At every University of Baltimore Commencement, two student speakers are chosen—one each to represent the aspirations, challenges, and successes of that year's undergraduate and graduate classes.
For the Spring 2017 ceremonies, both held on May 24 in the Lyric, student Sophia Connell offered remarks from the undergraduate perspective. Connell earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration (cum laude). Shilesha Bamberg, who earned a Master of Science degree in Negotiations and Conflict Management, served in the same role during the graduate ceremony.
As Bamberg describes it, the experience of speaking to one's gathered peers is a rare chance to "highlight the unconventional"—the many ways that UB students achieve their goals.
"The stories that illustrate endurance and creativity inside and outside the classroom are what make us unique," Bamberg says. "Someone once told me that 'college only makes you book smart.' I wrote the speech to show that UB provides so much more than a degree. As value-laden as it sounds, if you open your mind and heart you'll leave with more than a degree or 'book smarts.' My education was therapeutic and transformative."
Here are two videos, capturing the students' brief talks:
Sophia Connell's written speech:
"For many in this room, today is the greatest day or our lives. Many, like myself, are filled with pride, accomplishment, and anxiety about our final grades. Some of us know where we are headed, and others have no idea what to do next.
"For those in the latter group I say this. It's OK to not know the path ahead of you. When I started at UB I never thought I'd be who I am now, where I am now. I am a transgender woman, I accepted that, and two years ago this month, while attending UB, I made the decision to transition.
"I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know any woman personally who was transgender, where to go for therapy, hormone therapy, or something as basic as what clothes I like. I didn't know how to file a name change or if my classmates and professors would accept me.
"When I began therapy to qualify for hormone replacement, I had to go out into the world as my true self for the first time. During this time a co-worker at the job I had back then saw me in a dress and outed me to everyone. Coincidentally, my next shift I was fired. I had difficulty finding a job, and nearly had to give up on my transition. I came into UB’s Office of Community Life for help; their response was to hire me. They gave me a job where I could be my true self.
"Most of my professors and most of my classmates accepted me. I watched as my GPA climbed as I no longer was held back by my depression stemming from Gender Dysphoria. The condition many transgender women are diagnosed with. I landed an Internship at Morgan Stanley, and through all of my experiences I made amazing friends. I never knew any of that would happen; all I knew then was uncertainty.
"Uncertainty is normal; uncertainty is beautiful. While it may also be frightening, it allows us to learn and grow as people. I learned what I needed to do, and I met people here who've made me feel welcomed and loved. There are too many of them to thank, but they've helped me find my way.
"I bring this up to say that nothing is impossible, that even the thickest fog burns off. That with knowledge, experience, friends, asking a few questions, and of course with a few tears, you will find your way. You will overcome anything in your way, you will achieve, succeed and make the most of every opportunity. You will know who you are, where you are, where you want to be, and how to get there.
"This is just the first of many steps that we make to that end; many of us will go our separate ways. We set out to forge our way in the world. We will continue to grow, and learn. I'd like to end with my favorite quote. It's by T.S Eliot: 'We should never cease from exploring. And when we do we shall return to where we started and know it for the first time.'
"Congratulations to all of you, my fellow explorers."
Shilesha Bamberg's written speech:
"I grew up here, at the University of Baltimore. So today is bittersweet. I am glad to have reached this milestone, as I was told that I wouldn't graduate from high school, let alone obtain a Master's degree and here I am, back in this space, three years later, getting my second degree.
"I started here at UB in 2007. It was the first year UB started accepting freshman. I remember as an undergrad trying to find myself. As a native Baltimorean, I found parts of myself in Lexington Market, the Inner Harbor, nightclubs on Charles Street, and eating crabs after church on Sunday.
"My extraordinary grandmother raised me in partnership with my professors here at UB. Whether they knew it or not, they were surrogate parents. They gave me a therapeutic place to explore!
"As an undergraduate, I went through phases where I couldn't sit still long enough to complete a course. Once I did, I excelled beyond my own expectations.
"Graduate school is where I became a young adult. And that is where the transformation began. The Negotiations and Conflict Management Program shaped the way I viewed my life experiences.
"It began when I gave a presentation on sexual violence in armed conflict and Dr. Sheehan said to me, "that was profound." I think that was the first time in my life something I did or said was called—profound!
"In my research methods course with Dr. Tan, I announced publicly for the first time that I was a survivor of domestic violence, a less known type called reproductive coercion. We were assigned to choose any topic that interested us. I felt so empowered when I began the semester. That was my original motivation for disclosing my survivor status. Towards the end of the semester, I relapsed, and struggled to complete the final product. Dr. Tan encouraged me to push through when I wanted to throw the whole paper out.
"Prof. Gieszl’s transformative mediation course led me to connect and mediate with my drug-addicted father who was absent most of my life. During the process, I discovered he was not only diagnosed with AIDS but had been non-compliant with his medication since 1995, which meant he was dying. I would have never known if I didn't reach out to him, and he would not have been in attendance at my wedding last August.
"One day while sitting in Dr. Stanley's contemporary victims course, I became triggered by some sensitive subject matter. The topic was sexually abused children and the behavioral and psychological changes that occur as a result. My right leg started to shake and I could feel water in my eyes. My temperature soared as sweat poured down my neck. I placed the notebook against my chest and scribbled "my son, my son, my son, my son," until Dr. Stanley left her chair and circled the classroom until she got to me and put her hands on my shoulders.
"She hinted at the idea that some people need to know when to take a break. I ran out of the class, trying to hold back tears, until I arrived in the restroom. Having a personal family history with child abuse prevented me, at that moment, from disconnecting the case study from reality. My professor knew my normal disposition, so she could identify when it was off.
"Last summer, I went to Prague, Heidelberg, and Amsterdam with Dr. Richards to study human trafficking. The experience changed me. I never thought I would be able to study abroad with kids, a family, and so many responsibilities. My fiancée knew how important this was to me. He said, "Do it, go be great!" His unwavering support, my grandmother's prayers, my mom-in-law's guidance, and the sacrifices of my children kept me on my current path. When I returned from my trip, my fiancée and I were married four days later.
"Through all of these experiences, I was shaped into the woman, mother, and wife I am today. Every faculty member who touched my life helped me to grow. Sometimes I shared a piece of my story to test them.
"Could I trust them to be an ally, to show empathy, even when they did not understand? Many of them passed the test. You may not know it, but you guys are being tested, too!
"My apologies for those of you who didn't know you were also serving as therapists. I assure you, you can now add it to your résumé. Feel free to use me as a reference.
"My journey is just beginning. My new path on Capitol Hill as the human trafficking and gender-based violence legislative fellow for the U.S. Senate appeared daunting in the beginning, but I was raised in a good family, so I know I am well prepared.
"Rest assured, Class of 2017, you have all the tools you need to succeed. Plus, you have the added bonus of attending a school in Baltimore. When you are in an interview and tell people you live or went to school in Baltimore, it is a very interesting conversation starter. Here are a few helpful lines: Yes, I am capable of working in a high-paced, conflict-ridden, tensed environment, and the TV series, The Wire, doesn't quite give you all Baltimore has to offer.
"Throughout many parts of my life, I wanted to hide, quit, fall, and die. You know what I found to be true—be who you are, work hard, make mistakes, meet friends, and love others! The rest will fall in line! I would not be the person I am today if it wasn't for my experiences. We survived, Class of 2017. We rose from the ashes and we are reborn here today ... as graduates!
"Congratulations, we did it."