For the third annual Pullman Scholar Symposium, the foundation's staff asked me to deliver the keynote presentation. The symposium, held at the University of Chicago Gleacher Center on May 20, 2016, is an annual gathering of students and alumni that have benefited from the George M. Pullman Educational Foundation. The George M. Pullman Educational Foundation supports the dreams and aspirations of outstanding graduating high school students with merit-based, need-based scholarships and continuing educational support as they pursue their bachelor’s degree at the college or university of their choice. Below is the unabridged transcript for my address.
This is a quote from Rumi, a Persian poet and Islamic scholar from the 13th century. And while centuries have passed since Rumi has departed this world, this message of love illuminating our world lives on. It lives on particularly in the minds and hearts of our Pullman Scholars and Alumni.
Now, that’s a bold claim. Truthful, nonetheless. But today, let’s see if you and I can defend the claim.
The past couple years, I have been volunteering on the Pullman Scholar Selection Committee. As a member of that committee, I read through only a small number of essays submitted by Pullman hopefuls. And for each essay I read and each year I’ve participated, I have yet to not be amazed at the incredible love among Pullman hopefuls.
Pullman Scholars embody the passion needed to push through obstacles, challenges, and adversity. As far as I am concerned, Pullman Scholars set the standards of academic excellence and integrity in our society, being that their pursuits of higher education stem not from superficiality, but rather from adherence to self-determination and a desire to empower themselves as well as the community around them.
And yet, this level of academic integrity stems not solely from the mind, but it also blossoms from the heart. It is the true illumination of “sunlight shimmering love” that Rumi refers to in his quote about the Sun never then explaining to the Earth that it demands something in return (see video below). No, the rays from the Sun solely shine, radiate, glorify, and give all their beauty to all of us on Earth.
I am humbled to consider myself among the ranks of all those here today that shine like the sun. I first came to know the Pullman Foundation when my older sister Anna was the first of our family to attend college. I followed in her footsteps not only in the Pullman tradition, but also her footsteps on the campus of Loyola University Chicago.
I graduated Loyola in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre. I initially fell in love with theatre during high school and followed this passion throughout my undergraduate studies. I followed this dream – even at the questioning of many – why I would follow such a difficult path of life. But theatre, and music as well, was my passion. And above what anyone told me about how hard the theatrical life would be, I needed to follow this passion. For why else would I commit so much of my precious, scant time on Earth to a pursuit that did not stimulate my mind and heart?
And at times, this would come to a wake-up call: what happens in life after graduation? With a theatre degree at that?
I began thinking about life following commencement particularly in my junior year. Incoming seniors were welcome to submit proposals so that they might be able to direct plays as part of the forthcoming season. I submitted two proposals: The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh and Tick, Tick… BOOM! by Jonathan Larson. I ended up directing The Lonesome West, which is a dark comedy set in County Galway, Ireland, but I found myself approaching a crossroads while I delved into the themes of Tick, Tick… BOOM!
“Tick” is an autobiographical musical written by Jonathan Larson, the same man who wrote the Tony-award winning Broadway musical RENT. RENT went on to become a movie when I was at Loyola, as well. Sadly, though, Jonathan never got to see his success take full fruition. He died unexpectedly the evening of the final dress rehearsal.
Years after RENT became the smash hit that it did, off-Broadway theaters gave new life to an earlier unknown musical that he wrote called Tick, Tick… BOOM! The musical starts off with a song called 30/90 (you can listen to the song in the video below). The song explains how he felt that as he approached his 30th birthday – in the year 1990 – he felt like a failure. That his years of devotion to musical theatre were going unnoticed and that his message would never be heard. Now at the time when I was preparing my application to direct this show, 30 sure seemed old. Now that I’m 29, maybe not so much!
But what’s an important message here is that Jonathan never gave up on his commitment to his own personal mission. He continued spreading love throughout the music he wrote, and this love permeated to eventually reach millions across the world in his posthumously success of RENT.
So, as you all approach your college commencement – your own 30/90 – remember that you are already sowing the seeds of your impact, though you may not see them blossom for many more years to come. For after all, our college commencement is aptly named, as the event that really commences your entry into a new arena.
My own arena has changed. In the short six years since I have commenced, I have found an additional new passion: philanthropy. I have been working in a fundraising office for the Midwest Augustinians, a Catholic religious order. At first, admittedly, it was solely a job. But as I witnessed the good being done in the Augustinian schools and churches across the Midwest, as well as the impoverished missions of Northern Peru, I found something greater than me.
I found that the gift of giving is perhaps the most powerful, vulnerable, and greatest act – and joy – that we can express in our daily lives. I’m reminded of one story from our missions that really encapsulates the joys of giving as well as receiving.
We had one missionary from Chicago, a priest, serving in the Andes mountains of Peru. The people of the church community he served were sustenance farmers, living off the food that they farmed and not much else. And even within this small, desert community, there were those that lived in the most extreme conditions that I had ever witnessed, including a woman living in a 6' x 6' hut made of sticks and mud. Anyways, I came to find out that this woman, many years prior to my visit to Peru, had made a significant sacrifice that lives with me to this day.
In the Catholic faith, there is a moment in the weekly service when a few members of the community offer symbolic gifts to God at the front of the church. These gifts are typically the bread and wine that are used later in the service, as well as a basket of the collected donations made by the community. However, this woman changed that one day.
Unexpectedly, this woman proceeded up the aisle toward the front of the church holding something in her hand. She had no shoes, tattered clothes… and she approached the missionary priest. She opened her hands toward him and offered him what was inside. What was it?
One single, small egg.
Now this egg meant more to her than it would to you or me. For us, we might be accustomed to having a dozen eggs in the fridge at home to eat at our own discretion. For this woman, the missionary priest knew that this egg was all she would have for dinner. He whispered to her, “Thank you, but you need this to eat!”
She responded, “Father, will you really deny my gift to God?”
He smiled, accepted the egg, and placed it at the front of the church where it sat throughout the rest of hour-long service.
What this woman understood was that giving is perhaps the greatest thing that we can do, whether if that gift is a donation, an egg, volunteering, or committing to be the best Pullman Scholar one can be so that they may be of service something greater than themselves. A favorite author of mine, Jen Sincero, remarked, that:
I’ve used the skills and appreciation of philanthropy I’ve acquired with the Midwest Augustinians to help my friends start their own theatre companies, I have offered fundraising advice to a small nonprofit that builds sustainable schools in Uganda, I have served on the board of 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, Illinois, which was named the Best Emerging Theatre by Broadway in Chicago and the League of Chicago Theatres in 2013. Last year, I earned a Master of Science in Nonprofit Management. Next month, I am testing to earn the international credential of CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive). And now, I am applying to doctoral programs. If you had asked me six years ago that any of these things would be in my near future, I would’ve never believed you.
My passion at present is empowering others in our community through giving back, through philanthropy, through advocating the nonprofit sector. And I specifically say at present because I have come to appreciate that we must live in the now. Lao Tzu taught that if we live in the past, we are depressed; if we live in the future, we are anxious. If we live in the present, we are our greatest selves. My life has taken many different turns, and the more I embraced the present, including my current passion for advocating philanthropy (a word which literally means “Love of mankind” in Greek) the more that I can be my greatest self in service of a greater communal mission.
That is why I know that the room of Pullman Scholars and Alumni here have futures filled with world-changing superheroes, as many of you wrote about in your application essays. You all have profound goals of being your greatest selves for our greater community, whether if that is in medicine, business, education, law, the arts, public service, theology, or what have you. Continue to have faith in your studies and more importantly your dreams, for each of you possesses the capability, strength, and resolve to make an impactful difference in the lives of many.
I want to close with one culminating thought. Perhaps some of you have already heard a variation of this story, inspired by The Starfish Thrower by Joel Barker. The story goes like this…
A writer was walking the shore of a beach when he saw a man picking up starfish. The writer approached him to ask what he was doing. “Throwing starfish into the ocean,” the man answered. “The sun is up and the tide is going out; if I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.” The writer was puzzled, explaining that there were thousands of starfish along the miles of the beach – there’s no possible way he could make a difference. The young man smiled, threw another starfish into the ocean, and replied, “It made all the difference in the world for that one.”
This is one last story that has stuck with me to this day. First, because I know that our world is riddled with concerns that we must all address: access to education, discrimination and intolerance, climate change, racial and economic injustices, ongoing conflict resulting in the deaths of thousands! Many will say that these issues cannot be resolved, or “Why bother?” But I know that Pullman Scholars are not those people. Pullman Scholars are those that fight for their values and their missions against all odds. And I believe part of the reasoning that we understand that we can save numerous – if not all – the starfish that have washed up ashore is because if you were like me, you are also a starfish and not just the starfish thrower. Many of us don’t come from easy backgrounds. Many of us come from financially strapped families and have had to fight, fight, fight for most of our young lives. Well the fight does not end here. Because you are no longer just your own starfish that has been saved, but you are also a starfish thrower. No longer are you Jonathan Larson being upset that he could not write a successful musical, but you are also Jonathan Larson writing your own Broadway hit without presently realizing it. No longer are you solely the missionary priest receiving a tiny egg, but you are the woman giving literally all that she owns to serve a greater purpose in your own community. You are – from the Pullman staff to the volunteers to the students and alumni… You are a Pullman Scholar.