For Williston Northampton’s 182nd Commencement ceremony, alumna Sarah A. Fogleman ’10 returned to campus to give the commencement address. Below are her remarks:
Good morning class of 2023. I have to start by saying that I am truly honored to be here as your commencement speaker.
I really don’t have any idea how this happened.
Back in the fall, I got invited to attend an alumni event in San Diego, where I live now. Up until that point, I hadn’t really been involved as a Williston alumna. No events, no reunions. I had only been back to campus one time, for my younger sister’s graduation with the class of 2016. And she actually happened to be visiting me out in San Diego when this alumni event was being held, so we decided to go together.
At the event we saw a few familiar faces and caught up with people we knew, met some people we had not overlapped with, and in accordance with the obligatory element of alumni events, we learned a little bit about the latest fundraising campaign, Williston Builds, and how the campus was transforming and modernizing to keep up with the needs of the school.
We looked at pictures of the new dorms, and shared a sense of nostalgia about the way things were before. And then in 12 seconds it was kind of replaced by what I can only describe as a feeling of entitled outrage.
Excuse me, this new quad is amazing. Wait, what are these fire pits…OK when we had a fire in front of crusty old Mem, the dean on duty and the Easthampton fire department got called. I’m guessing this is a typical reaction, because Rachel Goldberg from the alumni office swooped in at just the right time and softened the blow with a little keychain that says Williston Builds, so we ended things on a happy note.
And more importantly, I went to an official school function, there was photographic evidence, it was documented in the Bulletin, so I get to go back to being alumna incognito and return into hiding for several more years.
And then one day about a week later, I looked down at my phone and had a missed call from a 413 number. Then my phone said: Maybe Bob Hill III.
Ya OK, or maybe it’s Taylor Swift.
OK, can we all just acknowledge the audacity of a phone to flex with specifics of a roman numeral suffix, but then hedge and say maybe. I mean just in case it isn’t the head of your former high school, don’t be mad, I said maybe.
So naturally I was already rattled.
I figured, OK, there are a few plausible explanations for this. Explanation #1: he probably called the wrong number. And by that I mean, he probably meant to call my sister, whose phone number is 1 digit off of mine. She was a star around here in ways I couldn’t relate to. Proctor, graduated cum laude with a stack of awards.
But when I looked further, it appeared that “Maybe Bob Hill the III” had left a voicemail, and it turned out he was definitely Bob Hill the III and he used my name, so my first theory went out the window.
My next thought was, OK, could this be a new tactic of very aggressive follow up in the fundraising campaign? I mean, think about it… what sucker alumni is going to expect the head of school to personally call and hound them for a recurring $20 donation? It’s genius. Good luck telling the head of school you can’t donate because your Amazon addiction can’t support it. Not sure the numbers work out from an opportunity cost perspective, but it’s an absolute power play.
So, if Mr. Hill had actually called me on purpose and it wasn’t about donating, the only other plausible explanation I could think of – was obviously that I was in trouble.
I don’t know what I did, but it must’ve been really bad to get a call about it 13 years later.
It turns out, it doesn’t really matter if you’re supposedly an “adult” – when you get a call from the head of school, that’s where your mind goes. Does he have the jurisdiction to give me Saturday night study hall if I already graduated? Wait, did I already graduate? And then it hit me.
I had attended Williston my junior and senior years, and despite what was clearly laid out in the graduation requirements for 2 year students, I did not take a religion or philosophy course. So Mr. Hill was probably calling to inform me that I hadn’t actually graduated and I would need to come back to campus to surrender my diploma. And my Williston Builds keychain, just to be clear.
At this point, I needed to talk myself off the ledge. I spent a few minutes reminding myself that, even if he wanted me to give back my high school diploma, I had already graduated from college and medical school, and it was at least somewhat unlikely that they would both make me give back my degrees.
In the end I guess I was half-right. When we finally talked, he did invite me to come back to Easthampton and come to graduation again, but thankfully he didn’t mention me having to make up any classes. Now that I’m here though, no takebacks.
Mr. Hill told me that the theme of this year was service, and he hoped I could speak to you all today about that topic. I was surprised and truly humbled by the invitation. So once again, thank you to Mr. Hill and to the class of 2023 for letting me be here to share with you in this special day.
In keeping with some of the reflections from your class officers last night at baccalaureate, I wanted to say thank you to many of the people on this stage that helped guide and shape me. Ms. B and Ms McDowell were my dorm parents. Mr. Gunn taught me to be a critical thinker. Jenn Fulcher made me an all-American lacrosse player. Ms. Talbot helped me build up to doing my first pull-up. Mr. Whipple gave me a foundation in calculus.
Finally, I want to take a moment to share my gratitude for Mr. and Mrs. McCullagh. While most of you know them as a teacher and coach, or proprietor of everything the light touches, I knew them very differently, as the parents of one of my two best friends from school. When I was at Williston, they were my home away from home. They have been unfailingly kind, loving, and supportive, and I will always see them as family. The students, parents, and faculty that have had the chance to know the McCullaghs throughout the years know that they are the kind of family that is essential to making Williston into the incredible community it is today. I’m thrilled for them as they get ready to embark on the next adventure, but they will certainly be missed around here.
So class of 2023, back to you.
My journey of service started right here, shortly after I was sitting in the very same seats that you are sitting in today. About 5 weeks after graduation, I reported to the U.S Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. When I showed up, I was a 17-year old hotshot that couldn’t wait to play college lacrosse, and I was lukewarm at best on all the “military” stuff. Needless to say, there were a lot of growing pains. But what gets you in the door isn’t necessarily what keeps you there. While I was initially resistant, eventually I had a transformation and I started to see that the team environment of working together to be excellent and solve problems was similar in sports and the military, and I started to see being a military officer as an analog to being a team captain.
I didn’t have any way of knowing it at the time, but my choice to go to the Naval Academy triggered a series of events for me. One setting after another of being challenged to grow and raise the bar and develop my professional identity.
One of these moments for me came in the summer before starting my senior year of college. Since I was hoping to apply to medical school, I spent a month shadowing military doctors at our country’s largest military hospital. It was 2013. There was still active conflict in the middle east, and when service members got wounded, they would get med evac’ed to Germany, and once they were stabilized, they were flown back to the US where they would end up getting treated at this hospital. In my second or third week, I found myself tagging along with an orthopedic surgeon. It was busy, and not in a good way. There were a lot of soldiers and marines that sustained blast wounds from roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices, and they would come back missing limbs. Most would have to go to the operating room on a near daily basis to get their wounds washed out to keep infection at bay while they started to heal. I got to be there and be a part of it. It was striking. There were 18 and 19 year olds, the same age as many of you, that were double and triple amputees.
And every day, we’d just take them back to the operating room and tend to the mess that was left behind from their injuries. Surgery wasn’t glamorous like on TV. They weren’t fun or novel procedures. It was just what needed to be done to take care of these kids who had almost died, serving their country. That’s when I had this moment of clarity. When your vision finds your purpose, you feel things start to align in a way that just makes sense. I thought to myself, I think this is where I’m supposed to be.
When your ‘why’ focuses on serving and helping others, and you truly believe in it, it serves as a guiding light that can’t be extinguished by circumstance, obstacles, or adversity. You are much more likely to make it through tough times when you feel like others need you.
Flash forward. I was lucky enough to be one of the ten in my graduating class to get to go to medical school. I started my first year wide eyed and full of hope and excitement. They say that medical school is like drinking from a firehose. By the end of the year, my eyes were wide from lack of sleep, I was and full of anxiety and the fear of failure. The pressure to do well and succeed would literally keep me up at night. Well as it turns out, you learn in medical school that learning is really just a process of priming your brain with the same material multiple times and then letting the memories consolidate. Memory consolidation happens when you sleep. So if you don’t sleep, you don’t retain. The less I retained, the more frantic I was about studying. This caught up to me and I did exactly what I had been desperately trying to avoid – I failed. And failing in medical school is no joke. It’s high stakes. I had to repeat my entire first year. Not a class. Not a semester. The entire year. At 22 years old, this was my first real experience with failure. It felt catastrophic and unsurvivable because I saw myself as a high achiever, and someone who was scrappy enough to find a way to succeed in tough scenarios. Failure felt like a complete betrayal of my identity.
I tell you this story to talk about identity and resilience. I wish someone had sat me down long before I ever reached that point and said you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to win all the time. You don’t need to always succeed at everything you try. You are a person, not a trophy case of accolades. You are worthwhile because you’re smart and caring and funny and you love dogs. That’s enough.
Challenge yourself to cultivate a sense of identity based on your values, passions, and talents rather than your job title, achievements, relationship status, or winning record. You will go through periods in your life where external circumstances outside of your control will change, and in those moments of challenge, you want to ask ‘how will I rise to this occasion?’ rather than ‘who am I?’
It’s also important to remember that antithesis and contradiction exist in the world, and they can exist in you too, and it can be OK. You can be a high achiever AND you can fail at something. When it’s OK for both to be true at the same time, you don’t have to call into question your entire identity at the first sign of struggle.
My story doesn’t end where I left it. As I faced the challenge of repeating the hardest academic year of my life, I continued to grapple with identity on a daily basis, and eventually I decided that I was going to cultivate an identity as someone who can do unthinkable challenges back to back. So as I went back and repeated my first year of medical school, I decided to also train to run a 50 mile race, or what was almost two marathons back to back. The act of training week after week helped remind me that resilience isn’t a one time thing where you fall and pick yourself up and dust yourself off and everything is OK. It’s a process. It involves making the choice to show up and do the hard work not just once after a setback, but day after day. In April of that year, I completed the running ultramarathon, and in May I completed the academic ultramarathon.
I learned a lot about resilience, and about myself, in that process. Resilience isn’t pretty. Failure and struggle are an absolute prerequisite to resilience. You don’t become resilient just by working hard and being successful on the first go round. You aren’t resilient for overcoming that B plus! This is a sword that can only be forged in the dumpster fire of failure.
There’s a really strange paradox surrounding grit and resilience. They have become hot buzzwords. Colleges and employers want students and workers who are resilient. But we also live in a society where failure and redirection aren’t celebrated or even discussed. In fact, the world as we see it through the lens of media is curated to appear ‘just so’, stripped clean of any sign of struggle. Even as we say we value resilience, struggle and failure still aren’t shown as part of the conscious narrative, because it’s cringe-y and uncomfortable. This makes it isolating and confusing when it happens, and it keeps people from owning their stories of turning failure in triumph. I hope that me talking about it today gives you the courage to talk about it when it happens to you. It’s vulnerable and uncomfortable to talk about, but when you do, you make it OK for others to do the same.
So today, while we are here celebrating this collective success very publicly, I want to take pause and be very deliberate in saying this – at some point in the future, you will fail. You might not know how to handle it. Maybe there will be big consequences. It might feel like your world is crumbling. And it will be OK. And just a word of advice – the sooner the better. The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
We are lucky because we’re not done growing when we graduate high school. Some of your most formative years are just ahead of you. You are about to embark on journeys that change you in ways you never thought possible. But remember – your growth will be directly proportional to the stimulus. That is to say, the most potential for growth lies outside your comfort zone. You are going to develop strengths and talents that you didn’t even know exist within you. Hobbies you’ve never heard of. Characteristics you’ve never put much thought into. Habits that are just an idea right now. Be open to failure, and look hard for the lessons it’s trying to teach you. Be intentional about cultivating your identity and resilience. Be brave in picking a path that will bring you opportunities for growth. Above all else, learn to embrace the growing pains.