Thank you, President Christian, for inviting me to be part of this very special day and for recommending this honorary degree. Thank you, Trustee Lewin, and the SUNY Board of Trustees for approving my nomination.
It is an honor to be with all of you today. Having sat where you are, I know that you are all looking forward to receiving your degrees, so I will share a few thoughts as concisely as possible.
You have now lived through an important chapter of your life and are ready to start the next one. Congratulations. Be certain that what each one of you thinks…does… and will do… matters.
For me, living a good life is about one thing – making a positive difference in the lives of others. As each person’s life unfolds, the experiences in one’s life change and refine the meaning of “making a positive difference.” New Paltz is part of that vital process.
My life at New Paltz began in the Fall of 1969. Much was changing in our society and our world. Woodstock had just happened; young men were being drafted to fight the Vietnam War; and, college life was undergoing major transitions.
My first day here started out quite memorably. Mom worked in a factory and could not get time off to take me to college. She tearfully and happily said bye to me as I boarded the Adirondack Trailways bus in Manhattan. I had just turned 16 and had never been away from home.
I was all alone and arrived with a suitcase in one hand and a pillow in the other. And for me, a Brooklyn girl, it was the start of a new chapter in my life and I was living in the “country.”
I was fortunate in that professor emeritus Dr. Bob Presbie became my then-professor, mentor, and lifelong friend. His strict behaviorist approach to psychology was often challenged by those who focused on more biological explanations of behavior.
Often, as psychology students, we tried to understand ourselves and others. We would attribute someone’s success or failure to what they had inherited or how they were raised. I reflected on my own experiences and wondered whether I was a product of my genes or the result of the environment or circumstance in which I was raised. I wondered whether my success or failure was rooted in my nature or nurture.
Fast forward to today when the biological basis of behavior has been studied with all sorts of living beings to document how biology, what we inherit, our microbiome, and more drives who we are. The nurture proponents focus on the behavior that one learns from interacting with the surrounding environment and the impact of one’s environment on every aspect of their life, including their genes.
As with so many issues, each camp is convinced that their viewpoint is the right one.
Yet… the intricacies of life and relationships when unraveled suggest that nature and nurture are uniquely apportioned and intertwined in each person. Those fibers are distinctively mixed and there is no formula; there are many unexpected twists and turns.
So Nature, Nurture, sure…they are important. For me, in the variety of lives that I have lived, and I think for you, graduates of this wonderful institution, there is another essential component in the understanding of what makes us do what we do and this is the one element that each one of us can control— Choice.
We experience our lives through our choices. Who we are and who we become is about the choices we make and will define the course of our lives. Sometimes it may seem that life is out of control or that a choice has been made for you, but be certain that you can control the choices you make even when the choices may seem limited.
Choice explains why some individuals with all the benefits of heredity and upbringing end up in the most terrible situations. Choice also explains how other people who lack all the benefits of life still manage to achieve great success. Choices explain how in one family the children can be so very different from one another.
When I look at my choices, there are those that I celebrate— going to graduate school, saying no to the job that paid more but would not allow me to make a difference. I took instead the position as assistant to the auditor in a relatively new and small company that was in its 5th year of producing an educational television program for children— Sesame Street. After a few months I was offered the position of Children’s Talent Coordinator.
Of course, there are those choices I made that still make me wonder, “What on earth was I thinking?” When we make a choice that takes us in the wrong direction we need to pause, recalibrate, and when possible make corrections.
Life choices— what you do, how you live, how you love – are determined by the values that are important to you. Be certain that your personal bedrock, the foundation for all you do, are your values and they will drive your choices.
There are some basic and universal values that are the underpinning of healthy relationships with yourself and with others. The values of integrity and trust are essential. Each is earned and reinforced over time. And yet, by making a wrong choice, the trust and integrity that you earned, can be lost in an instant and take a long time to earn back.
For me, my choices were driven by the belief that I wanted to make life better for others.
In the last year of my PhD program in clinical psychology, I realized that while one-to-one therapy would benefit some people; that for many more what needed to change were the institutions that were supposed to serve them. That led me to also enroll in the Master’s program of the Averell Harriman School of Urban and Policy Sciences.
My values are what kept me and still keep me on track. It did not matter if I lost a popularity contest, or nobody noticed, or that often I felt alone. The values that have been the foundation for my choices keep my internal life compass pointed in the right direction.
What I learned is that you make a difference in ways that you may not even imagine. The difference you make is not because you wrote a book or met with Presidents or fly private instead of commercial.
The moment of making a difference that will lift you during your toughest times is when you are present when no one else will notice or when you have been there to hold someone’s hands so that they are not alone when they take their last breath. Those are the moments that will give you emotional sustenance and the knowledge that you have truly made a difference.
My mother would tell me that passion is a strong engine but a poor steering wheel. And she was right. We all need to find that steering wheel within ourselves that will guide us to make the right choices in our life so we can make a positive difference. Some of you have your engines revved up and are raring to go; some of you are still building your engine. Regardless, your time is now and the world is waiting for you.
With your choices you can make a positive difference in the lives of others. May you have safe passage and the finest steering wheel to guide you on your path.