Remarks by Valedictorians

2018 Saint Mary’s College Commencement
Angela Athletic & Wellness Complex
May 19, 2018

Valedictorians Kristie LeBeau, Katie Price, Melissa Henry, Darya Bondarenko and Makenzie Duncan addressed the the College's core values: Learning, Community, Faith/Spirituality, and Justice with their remarks.

KRISTIE LEBEAU

A few years ago, my family and I received news that made us realize that life is too precious to waste a single second of it. It was at that point that we made a vow to make the most of every moment we are given in this life. And now, we live by the phrase: “Life’s not about the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away.”

Over the past four years at Saint Mary’s, I have had so many of these moments. And right now, standing up here with four extremely intelligent women and standing in front of so many other amazing Belles, I can without a doubt say that this is one of those moments.

And although I am going to soak it up for all that it is worth, I know what you’re all thinking right now. You’re doing the math — five valedictorians means five valedictorian speeches. But don’t worry, Katie, Melissa, Darya, and Makenzie will share stories that will give you snapshots into this journey that we have all been on for the past four years and yet, have all experienced in different ways.

Saint Mary’s has four core values: faith, community, justice, and learning. Every year, one of these values is celebrated so that at the end of the four years, we will have had time to reflect on all of the values.

Each value means something different to every Belle.

Earlier, I said that life’s about the moments that take your breath away. Well, maybe, it’s also about the everyday, ordinary moments that end up shaping our lives and reminding us of what we learned at Saint Mary’s.

Soon we will experience the big moment that all of us are here for — when we receive our diploma. It will be one of those breathtaking moments: for all of us who have worked so hard; for our professors who guided us to this point; and for our loved ones whom we can’t thank enough for supporting us along the way.

But after all of the excitement of receiving our diploma has ended and the celebration is over, we will be left with the little moments. And really I think those are the moments that will define us as Belles.

The women we’ve met at Saint Mary’s are some of the most intelligent and opinionated women we have ever known. And that is what Saint Mary’s has taught us to unapologetically be, so that when we leave this place, we won’t be afraid to speak up in those little moments when one of our core values is questioned or when someone devalues the human dignity of an individual based on their differences.

Dr. Leslie Wang, a professor who has been very influential during my time at Saint Mary’s, always reminds us that despite all the social issues in our world today, it is still a beautiful world. And each day that a Belle stands up for what she believes in in one of these moments, the world will become just a little bit more beautiful.

KATIE PRICE: 

Faith is believing in the intangible. Nothing is more daunting than believing in something that cannot be seen, heard, or physically embraced, especially for someone like me who is very affectionate and takes comfort in strong hugs. I have found comfort in my faith and have come to appreciate how inspiring it can be. I have Saint Mary’s to thank for helping me develop this comfort and witness the inspirational events that transpire because of its existence.

One of the most significant influences to the development of my faith has been my interactions with the Congregation of the Holy Cross. In October 2016, I was partnered with Sister Bernadette Mulick, or Sister Bernie as I call her. If any of you have had or will have the opportunity to meet Sister Bernie, or any of the Holy Cross Sisters, consider yourselves lucky. Like many of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, Sister Bernie has an inexhaustible love for others. She always has a smile on her face and is ready to shower you with love through warm embraces and kind words. She embodies God’s incredible love and shows characters of his mercy.

Sister Bernie has fostered my faith. She has taught me the power of prayer and putting all of my trust in God. I worry way too much. I worry about school, the wellness of loved ones, and the most, my future. I worry about my future and try to figure how I can generate this tremendous, positive impact on the world.

There was a moment recently where I contemplated on resigning from a job offer that I received in October. It sounds crazy to leave the security of having a position, but something did not seem quite right about this rushed decision. Sister Bernie was the first person I confided in because I knew she had my best interest in mind. I was hoping Sister Bernie would just tell what to do, but she was not cooperative. I tried to give her indirect cues like asking, “What would you do?” but she was not falling for it. Instead, she said, “You know the factors for the decision. I’ll pray for you, but ultimately I cannot decide for you. This is your future, and you need to do what is best for you. I suggest that you pray on it.” 

“Pray on it” is a phrase that Sister Bernie uses often. She recognizes the power of prayer and how it is one of the pillars of faith. During prayer, you are vulnerable and there is no immediate affirmation of it having any effect. When you give up every ounce of doubt and let God take control, the fruits of prayer become the greatest gift. I thank Sister Bernie for teaching me the importance of prayer, and that without prayer, one’s faith is difficult to sustain.

I also thank Sister Bernie for teaching me to have faith in myself. I have a tendency to be cynical about my inabilities to perform or about my flawed traits. Sister Bernie quickly informed me that criticizing my “inabilities” or “flawed traits” was a criticism of God and of His time, effort, and care in creating me. Sister Bernie showed me that doubting myself leads to doubting my faith in God. It is not until we fully accept ourselves — God’s creation — do we possess a faith that is tenacious and everlasting.

This college has also sustained and enhanced my faith through the students who exist here. I have met some truly remarkable people at Saint Mary’s — people who are guided by faith to achieve great accomplishments. I have encountered classmates fulfill God’s mission through service, studies, and love. They have persevered because of their faith in God. My fellow students have inspired me to let God lead the way and have me serve the best way that I can. To witness students serve people all over the world, fundraise for one cause after another, and provide support to fellow classmates shows me how faith is very much alive on this campus.

However, I pray that this institution holistically attempts to enhance the faith of its students. We can never allow the love of money, cultural or political influences, and short-term gains to overtake the tenants of this institution. We are here because the Sisters loved all of humanity, they loved God, and they sacrificed. These are the fruits of faith. I encourage Saint Mary’s and everyone here today to have faith and to let God take precedence above everything else because no love, endurance, success, or greatness can sustain without it.

MELISSA HENRY:

Before I begin I would like to thank my parents, family and friends. I would not be standing before you today if it were not for your constant love, support and guidance.

Let me bring you back to our first experience of community here at Saint Mary’s: Belles Beginnings, our freshman orientation. In February, my mom reminded me of the Closing of the Circle Ceremony. And, to be honest, I can’t remember much from that ceremony. I remember the confusion of being herded into a circle, wondering why the speaker is crying and why my mother was taking pictures of me. In fact, when I think of those first few days of college, all I have a distinct recollection of is heat, the heat of McCandless Hall, the heat of orientation, the heat of information overload, and the emotional heat of transitioning into college.

I experienced the enjoyment of having my parents at college with me with the subsequent disappointment of them leaving me here with this community of strange people. It felt like I was being dropped off at a fun summer camp for a few weeks. Which is why I was calling my mom three weeks later wondering when she could pick me up again. Anyway, according to my mother, the Closing of the Circle ceremony was symbolic. It signified that this new group of students was joining the Saint Mary’s community. While I may not have had the perspective to realize the profoundness of the ceremony at the time, Saint Mary’s has continued to remind me each day of the promise of community made at Closing of the Circle.

By literally and figuratively bringing us into the circle of Saint Mary’s, we were provided with so many opportunities to succeed, if even in the smallest way. From waking up at 8:50 am and making it to a 9 o’clock class to discussing social issues as a follower of Jesus to the philosophy of death. Late night study sessions transformed peers into friends and last-minute office hours before final exams changed professors into mentors. These friends and mentors became our network of support.

If community began in the classroom, I also found it in campus events, the dining hall — especially at noon — and in the residence halls. As we matured, we recognized that the historic residence halls of Saint Mary’s hold the beginnings of so many incredible women who came before us. We have the luxury of living on campus for three years, with many of us choosing to stay on for four. Living within minutes of our friends and classmates is a privilege we take for granted and an integral part to constructing our community.

I’ve been a resident advisor for the past two years resulting in a unique collection of dorm memories. While there were moments of chaos such as ushering students out for fire drills or in fall 2016, being on clown alert, working as a Resident Advisor allowed me to form relationships with students I may never have crossed paths with, thus expanding my community. I will always hold the memories of family dinners with my Holy Cross Staff and floor events with my residents close. While we are leaving the physical grounds of this campus soon, the friendships and memories we have made will never leave.

When I think of graduation speeches, I imagine wise, accomplished individuals delivering profound, novel words of wisdom. As a 22-year-old with limited life experience, I needed to seek profoundness outside of myself. I sought wisdom at the Convent. Sister Bernie Mullick advised, “Be gentle with yourself.”

I urge you today to be present in the moment and be proud of your accomplishments. Today, the only thing you need to be is a college graduate. So, be gentle with yourself, be proud, and be the Saint Mary’s community that began for us at Closing of the Circle.

DARYA BONDARENKO:

One of Saint Mary’s core values is justice. Of course, we all know what justice is. What is just? What is fair? What is right and what is wrong? A headache is the only answer I get. The reality is that justice is fluid. It evolves with individuals, communities and cultures.

My senior year in high school a student in my government class told me that I do not deserve to live in the United States and go to school here because I am not a US citizen. While I respect the existence of this opinion, I had never felt less valued in my entire life. Was that justice? It did not seem so to me.

Saint Mary’s flavor of justice favors dignity and equality and diversity. I have been privileged to collaborate with intelligent and opinionated young women with drastically different experiences and goals. We did not always agree, but over the years I learned to understand different values and different perceptions of justice, and I learned to defend my values.

As an intern at a hospital-based research lab last summer, I attended a series of lectures from physicians, researchers, and administrative staff of the hospital. In a bland, air-conditioned hospital conference room, one lecturer turned the discussion from genetic therapies to career aspirations. The lecturer distinguished the four women out of six interns and told us that we had an additional responsibility to consider our duties to our future husbands and children before dedicating our lives to a career in medicine. The six of us were too shocked to respond to such a declaration. Was it just to be explicitly told what to think and what values to prioritize? I hope that I never devalue someone for any cause such as race, religion, ethnicity, age, sexuality, socioeconomic status or gender. I believe that each and every one of my fellow Belles is equipped to pursue any and all of her dreams whatever those may be.

It is the dreams and actions of the women I have met here at Saint Mary’s that have shown me that justice exists. Justice is beyond any one of our voices. We live in a time of change and I don’t know about you, but not a single professor encouraged me to keep my thoughts to myself — even when they had to be spoken in a different language. I have always been terrified to speak up, and speeches are a recurring nightmare. But since day one, I was inspired by one Belle after another.

So, what is justice? I still do not have a clear-cut definition, but justice is meant to be pursued — not defined. We are able to discern justice if we are paying attention.

I learned a lot during my time at Saint Mary’s, but most importantly I learned to listen. I learned to listen to the person speaking to me. I learned to listen to the actions of groups around me. I learned to listen to the silence of those who cannot voice their thoughts. And I learned to listen to myself. It is by listening that we know what step to take next.

Thank you Belles. Thank you for showing me what justice is about. I am truly honored to have heard your stories and can only hope that I can match your example. To my professors and advisors, thank you for teaching me to take pride in my work. Finally, Mom and Dad, thank you for believing in me even when it was hard for me to believe in myself. 

MAKENZIE DUNCAN:

When we think about learning, we may think on the papers we wrote, the concepts we committed to memory, and the exams we stayed up all night cramming for, whether we will admit it or not. But the crucial things I have learned in the last four years are to embrace my curiosity, feed my hunger for learning, and never stop asking questions. In short, I have fallen in love with learning.

We have heard about discovery from Sister Madeleva, but what I didn’t fully comprehended when I opened my package to see my “You’re Saint Mary’s Class of 2018” T-shirt — with the classic discovery quote — was that I would learn, in these four hectic, beautiful, growth-filled years how passionate I would become about the discovery process.

I have learned from botanists, mathematicians, biological acousticians, theologians, ornithologists, and many other experts. Courses I had to take to complete my Sophia credits became opportunities to widen my point of view and to appreciate what other fields have to offer. I now walk around campus without my headphones on to hear what the birds are making a fuss about, and when I go home I ask my parents, “did you know that the caps of water bottles can’t be recycled?” And, “have you ever thought about the phrase ‘blind as a bat?’ Bats aren’t blind!” To overlap with bright faculty like Dr. Kloepper, Dr. Majetic, Professor Bourne, Dr. Fotopolous, and more was pivotal.

Blessed Basil Moreau accurately said “there is nothing more difficult than helping young minds begin building a fund of knowledge.” In learning to discover the world, Saint Mary’s gifted me with the presence of remarkable professors that have assisted me in developing my own fund of knowledge.

Though I have been taught concepts and facts from these professionals, they more importantly taught me to yearn for the process of discovery. I began to understand what my passions are and the change I am capable of making, while keeping in mind the end goal of fulfilling the plan that God has set out for me.

Father Moreau reinforced the need to keep our eyes fixed on heaven when he said, “Society has a greater need for people of values than it has for scholars.”

I know I am not alone when I say that Saint Mary’s has been a time of building upon a basis of virtue and knowledge of self. It has been a journey of understanding the passions in our own hearts and how we can channel those passions as we leave this campus.

One of my passions that I was able to continue while at Saint Mary’s was softball. Softball taught me a lot more than just good hitting form. I learned that I’m quick to be hard on myself, that I can thrive in high-pressure situations, and most importantly, that I can learn from failure.

Entering into my college years, I had been a third baseman since I could remember playing actual positions. The infield was the only place I felt comfortable, but to make myself more marketable, after playing a nerve-wracking summer in the outfield, I exaggerated on my entrance questionnaire and listed myself an outfielder as well as a third baseman.

It has been four years now since I have played third base. I made my permanent move to the grass in my first year at Saint Mary’s, specifically right field, and after 15 years playing the sport that I loved, I saw there was still more yet to learn through both failure and triumph. Softball compelled me to take on new perspectives when I was challenged — a skill that I will value in the years to come outside of the diamond.

Though some individuals here may not know the intricacies of softball, the ability to discover new ways to learn from past shortcomings is a gift that I am convinced we all received during our time at Saint Mary’s.

Socrates said that “education is kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” My time here at Saint Mary’s has provided me with the most effective kindling to continue to fuel my fire for knowledge. From the classroom, to the labs, to the student-teaching placements, to nursing clinicals, to standing in the right field grass and beyond. We all have strengthened the fire within us to broaden our minds and keep our hearts open to new knowledge.

As we move on to discover our places in the universe, our time at Saint Mary’s should be a reminder there is always more to learn, whether that is about the world around us or what lies in our own hearts.