Great Advice: Sister Regina’s Commencement Address

Sister Regina Rogers

Sister Regina Rogers was the commencement speaker for the 2020 class of Ursuline High School, Youngstown. Below is her moving speech, inspiring for not only its intended audience but for all. Sister Regina is a Pastoral Associate for St. Edward Parish, Youngstown, a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown Leadership Team and past General Superior, a past Assistant Principal and instructor at Ursuline High School, which we founded in 1905, and Vice Chair of the Ursuline High School Board of Directors. To view a video of her speech, click here. To view the entire commencement, click here. Our thanks to UHS for allowing us to share this with you.

Class of 2020:

It is my honor and blessing to speak to you today as you graduate from Ursuline High School.  I want to thank Mr. Sammartino, Mrs. Matune-Damore and Mrs. Carosella for this invitation — and for all their hard work in putting together a very unique graduation ceremony for your class. You have been blessed with an administration that truly cares about you. I would also like to thank the faculty and staff, who worked diligently to adjust their teaching so that they could create a new way to continue your education. They have done an outstanding job in the face of so many obstacles.  I welcome our President, Father Murphy, and the Board of Directors of Ursuline High School, and most especially, I welcome your parents and family to this virtual celebration. They have loved and supported you and have brought you to this milestone.  They too are adjusting to the ‘new normal’ of these days.

Now graduates, I would ask you to go back to your freshmen religion class with Mrs. Lacko. She told you the story of the life of a woman, who, at an early age, lost her sister – who was her best friend — then lost her parents, and finally, lost her home in the country when she had to move to the city to live with an uncle. Her life certainly changed many times over. That woman was Angela Merici. As a young person Angela lost much, but those losses did not define her life. She went on to serve the people of Bresia, especially the women and children in her war torn and ravaged city. Her care and concern, her holiness brought meaning into their lives. She gave from the fullness of her heart. Her life was about love, not loss.

There are those people who would sum up your high school career in terms of all that you have lost. But the question that keeps coming to me is: What makes the difference? What makes the difference between a person who focuses on all that they have lost and thus — turns sour on life — or the person who looks at their situation and discovers signs of beauty and courage and love? You are living in unprecedented times. No one would have thought — as you began your senior year and stood for prayer on that first day, or, as you gathered for the St. Ursula liturgy, or as you cheered in the stands at the Mooney game, or as you pitched in to help in the many service projects organized and supported by you and your classmates. No one would have thought that those memories would now be the ones you carry with you – because — in the final two months of your senior year you could not sit in class next to your friends, or fill your locker with your stuff or sit at your table in the cafeteria. You could not celebrate prom or baccalaureate, or even your own graduation. You could not say good bye to the life you had known as a student at Ursuline High School. Going forward life will certainly be different for you and for all of us. But, the class of 2020, your class, will be remembered for this time.  You will stand out, stories will be told – for you carry a distinction that only seniors across this country will be able to identify with – but not just high school seniors:  remember the fun of 8th grade graduation – not this year. Think about college seniors – no graduation ceremony to honor them this year. You are the graduates of a pandemic world.

There is sadness in this present situation.  As the 2020 graduates of Ursuline, you have lost out on a great deal. There is no way to get around that fact. But the losses of the last two months cannot sum up your years at Ursuline High School.  Do not count your high school career by your losses. Do not sum up your life at Ursuline remembering only the last eight weeks and not the 136 weeks you spent listening and learning, praying and serving, celebrating and caring. Rather, when you think of these last weeks, what you have experienced, what you are experiencing, it should lead you to reflect on the greater lessons of life. The importance of your Ursuline Education is about seeing the world, seeing your life, through a lens of faith, and hope — of love and service: four virtues that are so crucial for this time. And those lessons will give you an insight on how to view life– on how to navigate the unknown, and– on how to make choices that will lead to a blessed and fulfilled life.

Surprise and tragedy – love and loss — will come to each of you. It is your response to the events of your life – often events that you have no control over – that will determine the trajectory of your life. How you respond – to the large and small challenges that you face — defines the person you become. Who do you want to become? How do you want to be remembered? All of us – each day – paint a few more brush strokes on the enduring portrait of our lives. How can you take the lessons of this time – of living in a pandemic world — and bring forth opportunities that can give light and hope and meaning to you and to others? For this I turn to your Ursuline education and ask you to remember four things:

First:  Remember to be aware. Over the course of the past eight weeks, all of us have become painfully aware of just how many others we rely on – even to meet the basic needs of our lives – people who drive trucks that bring our food, people who fill our prescriptions, and those who walk into hospitals, hospices, or care facilities to tend our sick and elderly. We have become aware of the tremendous dignity of first responders, healthcare workers, teachers, farmers and grocery store clerks. Notice those who help you — and the people in your world. But also notice those that are in need. See the faces of the children who are lonely and afraid – the faces of the anxious or unemployed – the faces of the poor and homeless – the faces of the elderly and the sick. Be the one who reaches out – the one who helps to make others’ lives better. When you see – when you really see – you will become aware that others depend on you as you depend on others. Open – not just your eyes but your hearts– become aware of those who make your life better, but also open your eyes and your hearts –  and become aware of those whose lives you can make better. Be aware – be conscious – see — the needs of others and not just your own– a lesson learned each day at Ursuline through prayer, community and service.

Second:  Remember to use all that you have been given. Take all of your education, all of your talents and skills to the limit. Remember how a musician has played beautiful music to lift your spirits, or the person who created delicious meals for you. Remember your friends who made you laugh and filled your heart with joy. Remember those who recently led you in prayer– to help make the beginning of your day normal. Remember the teacher who worked so hard to present lessons that will meet college expectations. But also remember those you cannot see — remember some quiet woman working diligently in a research facility — who has been laboring to find a vaccine for this virus. Remember the computer geeks who have enabled you to zoom into each other’s lives and create a virtual classroom. Now think about what you have to offer this world – and make no mistake – all of you have something to offer. Make your life count. Find your passion. Help make your corner of the world better. Every time you use all that you have learned, all that you have practiced, all that you enjoy, you create a more compassionate world – a responsibility that was put before you each day at Ursuline.

Third:  Remember to be open.  Be open to new experiences, new people and new ideas.  Life is a journey with twists and turns. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” says the poet Robert Burns. You know the experience of plans going awry.  But be open to what might come your way. And most importantly be open to new dreams. It’s ok to change your mind or your college major. Be open to the possibilities before you. Be open to diversity. Do not be afraid of those who are different from you. It’s ok to change your thinking. Change is the constant in our lives. Don’t be afraid of change. Welcome it as a gift. Sometimes the gift will bring joy, but sometimes it will bring pain.  Reflect on what people tell you, what you think, what you learn. Be open – look for the good, the beautiful, the gentle and the caring in this world and in others. But decide on the principles that will govern your life. Promise to let one of those essential principles be to reach out and help others. Be patient with yourself. You will make mistakes. Forgive yourself and forgive others their mistakes. Think about what you believe and why. Do not let others define you or your dreams. Listen – think – pray — decide.  Know who you are and what you stand for. Be true to that. But do not close the door — or your heart — to what is different or unusual or even weird. And remember “the measure of true intelligence is the ability to change” says Albert Einstein – a lesson learned at Ursuline as you opened yourself to new people and absorbed new ideas, and embraced new experiences.

Finally:  Remember to whom you belong. Be grateful for those who love you, especially your parents, who have sacrificed so much for you. Be grateful for your brothers and sisters, and other family members. You will always belong to them. Remember them – cherish them, no matter what. Remember that you came from Youngstown, Ohio – be proud of your roots — and remember that you are a graduate of Ursuline High School. You are Ursuline in your DNA. But being Ursuline is more than the diploma you hold – Being Ursuline is who you are. You go forth – as countless other alumni have – into an unknown future. But remember you are connected by a bond that will never be broken. You are daughters and sons of St. Angela and Angela promises:  “I will always be in your midst, helping your prayers. Take heart. I have confidence in you.” Angela has confidence in each one of you, as do all those who spent the last four years watching you grow and change. They have confidence that you will make good choices and grow into loving and generous adults.  But most importantly remember that you belong to God, and our gracious God does not count the quality of your life by the losses you’ve suffered but by the gifts you’ve given, the time you’ve taken, the love you’ve shared. Remember to pray – to make God a part of your life. Jesus says in the Gospels: “I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” God has blessed you with so much. Give back generously. Be God’s blessing to others. So when you look back on these days concentrate what you have learned, the fun you had, the challenges you successfully met, and on the wonderful people who came into your life. Be grateful for what you’ve been given. Be grateful for who you are. So do not focus on the negative but appreciate what is good in your life.  See the world through the lens of grace and beauty. And always remember that you belong to God, for God is your origin and your destiny. You are always in God’s loving care: the most important lesson of an Ursuline education.

To you, the Ursuline High School class of 2020, as St. Angela said: Soli Deo Gloria – and — as all those who love you and Ursulines say, God Bless the Irish.  And as I say: Follow your dreams and may you always know – deep in your heart — God’s love and peace.  Soli Deo Gloria – God Bless the Irish.

Congratulations Graduates!