2018 Graduation Speech

13 June, 2018
Thank you, Mrs. Moen, and congratulations to the graduates…. You’ve worked very hard to get here, and I’m honored to be here celebrating with you. Congratulations also to your parents and your teachers, who have invested time and energy into your success. This is a big milestone for them, too.

My name is Tessa Huttenlocher. I graduated from CCA 12 years ago, but I still remember my own 8th grade graduation. I even remember the guest speaker—she was a scientist who studied digestion by putting windows in the sides of cows, which I think you’ll agree, is inherently more attention-grabbing than what I do every day, which is mostly reading, writing, and teaching college students about social theory. As a result, my remarks today are not going to be grounded as much in my expertise as a sociologist, but more in my experiences as Cedar Crest alumna and as someone who has been in school for a long time.

My talk today is about being prepared for change. For the graduates, leaving CCA will be one of the biggest changes you’ve made in your lives so far. For the past few years, you’ve gotten a chance to figure out the pattern of life as a CCA student. You feel safe and comfortable, and maybe even powerful. You know people here, and they know you. But starting next year, you’ll be surrounded by teachers and administrators who haven’t yet heard from their colleagues about how great you are, and who don’t yet know what makes you shine. You’ll be surrounded by classmates who don’t yet appreciate your sense of humor, and who don’t yet know the telltale signs that you’re having a bad day. One way to think of it is that you’ve spent the last few years at CCA building up credit with the people you see every day, and now your account is resetting to zero.

Changes like this will keep happening your entire life. The average person graduating from college today can expect to work for an average of 10-15 different employers over the course of their working lives, compared to the 1-5 employers my parents’ generation had.[i] The job you have 20 years from now might not even exist yet, and might be rendered obsolete three years later. Add to that all the changes you’ll face in your personal lives, and it becomes clear that you will never stop facing changes that confront you with the new and unpredictable.

Now that I’ve perhaps provoked some of your anxieties, I’m here with good news, which will be the central message of my talk:  Even when things are new and unpredictable, you are prepared to succeed. And the reason you are prepared is that you’re already carrying all the tools you’ll need for success, even as you are sitting here today.

I’ll explain this with a little bit of sociology. Starting from early childhood, you begin developing what sociologists call your habitus. Habitus is defined as a system of internalized attitudes, dispositions, and behaviors that shape the way you interact with the world.[ii] You can think of your habitus as a toolkit that you automatically reach into all the time in your everyday life. You unconsciously pick up tools for your tool kit at school, at home, and with your friends, and you keep developing your toolkit your entire life, but your elementary and middle school years are especially important. And the really neat thing about your toolkit, your habitus, is that you take it with you wherever you go. New schools, new jobs, cross country moves—your toolkit comes with you. And the tools you have now never stop being useful—they get sharper and you get better at using them, but they largely stay the same. I’d say that the toolkit I’m carrying now, the one that has gotten me through high school, college, my first job, and my PhD program is about 90% full of tools I first picked up at Cedar Crest. I don’t think this is an exaggeration.

To illustrate this, I’ll give you a few examples of tools I know that you already have, and then I’ll show how they’ll help you tackle next year, the year after that, and everything that comes afterward.

The first tool I’ll mention is mentorship-seeking. Over the course of your time at CCA, you’ve learned to see your teachers not as aloof, unapproachable experts, but as people with whom you can build relationships. You’ve also seen, on many occasions, that once your teachers have gotten to know you, they’ve been able to give you personalized opportunities to shine. You may not realize it now, but these experiences you’ve had at Cedar Crest have predisposed you to succeed with all the powerful people you will meet in your life—your high school teachers, your college professors, your boss. Because of CCA, you know that it is possible to form meaningful mentorship relationships with people in positions of power, and that those relationships will lead to more and better opportunities to become your best self. Even when you aren’t consciously thinking about it, you will approach new authority figures in a way that reproduces these kinds of mentorship relationships.

Another tool in your toolkit is critical thinking. One of the most important things I learned at Cedar Crest was that memorizing information wasn’t as important as knowing how to use it, and understanding where it came from. This will continue to be important for academic exercises like writing essays and planning science fair projects, but it is equally important for evaluating the abundance of information that you encounter in our increasingly networked world. Experts agree that a growing proportion of today’s jobs will be automated in the next 50 years—but robots aren’t very good at critical thinking. No matter what changes you’ll face in your lifetime, your ease with critical thinking will be valuable.

The final tool I’ll mention is curiosity. Cedar Crest has given you a great deal of freedom to pursue things that inspire you, and to use your skills in creative ways. For you, school hasn’t been just about taking tests and getting grades, and that is so important. Because there aren’t grades in the real world, and the best job you can have in the future will be one that you genuinely like, one that challenges and inspires you every day.

These three tools I’ve mentioned: mentorship-seeking, critical thinking, and curiosity are only three of the many tools you’ve gotten at Cedar Crest. I challenge you to think of others whenever you find yourself feeling nervous about next year.

Before I wrap up this speech, I’ll shift gears for a moment. A lot of what sociologists do is study inequality and the reasons why different people have different outcomes in life. It turns out that habitus has a lot to do with this. All the tools in your toolkit—the ones that will help you be successful in life—not everyone has them. This is why it is imperative that you use your toolkit to help others. You can do this by helping them develop or sharpen their own set of tools, or by using your own tools to make their pathways to success easier. It is also imperative that you are kind and patient with people who are still working on filling their toolkit. No one’s toolkit is complete, not mine, not yours, not even your parents’, and that’s why we should all consider ourselves life-long learners.

To recap: You’re facing some big changes next year, but your time at CCA has helped you develop a toolkit that will follow you your entire life. Because of this toolkit—your habitus—you are ready to face any new situation that life throws at you. You have everything you need to do great things, so go out and do them. Your CCA family is here to cheer you on.

Congratulations to the class of 2018!

Tessa Huttenlocher

 [i] Kalleberg, Arne L. 2009. “Precarious Work, Insecure Workers: Employment Relations in Transition.” American Sociological Review 74:1-22.

[ii] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. Distinction. Trans. Richard Nice. Boston: Harvard University Press.