Looking Inward, Living Outward

Whether you're on a clearly paved road to your dream job or you're taking the scenic route, my advice for you is the same. Know yourself. Stretch into the unknown. And when you're on the precipice of change, jump! Jump willingly and jump far.
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Elisa Villanueva Beard delivered the following address to DePauw University's class of 2013 on Sunday, May 19.

Thank you for that kind introduction. It's great to be back at DePauw!

Graduates, friends, family, faculty, I'm honored to speak to you today.

I'm Mexican-American, but the best advice I received about speaking at a commencement comes from the Irish tradition: graduation speakers should think of themselves as the body at an old-fashioned Irish wake. They need you to have the party, but they don't expect you to say very much.

So while I'd like to think I'm the life of the party, I'll try not to keep you too long from your celebration, graduates.

First, let me say congratulations to the Incomparable Class of 2013!

Today you join the proud ranks of DePauw graduates, and I have no doubt that "uncommon success" is in store for each of you. I hope you'll take a minute to savor your success and be truly proud of what you've accomplished.

You didn't get here alone. Let's hear it for your parents and supporters here today who took this journey alongside you.

As a former member of the DePauw women's basketball team, I want to offer my congratulations to the Tigers for winning their second national championship. Coach Huffman, if you need some scoring off the bench next season... I think I've got a couple years of eligibility left - I'm just saying.

As a newly-minted graduate, I know this can feel like a high-pressure moment. You're asking yourselves a hundred questions - or at least, your parents are. How I am I going to get a job? Where am I going to live? Is that really my student loan bill?

But today I want to encourage you to focus on a simpler question: who are you?

That's probably the last thing on your minds right now. As the CEO of a non-profit, you may be expecting me to urge you to look at the world outside these walls and start tackling the most pressing problems facing our nation.

But if there's one message I could leave you with, it's this: before you can make a difference in the outside world, you first have to look inward.

To reach your potential as leaders, you've got to spend time getting to know yourself. And to truly know yourself, you're going to have to be in some situations that make you uncomfortable.

For it is only by pushing ourselves that we find our real strength, and only by embracing the unfamiliar that we grow. If you can do that, Tigers, you'll uncover the values that will ground and guide you for the rest of your lives.

And you may well discover that the differences that set you apart are often your greatest assets.

Being back at DePauw today 15 years later, I feel like I've come full circle. DePauw has been the single most transformative experience of my life. It is where I discovered my passion for social justice and education that's become my life's work. More importantly, it's where I first discovered who I was and what I was about.

For a girl who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas in a town called McAllen about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, it was literally a world away from anything I had ever known.

Education was always an important part of my family's story. My mother, Eva Villanueva, was born in Mexico and is the hardest working self-made woman you'll ever meet. And although my mother never graduated from high school, she taught herself English. She knew that education would be the key for her children to have more opportunities in life, so she was determined to marry a man with a college degree. Luckily for me, my sisters, and brother that led her to my father, Ramiro Villanueva, a first-generation college graduate whose family is also from Mexico.

My parents gave me the precious gift of self-confidence. They told me I could be anything I wanted to be.

College was always part of the plan for me growing up. But DePauw wasn't.

I ended up here thanks to the unflappable persistence of my mentor, Joe Disque. Mr. Disque is a pillar of the McAllen community, with strong Indiana ties, and he took an interest in my future during my high school years.

I had always assumed I'd stay close to home for college. But Mr. Disque thought it was important for me to expand my horizons. My senior year, he not only suggested I apply to DePauw, he organized a full-scale campaign to bring me to Greencastle.

When I visited DePauw, I was by myself, it was spring, and it was beautiful. I imagine if I'd seen a boulder run during that visit, I would not be here today as I am not sure where life would have taken me.

But I took the leap, and that fall I arrived in Greencastle on my own with three pieces of luggage. My parents couldn't afford to travel with me. But when I got to Anderson Hall, there was Mr. Disque, waiting for me out front. Throughout my time at DePauw, he was a source of constant support and encouragement. And every November during my time here, he'd load up his Suburban with my mom's Mexican food and drive up to Sanborn, Indiana to the farm-house where he grew up. I'd join him and his family to celebrate Thanksgiving and reconnect to the familiar.

I needed that support. When I started DePauw, I quickly realized I was upside down in a foreign country. It was a complete culture shock.

When I arrived here, I'd never met an openly gay person. I'd never met anyone who didn't believe in Jesus Christ.

It was my first time in a community of people who didn't understand my heritage.

And it was the first time I'd struggled at anything.

I graduated from high school in the top ten percent of my class. But as a freshman, I realized I was living the educational inequity that exists in our country. Compared to my classmates, I was underprepared for the rigors of college and the expectations of my professors.

I'll never forget Intro to Philosophy. My classmates would spend 45 minutes studying and get A's, I would spend hours at the library studying every night, and still wound up with a C+.

My four years here were hard as hell. But I got through it and came out the other side stronger, with a newfound sense of social responsibility.

For the first time I realized I was not just an American. I was a Mexican-American woman, and I needed to understand what that meant for me living in a country where gross injustices still exist along the lines of race and socioeconomic status.

It was only by persevering through those four years that I became grounded in a deep sense of self, rooted in the values my parents taught me - working hard, never quitting - and encouraged by Mr. Disque and his belief that I could be exceptional. I ended up doing well at DePauw.

You've got a lot of transitions ahead of you, and each one of them is an opportunity for self-discovery. I'm a firm believer that it's only when you find yourself in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar faces that you can learn who you really are. It's when we're surrounded by difference that we see ourselves most clearly.

DePauw was that moment for me. But for you it may be your next job, or your 3rd job, or a moment of profound personal or professional loss. Some people can live their entire lives without going through that kind of soul-searching experience.

They prefer to never stray out of their comfort zones. That's sad. Because those are the moments when you figure out what you stand for and what you're made of.

So as uncomfortable as it is, lean in to the unfamiliar. That was my strategy at DePauw. I had never heard of rush or Greek life before, but I wound up finding my place at Kappa and making friendships that would last a lifetime.

Take that job in a completely new field you've always wanted to try. Choose to work, worship or live alongside people who have vastly different experiences than your own.

And lean on the people who know you. Many of you have a person like Joe Disque in your lives, someone who pushes you to challenge yourself, but is always there to keep you grounded in what makes you... you. Many of those people are here today. Keep them close.

You'll get better. You'll know yourself better - and you'll be more ready for your next challenge.

My freshman year experience led me to declare a Sociology major. I was interested in the social constructs and the devastating consequences of persistent disparities in our society. But I still had no idea what I was going to do with it.

Inspiration struck my sophomore year when I was sitting on the Kappa porch swing. Carla Gasbarra Lane, a fellow Kappa who had graduated the year before and was part of the 1995 Teach For America corps, told me about the work she was doing as a teacher in Phoenix. It hit me like a lightning bolt. I heard her talk about the challenges her students in Phoenix were facing, and how she was really digging in to change things for them. I knew I had to be part of that team, fighting to win for kids every day.

If I hadn't sought them out, I'm not sure Teach For America would have recruited me. But I went after it - I joined the corps, and I never looked back. Three years after I talked to Carla, I was in Phoenix, in front of 36 first-graders with no books, and not enough desks to go around. And for the next three years, I fought hard for my kids every day, and today I wake up on fire to do my job because of them.

As you start your careers, you're going to find yourself in situations where, to put it simply, you have no idea what you're doing.

That describes every job I've ever had.

And it's not necessarily a bad thing - it's an indication that you're in a good position to learn a lot. I think the technical term for this is "fake it 'til you make it." Though you're not really faking - you're stretching yourself, trying something that might seem beyond you, and learning that it actually isn't.

From corps member to executive director of the TFA region in my hometown, to chief operating officer, and now to co-CEO, every move felt like a real stretch. But if I hadn't stretched, I never would've figured out what my strengths were. If I hadn't learned to trust myself and push through the uncertainty, I never would have realized the full potential of the journey that started on that porch at Kappa. And I'm still growing every day.

For me, my work is a family affair. My husband Jeremy and I met while we were both on staff at Teach For America 13 years ago, and today we're raising our 3 sons - Langston, Malcolm and Marshall - in Houston. Jeremy is a fierce advocate for underserved children. This has led him to teach, be a principal at one of the highest performing high schools in America, and is now working to transform some of the lowest performing schools across the country. There is never a dull moment in our home, as you might imagine.

We hear a lot of talk today about work/life balance. I talk to a lot to young professionals who worry about how they're going to juggle the high-flying careers and fulfilling personal lives they all seek.

I won't lie - it can be exhausting. But I've found over time that if you pursue what you love and the people you love support you, there's no dividing line. You can bring your whole self to work and back home each day.

There's nothing better than that.

In my house, we spend a lot of time talking to our kids about why we travel and what we do. If you ask my 5 year-old son, Langston, if mommy works, he'll say, "yes, she works and she doesn't sleep very much."

When you ask him, "do you get sad when mommy leaves you?" You will get the heartwarming answer, "not as long as it's not for more than 4 days and daddy is going to be with me."

Finally, if you ask Langston, "why does mommy leave you?" He'll say, "Mommy leaves me because she wants to make sure everyone has a great school to go to like Malcolm's and mine."

Sometimes he'll ask, "if not all kids are going to a good school, why can't they just come to mine?" And he's right! It doesn't make any sense that in our country that aspires to be a beacon of equal opportunity, not all children have a chance to receive a great education and fulfill their potential.

Kids are incredibly grounding, and while the travel can be grueling, I'm so grateful my sons get to see their parents love what they do, and they know we're working hard to build a more just society and a better future for them.

Now, I don't need to tell you -- the tech-savvy graduates of the Class of 2013 -- that the world and the workforce are changing rapidly. Entire industries can be transformed overnight.

As Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, points out, these days you have to think of your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder. People in your generation are expected to have 29 different jobs in your lifetimes.

With so much constant change, you can't predict what the future will hold. The only anchor strong enough to guide you through is an unshakeable sense of self. You have to know who you are and the values you stand for. And hopefully, you'll come to realize how important it is to get to know the less fortunate in your own community, and be a "Mr. Disque" to others.

I'm so optimistic about the future in store for you, because it's clear you're not afraid of the unknown. Nearly two-thirds of you took the opportunity to study abroad during your time at DePauw.

For some of you, DePauw was your study abroad experience.

If you push yourself to seek out the challenge of the unfamiliar now, you will be prepared for anything that comes your way.

One of my heroes, legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, whose roots are from Indiana, once said: "Ability may get you to the top, but it takes character to keep you there." In today's ever-changing world, now more than ever it will take character and ability to get wherever you're going.

Whether you're on a clearly paved road to your dream job or you're taking the scenic route, my advice for you is the same. Know yourself. Stretch into the unknown. And when you're on the precipice of change, jump! Jump willingly and jump far.

It's going to be an incredible ride.

Thank you, and good luck!