I was honored when the Class of 2017 at my alma mater, The College of New Jersey, invited me to be their Senior Class Speaker (their version of a Commencement speaker). 10 years ago, I was in their shoes and became the first in my family to graduate college.
On May 17, my dad drove me to campus--just as he did when I was a high school junior touring it for the first time and then countless times thereafter. He filmed the speech if you'd like to listen, and I'll also post the transcript.
I love graduations. Congrats to the Class of 2017, at TCNJ and beyond!
Senior Class Speech for The College of New Jersey's Class of 2017
Congratulations, Class of 2017! I am very honored to be a part of your graduation festivities. It’s special to be here with you, and to share this incredible moment that you’ve worked so hard for.
I love graduations, and I’m sure you’re beyond excited. Maybe you're also a little anxious, or a little sad, and that's completely understandable. But I don’t want you to worry.
I want you to imagine the 31-year-old version of yourself just showed up to tell you everything is going to be OK. More than OK, it's going be AWESOME. 10 years ago, I was sitting exactly where you are right now. So when I was getting ready to put on my cap and gown, you were awkward 7th graders. And look at you now--confident, accomplished, employable adults ready to take on the world!
I consider it my duty today to get you even more excited for the decade ahead. I want to tell you what I think 21-year-old Tammy would have loved to hear.
So far, my career after TCNJ has taken me far beyond my wildest dreams. I went from being a journalism major to raising $4 million dollars for a nonprofit that I founded. I never got around to taking a business class, so I never saw that one coming.
I went from working at Seventeen magazine, to working on the frontlines of the movement for gender equality. Who knew my minor in Women’s & Gender Studies would become the Major Focus of my life. I never guessed 10 years ago that my life would grow this way, but sure enough, all the seeds were planted right here at TCNJ.
She’s the First isn’t just the name of the nonprofit I founded--it’s a piece of my identity that is tied to this campus: I am the first in my family to graduate from college. Is anyone else going to be the first tomorrow?
Or maybe you’re the first in your family to major in Engineering, or Interactive Multimedia, or Biology. Maybe you were the first to study abroad. Or maybe you’re going to be another kind of first someday, we just don’t know what it is yet. I really believe everyone is a trailblazer in his or her own way.
As I look back on 10 years, 4 big mantras jump out at me. I’m going to use these mantras as if they were boxes. I’ll pack up some stories inside of them to make them memorable, and then I’ll hand them over to you. They’re your box of tricks and you can unpack them whenever you need it.
Sound good? Alright, here we go.
As a college graduate, people are going to expect a lot of you. Maybe you can already feel that pressure. It makes sense why the expectations are so high. College was a big investment, and it should have a big return. I’m not worried about you guys though. With a senior class this accomplished, I am sure you will meet, and even exceed, expectations. It will take hard work, but you’ve got this.
Here’s mantra number 1: While you’re so focused on meeting expectations, be alert to the times when you need to DEFY expectations. It was during my Freshman year at TCNJ that I learned the power of this.
In high school, you know how they do those superlatives in the yearbook? Most Likely to Succeed, Most Likely to Be President, Best Smile? Well, you’re looking at the one voted “Most Shy.” When I came to The College of New Jersey, I was over it. No more shy girl here. I was determined to defy the expectations that my peers at home had of me. They expected me to be the quiet one who sat on the sidelines and didn’t raise her hand. Honestly, that's who I had always been up to that point.
So freshman year, I challenged myself to run for Freshman Class Secretary. I had to knock on doors in Travers & Wolfe, get petition signatures, and staple “Vote for Tammy!” flyers everywhere. The last step was the most nerve-wracking: I had to give a speech. My first real public speaking moment. I don’t remember what I said, but I remember the butterflies I had, I remember the little nervous shake in my leg, I remember the note cards I held in my sweaty palms.
I lost that election--but it ended up being one of my biggest victories. I proved to myself I could stand up and speak up. And once I knew that I could do that, I was able to raise my hand in the classroom, be a leader in my extracurricular activities, be vocal in my internships...all the way up to being the activist for girls’ education that I am today.
When have you had to defy expectations? Think back to a time. Hang on to that fire and determination you had. Ladies, you may go on to work in an environment where women are expected to be agreeable. Defy expectations and negotiate for the salary that you deserve.
Guys, you may work in an environment where men are expected to climb over others to get to the top. Defy expectations and take a more collaborative approach.
Never has our country needed a more defiant class of graduates. In all aspects of your life, refuse to accept what is not equal, or just, or truthful--and if people think you are not powerful enough to change things, well then, show them otherwise.
No one has taught me more what it means to defy expectations than the 881 She’s the First Scholars around the world. They are young women who have received scholarships through our program, so that they can be first in their families to graduate from high school. Every day, across 11 different countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America, these Scholars are pushing ahead. So if you’re struggling to do the right thing and need some courage think of
Maheshwari: She is also a member of the Class of 2017...getting her Masters in genetics. We watched her graduate high school in India 5 years ago. Born into the “Untouchable” caste, she is not only the first educated woman in her family but also among the very, very few Dalit women to wear a lab coat.
Elly is the youngest of 9 siblings in Tanzania and somehow the first and only one to graduate high school. The job market doesn't have much to offer her, so she's starting her own business while in university.
Angelica is graduating this October in Guatemala. She was born to parents who each speak different indigenous languages, neither can speak Spanish or English. Angelica speaks all 4 of those languages--and is learning her 5th so she can help them all break out of poverty.
Here's Sinforosa: Born up in the Andes Mountains of Peru, she would have been like most other girls in her community, dropping out after elementary school, because the nearest high school is a 7 hour trip away. But because she received a scholarship to a boarding school in more populated town, she was able to beat the odds and graduate last year.
And Sirjana. In Nepal, culturally women are not expected to show dominance or aggression, so when Sirjana brings out her competitive drive on the soccer field, and does not back down from getting that ball back in her command, she is defying expectations.
Your actions will define who you are. No one else will.
I learned all about Mantra #2 from She’s the First. On this box, I’d write Ponder Your Purpose.
Your purpose is the reason you’re on this planet. This is a heavy box to think about, I know, especially at a time when you’ve just finished your FINAL final exams and are ready to party. But it's a really rewarding one too.
Doesn’t it seem like we talk about our passions a whole lot more than we talk about our purpose? Until recently, I remembered senior year as being the year of chasing my passion for magazines. To get that dream job, I was obsessed. I had so many subscriptions to women's magazines and I could pour over the magazine racks at Barnes and Nobles for hours. I even started a magazine club here on campus.
But then, a couple years ago, I came across my diary from that time and it reminded me how my purpose had been hiding out behind the passion all along. I had forgotten that while I had wanted the glamorous magazine job as badly as Andy Sachs wanted it in The Devil Wears Prada--I knew it wasn't the end all be all.
I’ll tell you what I wrote in that diary. (By the way, for me to share my diary with hundreds of people I don’t even know shows you how much I already like you as almost fellow alumni)
So this was the first entry in a brand new journal my supervisor gifted me after completing my summer internship. It was right when I was moving back to campus for senior year. I wrote:
“This journal is just what I needed, a fresh start to release all the anxieties that are creeping in on me senior year. I know exciting times are on the way, but I’m afraid of losing a good opportunity--or of growing up too fast.
It may be because I’ve had too much time to think and overanalyze lately--I have a fear of falling into the real world too fast, of being pigeon-holed, of not knowing where I’ll end up in May. My hope for senior year is that I’ll find a way to make a difference firsthand. To do a meaningful volunteer project. To never take being 20 for granted, and to never stop shifting around, outside my comfort zone. I hope I can read back on this in May and say, “You did it, Tammy, you made me proud.”
OK, ok, I know that's all SUPER cheesy, but c’mon, you must have written stuff like this in your diaries too, right? Cheese aside, these words were really true to who I am.
So what did I do, besides write it in my diary? Well, I talked to my Professor, Professor Pearson. I was doing an independent study with her during my final semester of senior year. I told her I wanted to report on a story about a woman who was changing the world. A woman who had overcome adversity to create a change in her community. A story that most people wouldn't have heard of, but should know about, because they would be inspired to support.
This moment was the seed for all that was to come.
Professor Pearson suggested I write a story about one of her former students, also a TCNJ alumn, who had been a refugee of the Liberian Civil War and who was leading a foundation to educate Liberian girls and boys. So I did. This woman was living in New York City and I’d go interview her after my internship. I so intensely learned about the problems in Liberia and girls’ needs for education, that after turning in this assignment and getting my cap and gown, I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t shake the fact 50 million girls were denied a high school education around the world. I couldn't accept that young women who were my age at the time, who just happened to be born in Liberia instead of New Jersey, were already mothers, they were not able to graduate, and had no control over their futures.
After I graduated, I volunteered my writing and leadership skills to her foundation. I didn't want to work at a nonprofit. The magazine world is what excited me, and I knew I could use media as a powerful platform to support philanthropy. In my free time, however, I wanted to do everything I could to help this little organization that had no staff; I organized their galas, I started their Facebook page, I wrote thank you notes to donors. That was exactly what I was looking for in my August 2006 diary entry--a chance to make a difference firsthand.
This never would have happened if I hadn’t put what I was looking for out to the universe--by writing to myself in my diary, talking to my Professor during office hours. Even if your purpose feels kinda vague, give yourself the space to think and talk about it. Tell people about what lights you up: stopping climate change; protecting women's reproductive rights; fighting racial injustice. Or maybe you're not even sure what issue pulls on you the most yet, but you know you want to feel connected to a movement, you want to leave the world better off than when you found it. Ponder Your Purpose. It's the surest way to find it.
Building on this story, my third box says: Say Yes. This box is light and easy to pick up and toss around. Inside is a story about giving unexpected opportunities a chance. It's light because when you're at the start of your career, you really don’t have much to lose.
Now don't take this too literally, I’m not asking you to forfeit all discretion. Instead, I’m asking you to consider invitations that weren’t what you were expecting, but have something to offer you. Here’s an example from my own life.
I mentioned that after graduation, I landed my dream job at a fancy publishing company, Hearst Magazines. I was so proud of that. Hearst is still in my Twitter bio actually, and that’s because I learned as much there as I did here at TCNJ. Ultimately, I wanted to be covering important feminist issues for a magazine like Marie Claire or Glamour.
I started out as the assistant to the director of digital media for Hearst, and that was awesome, I got a bird’s eye view of how everything worked. After a few months on the job, he asked me if I’d be interested in a new opportunity to be a web editor. It would make me the youngest web editor in the company. He asked me if I’d like to edit the websites for quinceanera and prom, the sister sites for Seventeen, CosmoGirl and Teen magazines.
I am not Latina, so I have not had a quinceanera, and truth be told, I never went to prom. Actually I never went to any high school dance or college formal. But he didn't ask… so I didn't tell him that! I just said yes. This job was my entry way into working with brands that touched the lives of young women. And although the door was bedazzled with the sequins and sparkles of prom dresses when I was looking for a door that was much more gritty, it was still a door leading me closer to my goal.
And it ended up being exactly the right door for me at that time. Managing this tiny website was a crash course in entrepreneurship. I worked with web designers, developers, marketing and advertising teams. I managed freelance writers, I produced video content. I built a brand.
The next year on the job, my boss asked me if I would launch a new media campaign called DonateMyDress.org. It would be an online directory of dress drives, places women could go to donate formal dresses they didn’t wear anymore, or places girls who couldn’t afford dresses for prom could go to pick one up. I said yes again, of course. I was so hungry for a project with social impact, and sure enough...If my college reporting on Liberia planted the seeds, then this was when everything started to sprout. DonateMyDress.org set off an ah-ha moment in my head that led me to where I am today.
The experience I was gaining in digital media started to mix with the education issues I confronted in my volunteer work for the Liberian foundation. I wondered what would happen if there was a media campaign, like DonateMyDress, but to help girls who couldn’t afford school get an education. I knew when a girl was first in her family to graduate, she could break the cycle of poverty. That is when the idea for She’s the First hit me. I launched it in 2009 as a YouTube video campaign, because I wanted to reach our generation with the message. All it took was hitting Upload on YouTube. I had no idea then it would receive a response strong enough to catapult into the global nonprofit it is today.
Looking back, I can see a clear line from TCNJ, to my work in Liberia, Hearst and then DonateMyDress which takes me to She’s the First. But it wasn’t like that at the time. At the time, each new door was just an opportunity and I was scared, and nervous, and uncertain about how exactly it would lead me to my goals (especially as I didn’t even know what my goals were!). But I worked hard, shared what I was passionate about and was ready for those opportunities when they showed up. And ultimately that’s what led me to where I am today.
As you’re looking for your first job, don’t be discouraged if the first big role you get isn’t what you thought it would be. You’ll be surprised to find what BIG opportunities and valuable skills are hiding in the roles that don’t seem very profound at first glance.
Box #4! We’ve made it to the final one. And it’s got my favorite mantra: This box is golden and engraved with the words Pay It Forward.
Despite what you might read, no one does anything on their own. Behind every successful person is a team. We all have them. We all have people in our lives that help us become our best versions of ourselves. Sometimes in big ways, sometimes in smaller, but no less important, ways.
My Dad's one of those people. He drove me to campus the first time 15 years ago, and he drove me here again today. His hard work made it possible for me to be a first-generation college student. My professors in the School of Journalism and Professional Writing, especially Professor Pearson, are definitely on my team. You brought me to the path that led to She’s the First.
So box #4 isn’t advice. It’s a thank you. A thank you to the people that helped me, and a thank you to the Class of 2017. Class of 2017, if you at any point in your college career had a tie-dye cupcake sold by the TCNJ Chapter of She’s the First, if you went to their Zumbathons, if you attended their documentary screenings -- then you took a small action to already pay it forward. Your senior leaders --Devon Tam, Alison McCarthy, Samantha Selikoff--made the TCNJ chapter of She’s the First one of the strongest in the nation.
During your time here, this chapter has made a real difference to people around the world, raising about $4,000 to support the education of girls. Here is one of those lives you’ve changed. Meet Kabita in Nepal. She won’t be graduating until the Year 2024 but every year she’s gotten a step closer thanks to you. She’s doing well in her classes and just like you did, she gets to do extracurricular activities, like swimming and art, that grow her mind in other ways. She also has access to good nutrition at school so her body and mind is stronger than it would be if she just had the meals available at home. These opportunities were made possible by your support, and in some cases, that was one cupcake at a time. It doesn’t take much to pay it forward but it makes a real difference.
All I ask is that you continue in that spirit. Lift others up, globally, locally. Down the line, reach back to campus and pull up younger students with you. Make TCNJ Alumni a force to be reckoned with in the world.
Ponder a Purpose
Pay It Forward.
Seniors, thank you for having me. I’ll see you on the other side.