What Will People Notice About You When You Leave This Place?

I consider one of the biggest accomplishments in my life to have been the moment when a University Professor handed me an envelope on my graduation day. I had no clue what was happening when he leaned out of the recessional line and pointed down the row of students standing alphabetically according to last name. I was among what was probably some 200 people with the last name starting "m."

When he gestured widely in the general direction of the myself and 3 others, the girl beside me pointed to herself and mouthed "me?"

"Nope" he nodded back. He pointed again beyond her, this time more specifically towards myself.

Shocked is probably how I looked. The only kids who were singled out at what was an Undergraduate Graduation ceremony for thousands, are likely to turn up in the near future as the next Secretary Generals of the UN, Public Officials or News Anchors. Having just scraped by with average marks at best, it was understandable that I was stunned to receive an envelope, passed from a professor in the Ceremonial recessional which included the Chancellor and President of the University, down through 15 pairs of hands.

I knew this professor, having taken a few of his courses throughout my 4-year stint at the institution. This was a professor who was so charismatic, I'm sure he spends most of his winter writing referrals for students who thought the world of him. He was a favourite among so many individuals in my graduating class because he took the time to get to know us (even though his classes were always filled to capacity or beyond) and he took the time to teach us. It seems odd to say, but sometimes a teacher in a University environment, is a commodity hard to come by. For instance, he made theory accessible, he brought real life situation to life in the class room with his words and narrative and there are surprisingly few professors who do this extraordinarily well. His efforts showed, and I guarantee, you wouldn't have to look far through 6-degrees of separation, to find other students whom this particular professor has touched throughout his still young career.

When I finally made my way with the rest of my graduating glass out of the auditorium, I took a moment before my parents found me to open the envelope.

Inside, on official university letterhead, was a "Last Lecture" addressed to "Emily on her Graduation Day"

At this point I couldn't have cared less about the degree I held in my hands. It was a last lecture, addressed to me, and as far as I could tell I was the only one in the whole auditorium that day who received a last lecture. I felt special in a sea of people. Sure, it was a copy of the lecture he had given to our 4th year class during our last 3 hours together, but now, standing there with it in my hands, I felt privileged beyond belief to have been passed down such a gift. I know his words were intended for all of us, not just myself, but I wonder if he knew the extent to which I appreciated the words at this point in time, and the fact that I still do to this day.

Since this week is another new beginning in an academic environment, I have to admit I'm intimidated and having doubts about whether or not I belong, whether I'm up to the task, or whether I'll be able to rise to the challenge throughout the next two years. I'm also afraid of being sucked into the competitive hole where marks and publications define you.

Hanging on my wall is a copy of "my" Last Lecture providing me with light at the end of the tunnel, and rules to live by during the pursuit.

Five years ago an incredible mentor put to me the following principles based on the following question "What will people notice when you leave this place?":

  • They will notice you taking the high road and standing up for what is right;
  • They will notice your individuality, your willingness to differentiate yourself and your determination to defy the fashions and trends of the day and leave your own mark or make your own statement;
  • They will notice your humbleness when you succeed and your strength and perseverance when you do not;
  • They will notice your ability to forgive others, to learn from others, your patience and your sense of empathy

He also highlighted the importance of undertaking a leadership role, acting with integrity and how important it is to remember someone's name.

So much about academia is lofty. So much of the theory and the environment in which we apply this theory is not tangible in the real world. It's a strange thing because as students, that's what most of us are striving towards. But theory doesn't teach you how to be a good person, or how you can make the most of the knowledge imparted to you. There is a base reason for learning. Sometimes it's learning for learning's sake... but sometimes, it's for growing. This is the gap... the gap that we have to fill when we move on, when we leave this place.

It's thinking a bit far ahead, but I hope that when I leave this place I'm in now, I can do still do these words justice.