man film was a big hit, everybody started talking about ‘with great power comes great responsibility.” Well, I’d like to re-cast that. With great passion comes responsibility. If we are not out there chasing our passions and doing what we love, what will the world miss out on? If we are inspired to be jazz musicians and we’re not out chasing that dream, is there someone whose life might be different because he’ll never hear our music? If we’re writers but we never put a pen to paper, is someone’s life going to suffer because she didn’t get to read the book we never wrote?

Burlington College, as well as its Independent Degree Program, is predicated on the idea that doing what we love leads to success. There’s an epithet about that—“do what you love and the money will follow.” My Dad used to say that all the time. I used to think it meant that if I just went out and had a good time at work all day, I’d make millions of dollars and be rolling in money. But I figured out over time that that phrase actually had nothing to do with money. It had to do with success. What it means is if we do what we’re into, we will be successful. If we chase our passions, we will be successful. Yeah, we might be able to make enough money to afford that beach house, but that’s not the point. We will be successful because we will be happy. And the world will be a better place because we are happy and we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing and we will be successful at what we’re doing. Part of Burlington College’s mission, at least the way I’ve interpreted it, is that living our passions eventually leads to making the world around us a better place not just for ourselves but for others as well.

There was another person who lived by this same principle: Walt Disney. And nowhere was this idea that the world could be made better through the pursuit of an individual’s passions than in the Carousel of Progress, which was created by Disney for the General Electric Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The carousel depicted the improvement of man’s quality of life through various inventions. More importantly, it had an engaging theme song written by the famous Sherman brothers, and it is in that song’s lyrics, often touted as Walt’s favorites, that this message of following your passions for the benefit of the world comes through. The lyrics go, “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow is just a dream away. Man has a dream and that’s the start. He follows his dream with mind and heart. And when it becomes a reality, it’s a dream come true for you and me.”

Burlington College is a very special school because it upholds that ideal: that we can make a great big beautiful tomorrow for the world at large just by staying true to our own dreams. When we go out into the world to start new endeavors, we should keep what we’ve learned here at Burlington in mind. We may have gained book smarts and passed the courses, but it is the experiences with our own passions, learning how to integrate them in our daily lives and use them to make the world a better place, that is the most important thing we’re going to walk away with.

I’m certainly not saying we should chase our passions irresponsibly to the point that we neglect our other obligations. But what I am saying is that we can’t let our obligations squelch the very thing that makes us who we are. If we’ve got something now or in the future that we are really just dying to do, we should go and do it. We should find a way to make it happen, because we are being called. We shouldn’t let our lives be the birthday party that never happened. We need to quit contemplating the piñatas in our back yards. We need to go get baseball bats and break those piñatas open. We may find a spider trying to work its way into an aging bag of Skittles, but mostly, we’ll just find treasure. Treasure we probably forgot was there. And when we embrace that treasure, we will be able to change the world.

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