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Commencement Address

The 2013 Fontbonne Commencement Speech was given by Ms. Kerry Morgan.

Good Morning/Afternoon. Thank you for the introduction. I’d like to thank President Golden, the Board of Trustees, the Council of Regents, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the faculty, staff and alumni of Fontbonne, and most importantly the members of the 2013 graduating class and their supportive family and friends. I am truly honored to be a part of this year’s commencement ceremony. Working down the street at Washington University, it is nice once again to have the opportunity to visit my neighbors. I had the honor in the fall of 2011 to deliver the convocation speech and participate in many of the dedicated semester activities. I have thoroughly enjoyed the Fontbonne environment and it is nice to be back.

Let me begin by telling you a bit about myself …
I have had a disability since the age of one and grew up in a very active and competitive family. For example, my dad was one of those dad’s that would never let me win anything, including Candyland, he would say in the real world people do not just let you win… and he was right. My family would adapt activities and sports for me growing up so I could participate. However, as a child growing up with a disability the Paralympics and other such resources for people with disabilities to compete in sports were nonexistent or not well developed.
It was not until my mid 20s that I started playing wheelchair sports and I did so very recreationally. The more I played the more I realized that there were opportunities for athletes with disabilities to compete at top levels. There was a moment in my life where I decided that I wanted to commit myself and take sports to the next level. This meant truly dedicating myself and utilizing all my resources and support. At the same time I was working full-time as a faculty member in the Program in Occupational Therapy at Washington University and was a full-time PhD student… needless to say, this was a lot to balance.

But I had set a goal for myself and that was to compete at the very top levels. The path to my goal took off fast. My very first large competition was the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing. For those that are unfamiliar with the Paralympics… the Paralympics take place 2 weeks after the regular Olympics. The Paralympics are now part of the Olympic movement and host athletic competitions for people with disabilities. The same facilities are used at the Paralympics as the Olympics (so my events in Beijing were held in the Birds Nest and in London in the Olympic Stadium). As a U.S. Paralympic athlete I receive the same uniforms as the USA Olympic team (so I even had to wear the fancy Ralph Lauren apparel for opening ceremonies).

In Beijing I went from having 20 people in the stands to 91,000 people in the birds nest the day of my races. I finished 5th place in both of my events. It was difficult for me, the competitor, not to be on the medal stand. But, my mom who always sees the brighter side went on to tell everyone that I was 5th in the world which somehow makes it seem much better when you say it like that.

My Beijing experience motivated me to train hard and I was a more experienced track athlete going into the London Paralympic Games this past September. I raced in the 100m and 200m and won 2 bronze medals.   

In honor of my experience at the London games, I brought my racechair with me today. My racing chair has a lot of meaning to me and I thought today I would use my racechair for a few messages to you. So let's take a closer look at my racechair…

A racing wheelchair is a wheelchair made for racing on a road or track. It is essentially my “running shoes." My racechair is designed very differently than other wheelchairs. For example, it has three wheels, is very long, and has special steering and brakes. It is extremely lightweight and aerodynamic for speed but strong to absorb power and shock. The most frequent question I get about my racechair is how do you sit in it? The answer is you do not sit in it, you actually kneel in it. The position I am in is extremely uncomfortable and it took me time to build up tolerance to it. But in that position I get the most power out of my push and have become a successful racer.

Just like my racechair, you have been put in some uncomfortable positions during your educational stay at Fontbonne. Positions to challenge your mind, your beliefs, your service to others and the community. Your experiences at Fontbonne were designed to prepare you for a journey outside of this campus. Trust that you have been put in what seemed like uncomfortable positions in order to provide you the knowledge, experience ,and confidence to be successful in whatever your future holds.
Let’s take another look at my chair. From afar my racing wheelchair looks shiny and new.  However, if you look closely you can see the marks, divots, nicks, and scrapes on my chair. I am proud of each one of these as they represent the journey I have taken. This chair has lost some races, has won some races, and one month before I left for London, it was even crushed by the airlines (YIKES!). You have taken a similar journey through your educational experience and during your time, Fontbonne has tried to leave marks on you (although hopefully they did not crush you!). You in turn have left marks on Fontbonne, on the faculty, on the program, and on your community with your contributions through your charity work, school organizations, and through your overall commitment to the university and your education. I challenge you to continue to leave marks as you go. As a child growing up with a disability I never thought I could play sports let alone represent my country and win medals. I also never thought I would be conducting research and getting my PhD. You can’t plan or anticipate where you will leave your marks. Embrace opportunities available to you. You never know where they may lead you.
The final and most important reason I brought my racechair today is it represents my passion.  When I look at my racechair I do not just see a shiny, fast racechair to me it is a symbol of freedom and independence. in this chair I can reach speeds I could not otherwise reach. This chair has helped me to achieve more than I ever thought was possible. It has brought me places physically, mentally and geographically that I thought I would never go. There is something about when I get into my racechair, put the straps on and roll on to the track –everything in my world becomes ok. Whether you have a disability or not, everyone should have an opportunity to experience that feeling. Now I am not necessarily telling you to go out and become racing athletes but if you remember anything from this speech I want you to remember this if you have a passion pursue it with everything that you have whether it is in your work or it is your hobby. I believe everyone has a racechair, that is, something that helps a person achieve a goal they never thought possible, something that helps bring meaning to their life. Find your racechair. The racechair represents possibilities. Find what motivates you, what you are passionate about, and truly commit yourself and see what happens.

Once you find that passion, it takes hard work, commitment and looking at not only what you do well but also areas where you could improve. When I decided I wanted to continue on after Beijing and truly commit myself to be better at track, I needed to really self-evaluate where I was and be able to take constructive criticism from others (my coach and the USA team). This is not always on easy thing to do. However, it can really help to improve yourself and take you to the next level. Take for example when I watch video of my races. To truly evaluate myself in track I watch video. The first few times I watch the video I usually have thoughts such as Ohhhh I am looking good, I look buff, look how fast I am or ewww that is a bad racing outfit, what is my hair doing. However, when I focus and watch the video for the third, fourth, fifth time I start to see beyond whether or not my outfit looked good but I see other things such as my pushing technique (biomechanics) and my positioning in the racechair. When my coach gives me feedback rather than take it as a criticism (man he is so picky, he obviously does not like me or get it) I try to take it and learn from it. Do not be afraid to stop and evaluate yourself or take things from others. With your new journeys you may be getting feedback from teachers if you go for more education or employers and co-workers if you go into the workforce. Embrace this information this will only help you be better.

My racechair is just one part that has helped me to reach my goals.  Another important part is my support system or team. Track is what people refer to as an “individual sport” not a team sport. However, I cannot disagree more. I had no idea the support that I would receive from my family and the community to help me pursue my goals. My team consists of all the people that support me from people at work and school who do not mind if I showed up to meetings in my racing tights because I just came from the track to people asking me how my training is going. When I am competing I am not only representing myself but also my supporters, my team. All of you today have family and/or friends in the audience or at home that have helped support you through your many years of education… financially, emotionally, or maybe in other ways. They are the members of your team. Please take time to identify what supports you have received and recognize them and give thanks. I can without a doubt tell you that I would not have made it to London without my support system. I can also tell you that I would not have been able to return back to school or make it as far as I have through my PhD program without colleagues and mentors. Use your support system as you continue on your journey… family, friends, and colleagues to help you achieve your goals. You will add to your support system in your new role as professionals. Remember you are not alone in your journey.

The two bronze medals I won as a member of the United States Track and Field team in the London Paralympic Games are extremely valuable to me. But not in the way you think. It ends up that bronze medals are not monetarily as valuable as the silver or the gold. Apparently they are worth about $5 each or are basically two very large pennies.  But they mean more to me than that because they are a reminder of my hard work and dedication.
You all have won a medal of your own today… a degree… a reminder of your hard work and dedication. This is an achievement you set your mind to and accomplished. This is a stepping stone that will lead you to your next journey. By being a part of Fontbonne’s family you have taken your educational experience to the next level and have opened up opportunities for your future. Receiving your degree today is not the end but the beginning. I personally challenge each one of you to take this opportunity to continue to better yourself, others around you and your community. Become leaders in your community and in your profession. Know that this is a journey and continue growing and learning. Fontbonne has been your trainer, now go and win your race.

Thank you for listening and again congratulations!