Dawn Staley
Valedictory Address, University of Virginia
May 16, 2009

Learn more about Dawn Staley.

(Thank you Joyce for that wonderful introduction). I would like to say congratulations to the class of 2009. I know you guys are glad that this weekend is finally here. But I’m deeply honored to be here--I’m deeply honored that the class trustees has selected me to give this address.

But, their first choice was the best scholar and the best scholar was busy. Their second choice was the best athlete and again, the best athlete was busy. Their third choice was the best looking, I said, “What the hell, I can’t turn them down three times in a row”.

I’ve been asked to speak at many commencement ceremonies, and I’ve always declined the invitation. The primary reason being, I’m a basketball player. I didn’t invent the Internet or make new innovative strides in medical research or technology. I dribbled a basketball, and now, I teach other people how to dribble a basketball. How interesting and relative can that possibly be? But when the class trustees wrote and then called to invite me to participate in today’s ceremonies, I immediately said yes. Well, not immediately. My consent to participate rested solely on duty. I feel indebted to this university. And, as such, have a duty, as will you, to answer the calls of this fine institution. And I figured if someone had to bore you all for 20 minutes, it might as well be me.

In preparing for this address today I made the grave mistake of reading the transcripts of past valedictory presenters. Such a bad idea. Each presenter, most much older than myself; presented with such eloquence and wisdom about topics so relevant and rich, I began to feel something quite foreign to me: intimidation. You might ask, “How could she lead the Cavaliers to three final four appearances, be apart of three Olympic basketball teams, or better yet, grow up in North Philadelphia and be intimidated by giving a speech?” The answer is easy - it’s all about timing.

All of the valedictory speeches prior to today have stressed how exciting it will be to enter the work force and make a contribution to society as a whole. They talked about things like finding the right job, challenges of a first job, and how through hard work and determination you will find your place in this world.

Funny, times are a little different. 2009 ushered in its own unique set of circumstances; some of which this country has never experienced before. I agreed to give the valedictory address at one of the worst times in our country’s history. At a time when the world is in complete economic turmoil and our country is close to reliving the Great Depression, I have the challenge of finding the right words to give to the graduates hope. Now, that’s a little intimidating.

When you look at things, things do look pretty bleak. Internationally, we still have our troops putting their lives on the line everyday to protect our freedom. Yet, domestically, we’re prisoners of our own failing economy. Our banking, transportation and housing industries are all in complete disarray. The stock market is so volatile that thousands of people have lost their entire savings and retirement accounts and have been forced to remain in the work force longer- creating even more opportunity, I’m sorry, creating more competition for you. And to make matters worse, 611,000 jobs were lost… just last month.

Advice like be strong and stay steadfast- phrases of past valedictory presenters seems just a little disingenuous today.

My initial thought was to tell you all to go back to school, go to grad school- to stay in school just a little bit longer. But even then, at some point you’re going to have to get out there in this chaos we call ‘the real world.’

I can only tell you what I know to be true- these are not times for the weak. And your strength, it would have to come from your character. What you as an individual hold as your core values define your character along with the values your parents instilled. So utilize those values you adopted based on your own experiences to face the world.

What you learned in the classroom was only part of the education. Your real learning happened as you grew, matured and developed over these past years. You’re not the same person that left your parent’s home four years ago. You undoubtedly have your own way of thinking and believing, which has been informed by your own unique education.

Take a minute and think about those experiences that shaped your character. Think about the journey you took and the lessons you learned. You just may have to rely on the constructs that came from these lessons to pull you through these uncertain times.

The only example I have to give you is my own journey. Like many of you, I was drawn to the University of Virginia. But unlike many of you, my draw was not its rich tradition, prestige or great academic reputation.

My journey to U.Va. was unique. I wasn’t born into a family that held strong beliefs about the importance of a college education. In fact, I can’t remember my parents ever having conversations about college. My siblings and I were expected to finish high school and get good jobs. My parents, who came on the heels of the black migration from the south to the north, settled in a North Philadelphia projects, found jobs and worked to support their five children. For who they were, where they came from, and what they knew, they did exactly the right thing.

Only, on my way to that high school education and good job, I found my passion. Although often asked, I can’t tell you how I found basketball. I actually think it found me. I picked up a basketball at around age eight and a passionate love affair began.

By my senior year, every school in the country expressed interest in me, but it was Debbie Ryan the then and current head women’s basketball coach from the University of Virginia, who won me over. When Debbie introduced me to the U.Va., it wasn’t the school’s history or strong academic tradition that impressed me. It was Debbie’s talk of championships, of creating a legacy that I could actually leave that sealed the deal. Make no mistake; I came to the University of Virginia to play basketball.

When I arrived on the beautiful grounds, I was quite ignorant and extremely unprepared. I remember standing on the Lawn, alone, and looking at a sea of unfamiliar happy faces…. I thought I was going to die. I had no idea of what I had gotten myself into. And I’d never been away from my predominately black North Philadelphia community for longer than to play in a tournament. I had no idea how I was going to handle this vast difference for four years.

I actually didn’t handle it very well. I know Debbie is sitting out there, nodding her head in affirmation because I was a mess; I really gave her the blues. I resisted change, assimilation and help with everything I had in me for as long as I could. My urban upbringing had shaped me into a guarded, proud and extremely shy person. I expressed myself on the court and it was there that I felt most comfortable.

It took a while, but eventually I came full circle. These were my lessons:

Although not a bad student, UVA has a way of placing just the right amount of academic obstacles in your way and at some point your academic career, you’re going to need help. My time came during my first year. My eligibility was threatened, and because I still believed I was here to play basketball, I had to humble myself to ask for help. It was asking for help that unlocked the doors to my academic success and my overall college experience.

I thought the University’s Honor Code system was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of. In Philadelphia, honor code was Latin for permission to cheat. I saw the Honor Code in effect during my second year. I understood that its effectiveness and the way in which it protected the integrity of the academic process. It is truly one of the reasons why this is such a great University.

I learned the fight song my third year. I ventured out to a football game and was absolutely amazed by the student camaraderie. Never before had I been a part of a collective group, with such pride and love for that which was theirs. Independent of race or creed, for that moment, we were only identifiable as Wahoos and I loved it.

It was also my third year that I discovered that despite my best efforts, I learned that the value of teamwork is greater than the sum of ambition, and although I had been greatly recognized and rewarded by my accomplishments on the court, my greatest reward came from being part of the team. The ability to work collectively towards a common goal and to see that goal realized became the reason why I played.

It was my fourth year that I said good-bye to my collegiate career in dramatic fashion. When the final buzzer sounded that fateful day, we had lost to Stanford University in the final four. Holding back tears, I held my head high and looked each opponent in the eye as they hurriedly shook our hands. I let go of a shallow smile silently acknowledging just how far I had come, as just three years prior there would be no way I would shake a victor’s hand in acknowledgement of my own defeat.

Humility, integrity, tradition, selflessness and dignity, along with the values of respect and strong work ethic instilled in me by my parents, became my armor and ultimately defined my character. It is with these qualities that I face the world.

Your lessons learned and the ways in which your character has been shaped by these lessons and experiences will undoubtedly look different than mine. But our commonality lies in the fact that a big part of our character was built through the experiences here at the University of Virginia. And as a result we are armed and prepared. Your challenge is to believe this.

Success will not come easy, but it will come. If our new president has inspired anything in us, it is a daring willingness to challenge assumptions and the courage to tackle something difficult or dangerous – it’s audacity.

You have got to have the audacity to dream, to hope and to try over and over again despite the uncertainty of success. You have got to have the audacity to attempt those feats you fear most, and to stand in the face of discomfort and smile your brightest smile. You have to have a belief in self far greater than anyone’s disbelief.

And if you fall – and you might – get back up… because you’re a Wahoo. You’re educated, you’re prepared and you’re of strong character. We bend, but we do not break!

Good luck graduates! Thank you very much.