Stillman Honors Convocation Address by Devarieste Curry
Stillman College Honors Convocation
April 5, 2012 - 11 a.m. - Birthright Auditorium
Devarieste Curry, Esq
To Dr. McNealey, the faculty and staff, special guests, the entire Stillman family, and especially students being honored today, good morning. I am honored to join you today for such a special occasion. Dr. McNealey, thank you for inviting me and thank you also for your leadership, your vision and your commitment to Stillman. You are doing a splendid job of building on the legacy of Dr. Wynn. Stillman continues to make great strides. Getting US News to recognize Stillman as one of the best colleges in the region is but one of your many accomplishments.
Stillman always has held and always will hold a special place in my heart. I have been blessed to have had many wonderful opportunities since I left Stillman, and yet, the four years I spent at Stillman remain among the happiest and most satisfying years of my life. Those of you who know that I grew up in Mississippi in a family with 10 children would say that I was just happy to be at Stillman because for the first time in my life I did not have to share a bed. That’s very true. But, I attribute a large part of any success I have had to the educational, moral, and ethical underpinning I received at Stillman.
This honors convocation is an opportunity to celebrate and recognize those students who have made the decision to exemplify fully the Stillman College mantra of “being the best, doing the best, and having the best.” It is also the opportunity to encourage other students to continue to reach for their best.
When I was asked to be the speaker, I began reflecting on what I could possibly say that might help you continue on this trajectory of success you have begun. What is it that might help you navigate the challenges facing the millennial generation and how you can overcome those challenges? Two books I read recently and one I read 20 years ago crystallized for me the message I should give. One, written by a former Los Angeles Times crime reporter Miles Corwin, tells the story of twelve high school students who lived in the most unimaginable circumstances and still managed to excel. It is appropriately entitled “And Still We Rise.” Another is, “The Outlier: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell, demonstrates in an almost scientific way the value of persistence. The third is “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach. Time does not permit me to give a detailed overview of each book.
I commend the books to you because, each in its own way, demonstrates that continued success requires unyielding fidelity to certain foundational principles and there is little room or time to deviate from those principles.
I do want to mention briefly salient points from Jonathan Seagull. The author dedicates the book to the Jonathan Seagull who lives in all of us. The author uses the story of a seagull determined to fly to illuminate important life lessons. The story is the perfect backdrop for the life lessons I want to share. Most seagulls do not bother to learn more than the simple facts of flight – how to get from shore to food and back again. For most seagulls, it’s not flying that matters, but eating. Jonathan was different. More than anything else, he loved to fly. In fact, he was determined not just to fly, but to fly at the fastest speed possible and to learn new techniques. Such thinking made him unpopular with the flock. He was constantly ridiculed and his around the clock training was punishing. After one particularly grueling and disappointing day, Jonathan thought the flock must be right, that he had been foolish and if he was meant to fly with speed, he would have short wings like a falcon.
He promised himself he would fly home to the flock, and be done with flying. But a strange thing happened. As he was flying through the dark, he realized that gulls never fly in the dark. As his mind was reminding him of all the things seagulls could not do – not fly in the dark, not fly with speed because they do not have a falcon’s short wings, Jonathan had a brilliant thought. He just needed to fold his wings to shorten them. And just like that, he had renewed energy and a renewed commitment. He thought for one second about his promise to fly back to the flock. What he said in rejecting that promise applies equally to the seagull in all of us: “Such promises are only for the gulls that accept the ordinary. One who has touched excellence in his learning has no need of that kind of promise.” Ultimately Jonathan’s excellence and commitment led to his being banished from the flock. But, in banishment came freedom: he met other gulls who shared his interest. The remainder of the book talks about Jonathan’s commitment to return and teach others what he had learned. That part is for a later day. I want to help you stay focus on this new stage in your life where you have touched excellence so that you, like Jonathan, always will refuse to accept anything less.
The continual pursuit of excellence is the one common trait that all successful people share; the one thing that will always make you stand out from the crowd: I will speak briefly about the key components of pursuing excellence. In my few minutes I have, I will lift up as examples today, not nationally known persons, but a small sample of those of us from HBCUs who have pursued excellence with great results. I do that to demonstrate more forcefully that even if you begin the race 25 miles behind, with your hands tied behind your back and weights on your feet, you can still excel. The students in And Still We Rise, and the persons I highlight today all started the race with just such headwinds against them, but they all achieved.
The first component of pursuing excellence is always to set and maintain for yourself a standard higher than anyone else could possibly set for you. If you do this, you will always defy expectations and always achieve your goals. Setting a high standard for yourself will propel you to press on when you know the odds are stacked against you. This singular principle has propelled many to victory.
Melissa Bishop Murphy, a 1989, Summa Cum Laude graduate of Stillman has pursued excellence by setting high standards for herself. Having taken full advantage of the opportunities Stillman offered, Melissa was well prepared for the next chapter when she left Stillman, which was pursuing a law degree from Georgetown. During her second year at Georgetown, Melissa competed as one of 31 students in a writing competition that offered a monetary award. Melissa won first place, beating out students from many higher ranked schools, including Ivy League schools. She is now an executive at Pfizer, “moving and shaking.”
Setting a higher standard for yourself means that you bring dedication, discipline, and determination to every task; you work harder, you stay longer on the job, you review your work more thoroughly, and even while you hold an image of where you want to be, you perform even menial jobs as though each is your ultimate job. Lieutenant General Willie Williams, the highest ranking African American in the United States Marines, and a proud alumnus of Stillman has applied the principles stated in The Outliers, although the book had not been published when he began his trajectory of success. Lt. General Williams says that persistence is synonymous with success, and that on his way up the ladder, he performed many menial jobs that others described as “jobs to nowhere.” He saw them, however, “as a way-stop along the journey.” He is a proud embodiment of the first component of pursuing excellence.
The second component of pursing excellence is do not rest on your laurels. Even though I knew I could write, when I graduated from Stillman, I did not rest on my laurels. I kept honing my skills. A painful lesson at Stillman had taught me that. I got a B in a public speaking class, which shocked me, given that I had lots of experience in public speaking. It was the same grade received by a girl with no speaking ability. How dare the professor do that to me? When I accosted him, and make no mistake that is what I did, he very calmly said, “You earned no more than a B. You could speak when you began this class and you did not improve at all.” A very painful lesson, but one I never forgot. Thus, by the time I enrolled in Georgetown, I had reviewed my college English book thoroughly to reinforce my knowledge of the King’s English. By the time I successfully competed for two research and advocacy honors, I had read carefully “The Grammatical Lawyer” and the book “The Careful Writer” by Theodore Bernstein, a book one of my professors said she read every year before the fall session.
Mike Jones, who has been lauded in print media as one of the best attorneys in the District of Columbia, he’s a Dillard grad, but that’s OK – excelled while at Georgetown law by not resting on his laurels. He knew he had strong writing skills, but he kept working at improving. Listen to him describe his winning technique: “Writing is something that I worked hard on, especially in my junior year in college. I studied the dictionary to learn a few new words a day, and read all kinds of books to see different writing styles. I wrote and rewrote sentences to perfect them, much the way that a basketball player practices jump shots or dribbling.” [By continuing to hone our skills, Mike and I received honors that other students missed because they thought they had perfected their skills and were not open to further guidance.]
So, while I applaud you for the record you have compiled so far and for your being honored today, I trust that you recognize you cannot become complacent. Keep the momentum going!! Continue to make smart decisions and wise choices!! Continue to hone your skills. Your success here at Stillman is merely the first brick in a strong foundation upon which you will build your future. When someone tells you a project was good, get to work on making it better. When you reach better, keep working on becoming the best, -- your personal best. In order to achieve long term, long lasting success, you must always pursue excellence, and that means not resting on your laurels.
The third component of pursuing excellence is to be willing to sacrifice where you are for where you can go or who you are for who you can become. In order to be truly successful, you will have to sacrifice time, money, convenience. You may have to pass up what may appear to be lucrative, convenient and comfortable positions to achieve your ultimate goals.
By the time I decided to enter law school, I had been out of college for 10 years and had worked my way into a fairly senior position in the government. Nevertheless, I decided to leave my good government job and accept a job as a law clerk in a law firm; I wanted the experience. Some of my friends thought it was crazy for a black person to leave a good government job to accept a job with such low pay and no guarantee of future employment. But I had big plans for myself. I dedicated myself to that job as though I was the best paid lawyer in the firm. Pretty soon the partners in the firm thought I could leap tall buildings in a single bound, walk on water, and walk through fire, all at the same time. When we reached a comfort level with each other, I joked with them, “You do know they abolished slavery, don’t you.” The pay indeed was abysmal; they never paid me above $7.50 per hour, about a third of what I previously had made.
Let me tell you, however, how the sacrifice paid off. Ten years after I last worked at that firm, the same year I made partner at a large law firm and needed business, the firm where I clerked referred a case to me that resulted in a three week trial and a major revenue stream for a number of years.
The final component of pursuing excellence is always, always, always believe in yourself. Believe in yourself when your family might not believe in you. Believe in yourself when your friends may not believe in you. Believe in yourself when the world says no. Since Jesus Christ made the starling statement that “if you can believe, all things are possible,” thousands and thousands of self-help, motivational, and autobiographical books have been written about the power of that principle when one dares to believe it.
I could relate stories of prominent individuals who give voice to how following that principle propelled them to reach their zenith. Let me instead share the story of a graduate of another HBCU who may have something in common with a number of you in terms of his family background. When this young man, the ninth of 10 children, graduated from high school, because he had not excelled in high school, his family tried to convince him he was not ready for college and should instead enlist in a branch of the military service. The more his jawboning, hard charging family insisted that he enlist in the service, the more he resisted, saying finally, “I am going to college like everyone else in this family.” When he announced that he was going to major in computer science, the family was convinced he had lost his mind. College indeed presented a challenge, and he had to get a tutor for calculus, but he graduated from Jackson State University and ended up a few years after graduating heading the IT Department for Pierce County in the State of Washington. I know the man in this story to be one of the finest embodiments of the “believe in yourself” principle. That man is my youngest brother. You would have to live in my family for only a short time to know that we are a tough bunch to go up against.
Jesus Christ’s injunction has been paraphrased many ways: If your mind can conceive it, you can achieve it. Your attitude determines your altitude. And this little dittie: If you think you are beaten, you are. If you think you dare not, you don’t. If you’d like to win, but think you can’t, it’s almost a cinch you won’t. If you think you’ll lose, you’ve lost. For out in this world, you will find, success begins with a fellow’s will. It’s all in a state of mind.
We salute you today because you have touched excellence in your learning. May you always continue to do so:
• By setting a standard for yourself higher than that anyone else sets for you;
• By not resting on your laurels;
• By being willing to sacrifice what you are for what you could become;
• By always, always, believing in yourself, even when no one else does.
The modern day parable of the mule and the well captures all that I have said so I leave you with these thoughts:
THE MULE AND THE WELL
A farmer owned an old mule that fell into the farmer’s well. After carefully assessing the situation, the farmer sympathized with the mule, but decided that neither the mule nor the well were worth the trouble of saving. Instead he called his neighbors together to help bury the old mule in the well. Initially, the old mule was hysterical! But as the dirt kept hitting his back, it suddenly dawned on him that every time a shovel of dirt landed on his back… HE SHOULD SHAKE IT OFF AND STEP UP! This he did blow after blow.
“Shake it off and step up…shake it off and step up….shake it off and step up!” he repeated to encourage himself. No matter how painful the blows, or distressing the situation seemed the old mule fought “panic” and just kept right on SHAKING IT OFF AND STEPPING UP!
It was not long before the old mule, STEPPED TRIUMPHANTLY OVER THE WALL OF THAT WELL, battered and exhausted but triumphantly, nevertheless. What seemed like would bury him actually blessed him, all because he kept shaking it off and stepping up.
My young brilliant minds, you can continue to pursue excellence by “SHAKING IT OFF AND STEPPING UP, AND IF YOU DO SO, LIKE JONATHAN SEAGULL, YOU WILL CONTINUE TO SOAR AND REACH GREAT HEIGHT.
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