It is not often that a commencement address receives a standing ovation. But Sarah J. Cripps has a long history of shattering expectations. Of being bold, fearless and confident. The ’94 history alumna delivered this inspiring address at the Fall 2018 Commencement of Tennessee Tech University. She has given us permission to share her speech. We hope that you find it as challenging and uplifting as the students, families, faculty and staff in attendance did.
President Oldham, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Faculty, and Honored Graduates:
It is, for me, a real pleasure to return today to my alma mater, a place where I gained much knowledge, established close friendships, and, in short, matured to become a confident woman.
In 1994, over twenty-four years ago, I sat, walked, and stood where you graduates are now sitting and soon will walk and stand. I still can recall distinctly the various emotions I felt upon the day of my own graduation, each clamoring to be foremost in my mind. I, therefore, can imagine, to some extent at least, what each of you must be experiencing on this momentous day: unalloyed pride and a sense of accomplishment at having attained your hard-won degree by dint of your own considerable efforts; sadness at the prospect of moving away from close friends; anxiety about entering the world of work or beginning your course of study in a graduate program; and apathy—not giving a damn about a single word or thought expressed by the commencement speaker. It is both humbling and liberating to apprehend that I am charged with delivering an address to a group of people, none of whom is likely to recall anything I say today.
It is both humbling and liberating to apprehend that I am charged with delivering an address to a group of people, none of whom is likely to recall anything I say today.
Because of the advances in modern medicine and improved nutrition, many of you can expect to live well into your nineties and even beyond your centenary. It is essential, therefore, that your lives be meaningful to you and of benefit to others and that you continually enrich your lives through learning, through altruism, and through your experiences.
You are quite justified in feeling sick and tired of studying for final examinations and listening to professors drone on about topics that hold only themselves in thrall.
You even may have been heard to declare: “I’ll never take another exam in my life!” That well may be true; nonetheless, I implore you never, ever to stop learning.
United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed recently: “As long as we live and listen, we can learn.”
During your time at this university, you have become adept at knowing how to conduct research to obtain information you require and knowing how properly to analyze and evaluate the data you locate and uncover during your researches. These skills will prove vital to you in the years ahead, regardless of the career path you have chosen. Why? Because greater knowledge results in superior and more informed decision-making.
Though twenty-four years have elapsed since I obtained my BA in history, I still pass countless enjoyable hours devouring biographies, memoirs, and other texts about eras and historical events that interest me.
It is through living, reading, and listening, then, that we remain engaged as lifelong learners.
I know that some among you already have sat down and calculated what your earnings will be at certain points in your careers. I never have bothered to do this because, though money is helpful, it pales in significance when weighed against the moral injunction to serve others and to assist those less fortunate than ourselves. Marian Wright Edelman, the long-time President of the Children’s Defense Fund, expressed it this way: “Service is the rent we pay for living. It is the very purpose for life and not something you do in your spare time.” Fight for the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, and for all those whose voices are not heard in the legislative halls where their fates so often are determined.
Engage in the battle against the rhetoric of white nationalism, and join in the struggle to end discrimination against women, the disabled, and racial minorities.
Find your niche—that area where you can make a real difference for good in the lives of others … A life devoid of altruism is, ultimately, a self-centered, meaningless, and futile existence.
Remember the exhortation of Maya Angelou: “Just do right. Right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul.”
Eleanor Roosevelt gave voice to this moral imperative to be altruistic and to remain engaged when she said: “Aloofness is not a solution; it is a cowardly evasion.”
Find your niche—that area where you can make a real difference for good in the lives of others. You may elect to do as I have done and donate blood regularly; enroll in the National bone Marrow Registry; and opt to be an organ donor. You may wish to volunteer to read textbooks for a blind or visually impaired student. You may choose to teach, to become active in a nonprofit organization, or to seek public office.
A life devoid of altruism is, ultimately, a self-centered, meaningless, and futile existence.
When I was only three days old, surgeons at Vanderbilt University began operating upon me in an effort to save my life. No one was certain whether I would live or die.
A meaningful life is one that is replete with myriad unique experiences, some exceedingly painful and others sublime. I was born without any vision and with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. When I was only three days old, surgeons at Vanderbilt University began operating upon me in an effort to save my life. No one was certain whether I would live or die. During the ensuing months, physicians sought to lower my parents’ expectations about their baby’s future and informed my mother that I was deaf; that I would never walk; that I was intellectually disabled; and that I would have to be institutionalized. My mother refused to believe that her daughter suffered from these limitations, and my father ensured that the most qualified surgeons then available performed my reconstructive surgeries.
I am pleased to report that the doctors who made such dire predictions about my future were mistaken. Although I have endured countless facial reconstruction operations, these have strengthened my character and resolve, as fire refines and tempers steel.
During my freshman year at Tennessee Tech, I was required to complete two semesters of physical education. The administration here at that time encouraged me to take something “safe” and helpfully suggested “walking.” I was more than a little annoyed by this advice, as walking served as my primary mode of transportation around campus. I, therefore, determined to take courses that I knew would horrify administration. I promptly enrolled in handgun safety and, thereafter, in archery. Though I was familiar with pistols, I thoroughly enjoyed learning to shoot different types of bows and, most satisfying to me, shooting with more accuracy and greater precision than the men in my class.
Despite my congenital blindness, my life has been leavened with its own set of unique experiences. I have competed in high school rodeos and horse shows; slalom water-skied; driven cars, trucks, and boats; owned and ridden two Harley-Davidson motorcycles; walked in the Catacombs of Paris and touched the smooth bones of those who lie there; hiked at Machu Picchu and in the Sinai Peninsula; and immersed myself into the wondrous city of Lhasa in Tibet.
For me, listening to and playing folk music are experiences that continually renew and restore my internal balance and my spirit. Indeed, I have no desire to live in a world without songs that inspire me. I encourage each of you to pursue some artistic outlet through which to express yourself and to replenish your spiritual and emotional well-spring.
Consider your life as a river. Drink deeply of its waters. Sun yourself upon its shores. Wade into it boldly; feel the sting of its cold waters upon your skin. Swim in its current. Along the course of this river, you will encounter magnificent gorges of stunning beauty; rocky shoals that make it necessary for you to portage your craft a considerable distance; terrifying and exhilarating rapids; and placid, peaceful pools. Your life will be enriched through conquering each obstacle and rejoicing in each pleasurable moment.
From its beginning as a tiny rivulet in the mountains to the terminus of its mighty outpouring into the sea, this is but one—and the same—river. Likewise, despite its vicissitudes, your life is one and the same from the cradle to the grave. This is the only life you have. Live it to the full!