In Their Own Words: Cum Laude Speaker Tolu Onafowokan ’05


Editor’s note: this keynote speech was given at the Cum Laude Induction Ceremony on January 7, 2022. Read more here.

Let me begin by congratulating the students who have been inducted into the Cum Laude society today. I hope you take time to truly celebrate this accomplishment and the recognition of your work thus far. I would also like to congratulate the friends, family, and loved ones who I know have supported you on this journey and share in your happiness and excitement.

While it’s been quite some time since I’ve sat in the classrooms, assemblies, and events that comprise life at Williston, I have sharp memories of my six years as a student on campus. I think the strongest are from my final year, when I was 18 and at the precipice of adulthood. I desperately wanted to grow up and get out of Western Massachusetts, but had secret fears about what it would be like when I eventually left home, went to college, and — in my view — started my life.

I graduated in 2005, a very different year from 2022, but I do think some things remain the same about our experiences and those of the classes that will follow. You will all be moving up at the end of this semester, whether to a new grade, a new dorm, or — as the seniors are — moving into the next stage of your lives. After the last few decades of being more or less told what to do, and how things should be, you’ll be making decisions on your own, entirely for yourself, for what may be the first time ever.

It’s liberating but it can also be nerve wracking. And I would be lying if I told you that there’s anyone in this room or listening to this broadcast – students, teachers, and parents alike – who has life 100 percent figured out.

So what I can offer you this morning is a rough guide, and a handful of lessons that I have learned on my personal path from Williston to where I stand today. Lessons that I’ve had to learn on my own and that I’ve picked up from colleagues, clients, and friends over the last few decades. I hope that these will resonate with you, as you look ahead to the rest of the year and your life after high school.

Firstly — and I cannot stress this enough — be kind. Life is not a competition, at best it’s a group project. And kindness will take you farther than anything else. People have long memories, and the ones who stand out are those who are friendly, the people who don’t make work seem like a chore and recognize that everyone is just trying to make it through the day. Just be nice, it’s really not worth behaving otherwise.

Alongside kindness, I must also remind you to not be afraid to just have fun. It’s easy to get caught up in the rush that is working to get through school, get into college, and then get a job and forget to prioritize rest and relaxation.

My mother used to tell me and brothers that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” And my friends from college are always quick to remind me that “no one lays on their deathbed wishing they’d just gone to one more meeting.” Gloria Steinem puts it more eloquently in the popular quote: “Burnout is a way of telling you that your form of activism was perhaps not very full circle.”

I’ll say it like this: you are young people with many years ahead, remember to live them.

While you’re out there living, please also stay curious about the world and about the people around you. Remember that learning can take many forms, a lesson that I was taught at Williston and that I carry with me each day. In my work we often say that art helps us understand the world around us — and so I personally love to stay curious by engaging with culture and people.

I learned just as much during my classes in high school, college, and graduate school, as I did by sitting down with my friends and asking questions and having candid conversations about their lives and beliefs. And I’m still learning from them, especially as I’ve seen how they’ve grown and changed as people over the years. Your world, your community – however you define it – is important and has a profound impact on you, even if you don’t realize it until years later.

This idea of self definition is critical, because it is the basis for how you will determine your values and what is important to you in this life. It’s hard not to think about other people’s situations and compare your own to theirs. I do not envy your generation, because social media and society certainly add additional pressure to keep up with the Joneses. It’s essential that you focus on your own path, and try to block out the noise. Not everyone’s idea of success is the same and you cannot allow other people’s personal milestones to have bearing on your own. The great Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

So think about who you would like to be as you move forward. For some, a life well lived means going to medical school, while for others it means starting a family or a business. And for everyone, your definitions of success and achievement will undoubtedly change as you move through life, find new opportunities, and face different challenges.

I want to end with a note about challenges and adversity. It’s especially important as we sit together and celebrate 50 years of women at Williston. My closest friends at Williston were a group of girls — all of whom were texting me encouragement yesterday ahead of this morning’s speech. I find it particularly hard to imagine being a student here and being one of the first women. Let alone what the experience was like for the first Black woman, or first person of any marginalized identity who set foot on this campus. I have so much gratitude for those who preceded my time here and who began to lay the groundwork for a more inclusive Williston.

It can be difficult to move through life as an “other,” but what makes you different is also what makes you absolutely extraordinary. I want you to know that you are powerful, you are valued, and you are a force to be reckoned with. Anyone who makes you feel anything less is an enemy of progress and they are not worth your time.

I am fortunate to descend from a long line of outspoken — some may call them troublesome — women. My grandmother, Caroline Onafowokan, would have turned 100 this year after starting her life in 1922, in what was then a British colony and is today an independent Nigeria. On my father’s side of the family, she was the first woman to be educated. She initially went to school in secret, before eventually convincing her father that girls deserved an education, too.

She was a young girl who simply wanted to learn. What she could not foresee were the results of her efforts.

Caroline left behind several generations of girls and women who went to school, went to college, and saw the world. Every single one of us. She did not know that what she started would continue with me, standing here, in front of you, celebrating one of the nation’s highest secondary school academic achievements. She was a first, she was certainly an “other,” and the seed she planted grew into a very proud family tree.

I should briefly mention that my other grandmother, Victoria Onobrakpeya, also lived a very colorful life but that is a story for another speech on another day.

What I take away from Caroline’s tale is that making fearless choices and living a life with dignity and purpose, can have a ripple effect that goes far into the future and beyond our wildest dreams. Perhaps one of you here today will also return to speak at the cum laude assembly for the class of 2039’s honorees. I am sure you will have even more powerful insights to share than my own. I certainly never imagined this for myself, but I can honestly say that I’m proud to be with you all here today and I am proud of the life that I’ve built after Williston, thanks in no small part to the support of my family and friends.

I know that you all have the tools to grow into the best versions of yourselves that you can be. Williston and the communities around you have undoubtedly equipped you for a bright and beautiful future. But remember that life is an iterative process and change is eternal. The person who you are today, is laying the groundwork for the person who you will be tomorrow. That applies to everyone, myself included, and not just the students. So look around. Take a second to exist in the present that is today, January 7, 2022. Take a mental snapshot of this moment, and in 10 years from now I want you to look back and remember all the ways that your life has changed and all the marvelous things that you have accomplished. And as you do that, I want you to keep in mind all the ways you will continue to grow and all the lessons you will pick up on this thing that we call life.

Thank you again for having me here and thank you to Headmaster Hill for inviting me to speak today, alongside Sarah Phipps, Ann Pickrell, and every member of faculty, staff, and facilities who also helped to coordinate today’s events. I wish you all the best in the months and years to come. I cannot wait to see what the class of 2022 does next.