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Commencement Inspiration from Dr. Sarah Hillyer

 

On Friday, May 12th, 550 College of Education, Health, and Human Science (CEHHS) students walked across the stage at Thompson Boling Arena to receive their diplomas, shook hands with Dean Rider, and headed out into the world to enhance the lives of others. We could not be more proud of this year’s graduating class!

The graduates also received inspiration, advice, and instructions for an awesome College handshake from Dr. Sarah Hillyer, an alumna of CEHHS and the Director of the Center for Sport, Peace & Society at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Transcript

Congratulations! What a day! What a moment! What a memory!

Thank you for such an incredibly warm and kind introduction and for the opportunity to spend the next hour – KIDDING – 12 minutes – here with you today.

Today, graduates, some of you will be graduating Summa Cum Laude, others will receive the honor of Magna Cum Laude or Cum Laude, and the rest of you – just like me back in 2010 – will graduate: “Thank you Laude!” “Thank. You. Laude.”

To President DiPietro, Interim Provost Zomchick, Dean Rider, the Dean’s Board of Advisors, and to our brilliant faculty and staff, it is a true honor to be with you and all of our alumni, special guests, family members, and friends who are gathered here today. Most of all, it is an incredible privilege to be here with you: the ‘full of unique and incredible human potential’ – class of 2017!!!!

So, what do you say we get this celebration started? To do so, we’d like to start by teaching you our very own 2017 College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences Graduation Celebration Handshake. Yes, it is a thing – well, starting today it’s a thing. Dean Rider, can you help me? Thank you!

Graduates and distinguished guests, the official handshake goes like this – Dean Rider and I will demonstrate – then ALL of us will do it together. If we can pull this off, not only will 2017 be the year we broke the Guinness World Record for the largest human letter – #thankyou Al Roker and The Today Show at NBC, we could also set the record for the largest (and maybe only) commencement ceremony handshake.

Ok, it goes like this:

  • Front
  • Back
  • Up
  • Down
  • Pound
  • Forearm
  • Shoot a Jumper

One more time – and for any non-basketball players in the arena, the “swish” part is in honor of our forever-loved and respected Lady Vol Basketball Coach, Pat Summitt.

Ok, again:

  • Front
  • Back
  • Up
  • Down
  • Pound
  • Forearm
  • Shoot a Jumper

Ok, everyone get a partner – students, faculty, parents, distinguished guests – everyone – ok, do we think we can create the world’s largest (and maybe first) graduation handshake?! Ready? Go. Thank you! Well done!

Research. As you know, research counts for a lot on our campus, so let’s dive right into the very scientific research I conducted……….on Instagram.

My research sought to answer 2 questions:

  1.  What makes a commencement speech memorable?
  2. What makes a commencement speech meaningful?

From the research, I will highlight 2 interesting statistics, 2 favorite UT graduation memories and 2 pieces of advice I uncovered: 1.

Statistic #1: Out of respondents, 70% polled had zero recollection of any part of the speech [reasons not disclosed]. So, this is my purpose statement. To try, to give my best effort, so that maybe you or someone else in your family, other than your mother, will remember just one thing about today’s speech.

Statistic #2: Out of respondents, 100% said humor was the greatest factor in making a speech memorable. So, this will be my methodology.

Memory #1: “I threw up when I crossed the stage – and didn’t even receive anything – no one would shake my hand or give me my diploma.”

Memory #2: I graduated in May 2013 and the only thing I could tell you is that the speaker started the speech by saying it would be short………and then it was not. I’m pretty sure she finished the speech sometime in 2014.

Advice #1: Keep the speech under 18 minutes – now that you know – you can start the timer.

Advice #2: Tell a story that is personal, inspiring, and relevant to the next steps in our lives.

So, based on the findings of my research, I’d like to tell you a personal story that I hope inspires you to be relevant in a world that needs courageous humans to find innovative solutions to the challenges our country and our world faces….all within the next 12 minutes.

I grew up in Bald Knob, Kentucky – way out in the country – the nearest gas station, corner grocery, any part of civilization was 45 minutes away. We were a moderately poor family but that didn’t stop my parents from working hard to provide me opportunities to pursue my love of sports – basketball, football, baseball. I’ll never forget my mom taking me to the elementary school gym to meet my PE teacher at 6:30 every morning so I could practice free throws for an upcoming Elks Hoop Shoot Contest. I practiced every day for months – I was 8 years old and couldn’t get the ball up to the rim, so my PE teacher taught me the “granny shot.” I was ready – the national competition came to town, to the big capital city of Frankfort, Kentucky. Not unlike most nights, I slept in my gym shorts, ringer T, and tube socks. My K-Mart brand Zips high-tops right next to my bed so I could put them on as soon as I woke up.

I never knew who might be out in my drive-way ready to play one-on-one – Michael Jordan? John Stockton? Larry Bird? Magic Johnson? Or, it could be that Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt was hiding in the woods like she did sometimes near my house – wearing orange of course – scouting me – seeing if I was Lady Vol quality and if I was willing to work harder than all the other 8 year olds. You can’t imagine how devastated I was year’s later when my parents told me that Coach Summitt was not in our woods recruiting me – but that it was hunters during deer season. Dreams shattered.

Back to the story: My mom woke me up early that Saturday morning so I could eat a healthy breakfast of fried eggs and bacon and so we could leave early enough to drive into town and find the civic center gymnasium. I was so excited – you know, that nervous kind of excitement – like you want to throw up but in a good way. I felt like my moment was finally here – all the hard work, dedication, sacrifice, commitment – that an 8-year old can make – it was time – time to compete. Something I had never done before, actually. I had only practiced granny-shots with my PE teacher and played basketball at home with my dad.

We parked and I walked into the gym with my basketball under my arm and a brand-new Kentucky blue polyester warm up suit that my parents bought for this special occasion. There were kids everywhere – basketballs bouncing, the sound of sneakers on the hard wood, laughter, parents and grandparents in the stands. And I froze. For a moment, I froze. I noticed that no one looked like me, no one shot the ball like me, and no one dressed like me. And for the first time I can remember – I was scared, I was embarrassed and I was afraid to fail. At that moment, I took off running across the gym and headed straight for the girls’ bathroom – where I locked myself in a stall, slid down the door, put my hands over my face, and cried uncontrollably.

I heard my mom’s voice first. She said, “Sarah, honey, what’s wrong?” I said, “Nothing.” [crying] She said, “Can you please come out of the stall so we can talk about it.” I said, “No.” [crying] She said, “But if you don’t, you’ll miss the free-throw competition that you’ve been practicing for.” I said, “No.” [crying] I didn’t hear anything for a while.

And then. I heard my dad’s voice, right outside my stall….in the girls’ bathroom. He said, “Sarah, honey, what’s wrong?” I said, “Nothing.” [crying] He said, “If you don’t come out of the bathroom, you won’t get to play.” I said, “I don’t want to play today.” [crying] He said, “Why not?” And that was the moment of truth – I had to say what I was feeling out loud and it wasn’t easy….. I said, “Because I am embarrassed and scared and I’m going to lose.” Then my dad asked me a question I will never forget. “Sarah, do you love playing basketball?” “Did God give you the ability and opportunity to play?” “Yes sir.” “And do you think you’ll ever want to play basketball again after today?” “Yes sir.” “Then here are the only 2 options you have: You can come out of the bathroom and try your best or You can never play basketball again.” What? These are the ONLY two options I have? I despised the thought of both of them. Then he said, “You have 30 seconds to decide. “All you have to do is try your best and that’s all we expect of you. We will love you exactly the same – no matter if you win or lose. In life, it’s not about who shoots the best free throws, it’s about: • Facing your fears • Not comparing yourself to others • And finding the courage to try your best.”

I came out of the girls’ bathroom and competed that day. I made 23 out of 25 free throws – shooting granny style and won my age division. It was the start of a journey that I never imagined. Because of my parents and the opportunities basketball afforded me – I have traveled the world teaching sports – 14 projects in China, 10 in Israel, Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Saudi Arabia – in 2001 I had the opportunity to introduce softball to women in Iran and and even though I never played basketball for the Lady Vols and Coach Summitt, I did have the privilege of working closely with her to develop girls’ basketball in Iraq – thanks to coach Summitt, there are 100’s of orange basketballs from the north to the south of the country and thousands of girls playing basketball now.

I appreciate my parent’s love and the lessons they taught me that day when they asked me to come out of the girls’ bathroom and compete:

  1. Face your fears
  2. Don’t compare yourself to others
  3. Have the courage to always give your best effort

In closing, I’d love to leave with you 8 words I hope you never forget (8 to honor the number of championships Pat Summitt won throughout her career) and these words are: “Please, never lock yourself in a bathroom stall” I’ll say them again, “Please, never lock yourself in a bathroom stall.”

Congratulations again and thank you!

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