AIU selected actor and singer Tatyana Ali as our 2014 AIU Online commencement speaker not just for the example she sets through her professional success but also for her longtime dedication to the cause of advancing opportunities for education.
Below, read the transcript of her inspiring words to our alumni at Navy Pier in Chicago on Aug. 2, 2014.
No matter where you come from, what nation or religion, no matter your age or life experience, to fulfill the dreams of the heart is the most sought after goal. I’m not sure where the dreams come from, but I can guess the why. We each have an evolutionary impulse to grow, to produce and to survive. That impulse, those dreams, are why we are here today. But where does it come from? Did you choose this moment when you were a child? Is it God given? Was the lust for educational achievement instilled in you by others in your life? Maybe for some of you the choice was made after desperate times forced you to reconsider your life’s path. Maybe a dream that still lies beyond this moment brought you to AIU as a necessary step to get to where you’re going. Whatever the case may be, and I am sure that there are as many versions of the story as there are graduates in this room. Whatever the case may be, you are here, you have done it. Through sacrifice, hard work, purposefulness and perseverance you are sitting in the seat of your choosing. This is the moment you dreamed of. Today, each one of you represents a dream fulfilled.
I’d like you to remember that at this very moment, as we revel in your accomplishments at AIU, here at Navy Pier, that there are places in our nation and in our world that are enduring utter isolation, annihilation, destruction, ignorance and violence. From climate change to poverty and violence here at home, on our borders in Texas, little girls abducted in Nigeria and children slaughtered in the Middle East, the lives lost in the Ukraine, we are living in a world that needs the educated more than ever before. Whatever impulse brought you to this place, to better yourself, to better the life of your family, to live a life filled with achievement, to make your parents and grandparents proud, I am here to tell you that your dreams are not your own. Your dreams are so much bigger than you, far greater than you can even imagine. Knowing this will be the key to your success. Knowing this will build the qualities you need to be successful, so that you can move from dream to dream.
Knowing that your dream is larger than just yourself will bolster your determination, it will make you strong enough to weather the greatest winds. It will also make you fearless and courageous for a couple of reasons. It will naturally align you with people who have the same goals — and there is great strength in numbers, as my mother has always said — and you always come to find the way you need go when your sense of morality is your compass. Knowing that your dream is larger than you are will also engage your creativity and enable you to adapt when necessary.
When you realize that the dream is bigger than yourself, your goals become greater and a determination begins to build such that you marvel at the person you’ve become. Suddenly, a C+ passing grade isn’t good enough, suddenly only A will do (okay, maybe B+). The point is, suddenly passing won’t do. I love this idea of passing, getting by, not revealing your true self, just doing enough. When that is no longer good enough or satisfying, you start to reach higher, and when you do, it becomes difficult. You are no longer walking, you are climbing, and you have to muster all your strength, everything you have inside to push through and make it to the finish line. That’s what I’m sure each one of you has done.
In my own journey, I wondered why things became so difficult after I graduated from Harvard. I worked hard when I was little girl. I did, but I didn’t experience struggle until after I graduated college. It took me time to understand why. I had turned down parts that didn’t tell stories that I believed in. I couldn’t help it. C+ wasn’t good enough. I remember before I started my production company, actually telling my sister over the phone, “I can’t pander. I didn’t go to school for that.”
The bar had been raised, and because it had, it went from easy to difficult. At first, I couldn’t understand why. But then I heard a story, the story of the butterfly and the moth. Did you know that for metamorphosis to truly take place, you should never cut a cocoon or chrysalis open to aid a struggling butterfly or moth? If you want it to fly, then it must break through its cocoon on its own, because its struggle beneath is the activity that makes its wings strong enough to catch the wind. It takes a great cause, a belief not only in one’s self, but in one’s purpose, one’s contribution … your contribution, to build enough strength and determination to catch the wind.
Think of how you felt when you first applied to AIU. I invite you to travel back in time as best you can, and see that younger woman or man. Think of the courage it took to believe in a future that did not yet exist, that others may have tried to warn you against, that you made a leap of faith to pursue. Now look around you at the friends you have made on this journey. I promise that your career will be exponentially more fulfilling if you look out onto your future with the same sense of possibility and grandeur.
Imagine wildly all of the things that may come to pass, all of the ways that you can contribute. Do not look at employment as a resting place. Remember that the dream is bigger than you can imagine, and so much more than what’s right in front of you will be possible. Even better, you will make friends and allies in a world that only you can build. And, in a world where all things are possible, the roads less traveled will be of most interest. On those roads there are no maps; the only guide is the compass within, which only builds in strength and certainty the more it is used. You are armed with what you have learned here at AIU. Your academics have forced you to see the world and name it for yourselves. Your compass has everything it needs.
It’s impossible to know the full extent and breadth of the dream that is inside you. It’s a bit of a guessing game. Something feels right, or for those who are more rationally minded, the variables all add up. But it’s hard to know if the choices you’re making are right. This is especially true if you’re on the road less traveled. Even worse, there are often roadblocks, like changes in management or macro-economic conditions in your industry, which you’re bound to experience because the world is changing so rapidly. Be creative! Be adaptable! Life has a beautiful way of evolving as us and through us if we understand that there is more to work than our own survival and achievement. This doesn’t mean that you just let life have its way with you. It means that you keep your mind and heart as open as it is now. Remember that there is always possibility for those who believe in possibility. Imagination is the heart of creativity. My hope for you is that you never let work get in the way of creation.
My parents instilled in me that “to whom much is given, much is expected.” Yes, you worked your butt off for this degree. But be grateful for what you’ve learned here at AIU, be grateful for the incredible peers you have rubbed shoulders with, they will be your allies. Be grateful for the incredible professors and teachers that held your hand when you needed help, be grateful for the nights and days that seemed endless, when you thought you wouldn’t make a deadline or pass a course, when you thought you wouldn’t be able to pay your tuition that semester. Be grateful for the hard work and struggle that delivered you to this place. It built your determination, it built your courage and it built your creativity, and with those qualities you can change anything you want: yourself, your workplace, your community and your world.
I remember my own graduation day (years ago). It poured down on campus. Torrential rains almost stopped the promenade of graduates marching through the gates of Harvard yard. We wondered if we would get the moment that we all had worked so hard for, suffered through so much to achieve, because Harvard was not at all prepared for rain; it hadn’t rained at graduation in 75 years.
I am the first generation in my family to be born here in the United States. My mom, from Panama, my father from Trinidad, came separately to this country to live a better life, and they were determined that we understood how essential education is. To prove, it every year we covered our public school textbooks in brown paper bags or book covers with the names of the best colleges scrawled across the front. The brainwashing worked. Well, with all that in my background there was no way I wasn’t walking on my graduation day. There could have been a tornado warning. I was determined to walk and I did … we all did.
I remember my mortarboard and my gown, black dye dripped down my friends’ faces and my own. Our dresses and suits were stained with that dye just below the surface of our gowns. When I look back on it I see how ironic that was. Beneath the gleam — well, it was supposed to be gleaming — we were actually just drenched through. Beneath the aura of achievement the truth — that the dreams of so many were being fulfilled at that moment — beneath that lied an even deeper truth. We were all so unsure of what life on the other side would be like. What happens when you climb the mountain? When the ceremony has ended, when the excitement the months before leading up to the blessed event has ebbed … where do you find herself when you realize that this moment is not the destination?
I urge you to recognize that the metamorphosis you have undergone was the real reason for the journey you decided to undertake years ago. The dream of the heart is always a dream of expansion. I look back and see how fitting it was that my cap and gown were drenched from the rain. That the bright red, scandalous, dress my mother had bought me for that special day, be stained with black ink. That day was the day I emerged, a new creature, armed with all that I had learned and experienced along the way, prepared to make a lasting impression on this world, a contribution to my community, prepared to truly care for my loved ones, my friends and my family.
I want you to always remember that your achievements are meant to be shared; in sharing your determination, your courage, in sharing your creativity, you are truly living the dream of the most high, the human heart. You will be asked to make a choice, and it will happen more than once. When it happens, remember the pride in your families’ faces today, remember the love that surrounds you and the friendships you’ve made. Remember the climb and the achievement you feel right now. Remember the dreamer that became the graduate who chose this seat, on this day.
Tatyana Ali, best known for her role as Ashley Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” is a Harvard University graduate and a supporter of education-related programs such as Millennium Momentum Foundation, Step Up Women’s Network and the United Negro College Fund.