Justin Schoonmaker's Commencement remarks

  • Justin Schoonmaker ('09)Schoonmaker was the student speaker at William & Mary's 2009 Commencement ceremony.

    Photo by Scott Elmquist

    Justin Schoonmaker ('09)
The following are the prepared remarks of Justin Schoonmaker ('09), the student speaker for William & Mary's 2009 Commencement ceremony. - Ed.

Rejection...was my first taste of William & Mary. Now, most of you probably know this, but when you get admitted, colleges send you a big packet, like this one here. And when you get rejected, they send you a small envelope, like this one here. But even if you didn't know that about the admission process, the sizes of the envelopes speak for themselves. It's as if they are saying, "Hey, there are BIG things in store for YOU!" or, "We're sorry, but not-so-big things are in store for YOU." Needless to say, my first application to William & Mary was answered with a small envelope.

I remember that day vividly. I stood there with the door to my mailbox hanging open, staring at that thin envelope. I didn't even open it. After all, I knew what it said. And I was sad. I was hurt.

But as I walked back to my apartment, I realized I COULD CHOOSE...HOW...TO REACT...TO THIS REJECTION. That is, I did not have to spend the rest of my days wallowing in bruised self-esteem and settling for second-best. I could try again. And try again I did. And the same applicant who, for a moment, was hopeless in the face of rejection is four years later rich with a sense of achievement. And at commencement I believe...all...of us are rich with that same sense. For graduates, it's personal. For parents, grandparents...it's vicarious. But along with that sense of achievement comes a bit of apprehension. Because change is upon us.

And change scares me. I think we all are apprehensive about life changes. And now, at commencement, we stand on the threshold of a momentous change.

Often, at these ceremonies, speakers rely upon recycled platitudes to inspire the graduating class. And I understand, oh I understand, that ceremonies such as these expect such rhetoric. But vague ideologies masquerading as profound wisdom don't comfort apprehensive graduates. "Chase your dreams," we are told. Or, the favorite piece of advice I've received, "Get a job doing what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life."

Now that sounds great. But would someone...please...tell me...how to I can get such a job? To complement the abstract advice, we graduates want some practical advice.

And I can think of nothing more practical, nothing more effective for fostering success, than determining
prior to failure...how we will react to failure. Because too often, it causes people to abandon dreams. To give up. To lose...heart. The floodwaters of rejection simply extinguish the fires of hope and ambition.

And over the years, too many dreams have been relegated to humanity's now massive heap of unfinished business.

Unless we belong to the few who have remained insulated from failure in life, we know that life is full of
small envelopes. We fail. Sometimes...in the workplace. Sometimes...in love. Sometimes...in school. In fact, the most valuable lesson I learned at the College...came from wrestling with rejection from the
College. I learned that THE EFFECT THAT FAILURE HAS ON LIVES IS A CHOICE.

But I am not the only overcomer in this room! There are those who have overcome financial hardship...to stand here today. There are those who have overcome poor grades...to stand here today. There are those who have overcome prejudice...to stand here today. So on this day...we celebrate more than just the achievements of the past few years. We celebrate our ability to persevere...in the years...to come.

I wonder if the difference between those who accomplish great things in life and those who dwell in the
shadows of mediocrity is their response to failure. Because we can choose to be thwarted. Or, we can choose to overcome. William & Mary-one of the finest colleges in the nation-has bred us to overcome.

And so we soldier on...knowing...that a rejected application? ...can indeed make us stronger. That a
layoff...may be the doorway to a better job. That a turbulent economy...need...not...author...our destinies: these things, after all, will pass. We must advance confident...in our ability to navigate the life ahead.

And our departure from William and Mary means some changes. Probably...going somewhere with fewer trees. Probably...going somewhere with a shorter history.

But the most beautiful thing about our campus is neither its foliage nor its historic architecture. No, the most beautiful thing we will take with us. It is the character these years at a distinguished College have cultivated in us. It is our ability to overcome. That...is our strength. That...is our fortitude. And in the decades ahead...that...is how we will turn life's small envelopes...into large packets.