Speech by Alumna and Board of Trustees Member,
Lise Leist ’73
Delivered August 31st, 2016
Good afternoon, GATORS, Class of 2020 and thank you President O’Reilly, esteemed faculty and staff, students and guests. It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to share some time with you today. I had the opportunity to meet with President O’Reilly a few weeks ago, and in this meeting among other ideas and thoughts shared I had the opportunity to share my personal Pine Manor experience. I do plan on sharing the story, but wanted to share the precursor.
I must admit, I don’t recall my Convocation and this event today gives me the opportunity to do-over. Convocation and down the line your Commencement and I encourage you all to keep this and future events close to your hearts.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to hear Katie Couric speak at my daughters Commencement at the University of VA. She spoke on having to wait 33 years for the opportunity to address her alma mater. In that time we all moved from the rotary phone, pushbutton, cordless, to the iPhone. It took the first woman to lead the university in 193 years to get the job done and have her speak. To Pine Manor’s historical credit this has never been the case and we have been in the lead of such for sometime and have a great opportunity with our new leadership.
What inspired me most about her address was her reflection of time spent at UVA. She spoke about Thomas Jefferson as the ultimate optimist. Jefferson had faith that the power and potential of every single person could change the world. In today’s world these are powerful words, faith of having the power and faith is what you will need as you set out on your next journey.
I personally reflected on her book, “The Best Advice I Ever Got,” a collection of essays from the world’s favorite authors. Her favorite, Anna Quindlen who wrote: “Carry your courage in an easily accessible place, the way you do your cellphone or wallet. Courage is the ultimate career move, courage and faith, the ultimate meal ticket. “ Let your courage be the connection to your “resume virtues”.
I was equally inspired, with her connection to the three “R’s”. Risk, Rejection and Resilience. Ms. Couric spoke on how they are lifetime essential’s. I, too agree.
Think about where you are at this very moment. It will only happen today. I encourage you to take the risk, explore, and examine your profile. For this will place you apart from the rest. Have some Moxie, Chutzpah, and most of all Grit and Perseverance. Think of all the opportunities that will come your way. Take the risk to get to know your new community. Respect and value your community. Experience the cultural change, cultural exchanges and then design your own fabric.
Rejection…you will experience that. I can remember my daughter’s orientation and the Dean of Students telling her audience that she knew they were all bright and wonderful students. Amazing resumes, good grades, etc. Then she quickly added at UVA you would need to show us what you could do. She said “A’s” are hard to come by, and not that you can’t earn them, the reality is it will be a challenge. So when or if you get that “C”, own it and make a difference. If you are trying out for something and you don’t get it, own it. There will be times in life when people are just not into to you and that’s ok. Own it and learn from it and carry on.
Resilience. To keep on when you feel like pulling the covers over your head. In my own life experience there have been many times when I just felt like keeping the covers on and the light’s out. I use to joke about “Walking the Green Mile”. But I knew I had to be resilient and have faith. Focus on you; find that source of comfort and support to keep going. Look around the room, there isn’t one person here who is not in your corner. That’s a gift.
New York Times, David Kirp, Opinion editor, and Professor at the graduate school at the University of California spoke about “Overcoming Freshman Fear.” He spoke about his personal journey as a new admit to Amherst. Kirp graduated from a high school in Long Island where most didn’t go to college. He felt his “better-educated” class would overmatch him; more sophisticated classmates and that he would be “sliced to ribbons” by his professors. He felt like an imposter. It wasn’t until decades later at a class reunion that he discovered many of his classmates felt exactly the same way.
I’m sure this may resonate with you as well. Regardless of your credentials you are beginning to doubt if you have the brainpower or social adeptness to succeed in college. There is a fear of failing that hits poor, minority and first generation college students very hard. Kirp referred to this as the self-reinforcing “circle of doubt”. For example if you flunk an exam or your professor hasn’t called you on, fears of whether you belong might be confirmed. The good news and there is, this is not a new script. At this time I’d like to share my personal journey on how I got to Pine Manor…
My journey began in May of 1971. I attended a high school in Rye, New York. Student population 1500, grades 9-12. Students of color 40. I was an active teen, played sports, engaged in the theatre. Was the second black cheerleader, the first in 1965. My sister was the third. I even became a Co-Captain. That May as everyone was receiving letters of where they would be attending the next year; I hadn’t even had a meeting with college counseling. It was then I summed up; I wasn’t good enough and thought about joining the military. At least I could obtain a college education. I wanted to go college, but had no idea how to get there.
Like many of you, I’m first-generation. Raised by great-grandmother and Mother, no Dad in the picture. Including my sister, all women. My great-grandmother a domestic, who took care of everyone’s home, children, laundry, etc. This work allowed her to save money needed to buy her first home. To pay the mortgage she rented out rooms. The second floor had a kitchen and bathroom. We shared the bathroom with the tenants. Nothing fancy, tub and sink. The first floor we had a kitchen, and living space and bath.
As graduation was getting closer, I told my Mom that I hadn’t met with college counseling and that I was going to join the Navy. I had actually started the process. When I told my Mother she immediately went down the naval office checked me out of the system. That simply wasn’t happening. At the same time she made a call to Mr. Carpenter, my counselor and told him if he didn’t have a college for her daughter to attend in 30 minutes, it would be another story.
The next thing I knew I was on a train to Pine Manor, dressed in my best outfit. A train to a city where I had never been, and a cab to this wonderful campus. When I arrived and looked at the Ferry building I thought I was dreaming. I don’t recall what I said in my interview, I only recall you have been accepted. At 17, I took a risk.
Getting in was easy, now I needed the money. I never understood why going to church was so important to my grandmother and I now know why. She always said you could meet some good people in church and some not so good. Just our very good luck, the goodness came. A white family approached my church pastor and asked if he knew of a Black male he could fund for college. My Pastor didn’t know of a Black male, but did know of a Black female. He said he wasn’t interested, but my Pastor asked that he please meet with me. He told the family about my Great-grandmother as being one of the founders of the church and she wanted to get her granddaughter to college. For she only had a third grade education.
Well, I got my chance to meet the family, husband and wife. I wore the same outfit I wore for my Pine Manor interview. My meeting went along, cordial and friendly. I explained that I had been accepted to Pine Manor and really wanted to go, but needed the money. His response, a flat no. When I asked why he said that he wanted to pay for a “ Black male” for this would be the better investment. I asked for an explanation and his response that as a woman, I’d likely marry and have children and this would be a loss of his investment. My response that I had to have the money or I couldn’t attend and my dream to have a career would be lost. I explained marriage and children were not in my immediate plans. His response, he would think about it.
Now this was well before cell phones and texting, waiting seemed forever. However, he did call and his response was Yes! Yes, providing I maintained a “C” or better. Anything less and I was out.
I had the money to attend.
Pine Manor here I come, day one and moving in. The dorms amazing, the rooms larger than life, the bathrooms, a tub and shower! Three closets! Carpet on the floors, a great mattress. The dining facilities, china and silver, great food. A campus charge card! What’s not to like.
The best part my roommate, Lenore and my dearest friend to this day. She had less than I had and we were roommates. Life long friends. I couldn’t of stayed had it not been for Lenore. She inspired me to succeed.
You see, I was asked to get good grades, I was a below average student. So having all of this new freedom away from home, I got carried away with social scene. Big first year rookie mistake.
At that time grades were sent home…. my grades came in and no mystery, they were far from “C’s”…
Guessing now my benefactor was right, should of bet on the man. My Mother asked me to make the call and tell him I failed. The worst moment of my life, I made the call and broke the news to him. There was a phone silence and then a breath and the words were NO, I will keep you in school. You convinced me you are worth the investment. Get back to Pine Manor and do your job!
The rest is successful and appreciative history. I have held such wonderful career positions and I’ve married my best friend and have two wonderful children.
In 2014 President Obama gave the commencement address at Morehouse College. He asked for a spirit of excellence and no excuses. He asked that we stay hungry, stay hustling, and pursue excellence. He spoke about what it feels like being an outsider and knows what it feels like to be marganilized. That’s an experiencee many Americans feel today. However, these and sadly unfortunate instances gives us insight and the hunger to tap into all experiences. Recognizing the importance to truly understand and value what it takes to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Since 1911, Pine Manor College has sought to maintain its finest traditions while continually reinterpreting its goals and revising its programs to meet the changing needs of students. Got to love the mission. We are continuing and there is work to get done. Your support to the mission so important.
The most important message today is who you will become on your professional journey. A positive attitude is critical for your journey. Adversity or challenge brings forth a special opportunity to display and build upon your character. It also provides the opportunity to build strength in teams and the relationships they foster.
Forming good character habits really drives the beginning of your academic career. Today is the beginning. It’s not about where you are today, it’s about what you are learning today; who are you around today, how will they help you move forward. Be a real difference maker.
Dream big, work hard and you will all achieve great things.