May 2018 HESP Commencement Address

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Distinguished faculty, esteemed colleagues, families and friends, I am thrilled to join you today in pride and celebration as we come together to honor the accomplishments of the graduates here in front of us. And to the graduates of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, class of 2018, let me begin with: congratulations!

It is a great honor to commemorate this day with you.

As I’ve spent time preparing these remarks, I’ve considered what it is that I think makes a solid commencement address. You may be relieved to know that one of the first qualities that came to mind was brevity.  Other elements that struck me include the practical, the inspiring, the thought-provoking, and concluding, as I think most things should in life, with gratitude.

So now you have the layout, and while I don’t know if I’ll reach my mark, at least you know where I’m aiming.

To begin with the practical, I want to talk about something that I know puts me at great risk of sounding cliché, but it’s a topic that resonates with me and also one that I think needs to be out in the open as often as possible – this is the challenge of having a career and a family. You would not be sitting here if you weren’t dedicated and driven people, and most of you are beginning or will continue toward a career in communication sciences. Many of you will also choose to have families and, given the demographics of our field and as I look out today, it’s clear that I’m speaking mainly to current or future mothers.

The comedian Michelle Wolf wonders why women would ever want to “have it all,” asking – when was the last time you went to an all-you-can-eat buffet and felt good about yourself?

And I am not here to provide a glossy image of a successful working mother without struggle.  The reality is that many of us find ourselves propelled with passion toward careers to which we are devoted, while at the same time wanting to have families and be present and loving parents. This is, to be clear, a good problem to have – that we have a choice at all in the matter represents significant progress and advantage. But it does create a tension in our lives that, for most, is a challenge of timing.

We are new professionals at the same time that we’re becoming new parents. We are juxtaposing the challenge of jumpstarting our professional careers with arguably the most significant emotional and physical demands of our adulthood. And this tension can create division – if I’m excelling at one, I’m neglecting the other.

In under two years I got married, got my first big-girl job, defended my PhD, had a baby, and bought a house. I later read in a life-coach article that you should spread many of these things out by several years to maintain happiness and control, which didn’t do me any good at that point. In fact, I threw in another baby a year later.

And here I am, 6 years later, still trying to figure this balance out – how to be the mother and wife that my family deserves while at the same time remaining committed to the work that I love. I spend many days as a working mom giving all my best energy to patients and colleagues and strangers, and then come home to muster everything I have left for my kids; my poor husband is too often left with the scraps. I would be misleading you if I suggested that I’ve figured it all out. I fight the feeling regularly that, as I try to do everything, I’m not doing anything particularly well.

Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Prize winner and mother of a daughter, who also won the Nobel Prize, said: I have frequently been questioned, especially by women, of how I could reconcile family life with a scientific career. Well, it has not been easy.

For those with passion and skill, which you undoubtedly have, the solution is not to drop out of the workforce. Our patients and our science need you, our communities need you engaged and carrying us forward.

What we need to do is put the struggle out in the open, talk about it, acknowledge that it’s hard, don’t put people in a position of feeling like they’re the only ones who don’t have it all together.

Everyone is struggling in some way. Be kind. Find mentors and support. If you’ve made it to the other side, avoid the I-survived-so-you-can-figure-out-a-way-to-do-it-too, mentality. Ask for and offer help.

It is not enough for our institutions and corporations to say that they support working parents.  We must demand creative and practical solutions.  I have been fortunate to have exceptional supervisors and leaders at my institution who have allowed me to continue to advance in my career while at the same time raising happy, healthy kids. In fact, I know that the support that I’ve experienced, the resources that I’ve had, have been more of a luxury than the standard, which is all the more reason I feel compelled to keep this conversation in the light of day.

Why do I do this?  Why am I a gluten at the we-can-have-it-all buffet? I am proud to be a working mom with a career, with a calling, to know that my kids see me impassioned and devoted to something that’s outside of them. Despite the struggle, I know that somewhere in the balance I am a better mom and a better professional because I am both.

I have used the word passion several times now and I think it’s worth clarifying what I mean. Many years ago, I came across an address given by the philosopher Jerome Miller on topics of the heart that helped me understand the difference between passion and desire. Dr. Miller, who worked and taught in our University of Maryland system for years, said: passion, which is all heart, is donative. It gives without inhibition, without restraint, without holding anything in reserve. Whereas desire is acquisitive, passion is spendthrift.  Desire asks, “What can I get out of it?”  Passion is wholly concentrated on getting into it.  Desire hopes to reap something beneficial to its own self-interest; passion is extravagant self-expenditure. 

My wish for you is that you find in your life reason for impassioned commitment. And today is proof that you are well on your way toward a vocation; a passion-filled calling. Dr. Miller would tell us, a vocation is not a career, it is a summons to fall in love.

On your road to a vocation, you will be encouraged to acquire many skills, professional virtues that help you grow and advance. The author David Brooks has written about what he calls resume virtues and eulogy virtues, in his book The Road to Character. Resume virtues are the skills that contribute to external success, while eulogy virtues are those that determine the way you will be remembered, whether you were kind, how you made people feel. None of us would argue that the eulogy virtues aren’t important – indeed, I think many of us would agree that they are the most important. And yet we tend to reward the resume virtues and focus less on those that are harder to measure. To cultivate both, Brooks argues, takes concerted effort; character is neither innate nor automatic, and requires perspective. I believe that perspective is born somewhere in a place of humility and gratitude.

The hospital in which I work is unique. We serve patients with rare diseases and those with sometimes devastating conditions for whom therapy has failed. I meet families from all over the country, from all socioeconomic backgrounds, facing the most extreme challenges of their lives. Parents of children with lethal conditions have told me that they come to a place like the National Institutes of Health not because they think they can help their child, but in the hope of helping the next. These exposures – the perspective and remarkable humanity – have caused me to spend a great deal of time reflecting on my own life, which has largely been without hardship. I was born into a home with unconditional love, where I had many things I wanted and everything I needed; there were no barriers to my education; I have a career that affords me a home and a stable pay check, and I have two healthy children. The privilege I have lived – the gifts and capacities that I did not strictly earn, require me to consider how I might use them best; how do I repay them?  Today, I challenge you to seek the same perspective in your own lives.

Whether you believe in a higher power, divine gifts, or whether you subscribe to what Warren Buffet calls winning the ovarian lottery – being born at the right place in the right time to the right parents – you must acknowledge that, in addition to all of your hard work, things outside of you conspired to bring us to this moment. Of course, you have earned this.  Not everyone could do what you have done.  But you must be acutely aware of the fact that there are others out there also with the capacity for such accomplishments, who will never be given the chance.

The US Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine said, To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift. I ask that you consciously carry this perspective with you, the humble acknowledgement of your own privilege, and consider how you might repay it.

For those keeping tabs, I’ve attempted to cover the practical, the inspiring, and the thought-provoking.  Which means it’s time to conclude with gratitude.

This is the only time that we will ever all be together.  Which means this is my only opportunity to express my thanks for all that you will do.  You are who will carry our field forward.  You will give people the gift of voice, the sound of laughter, the ability to live safer, fuller, happier lives.  You will bring us completely into the era of precision medicine, you will be there for the first successful gene therapy to restore hearing, you will develop and implement the therapies that allow the otherwise unable to speak.  You will mentor the generation that follows with energy and devotion to see that the tradition of impassioned service continues.  When we applaud you today may it ring in your hearts – it is the sound of our pride for all that you have achieved, but also our gratitude for all that is yet to come.

Thank you, and congratulations.


KKing_0Kelly King (HESP BA ’02, AuD ’08, PhD ’11) received her B.A., Au.D., and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Maryland College Park. She has published articles characterizing the auditory phenotypes of both rare and common disorders and diseases, and has co-authored a book chapter on hereditary hearing loss. She continues work in these areas in her current position as an Audiologist in the intramural division of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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