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Commencement Speech, 2002

Johanna Thomashefski captured the spirit of USF's community service and service-learning programs in her Commencement Speech on May 17, 2002. Her speech, well worth reading, follows:

Family, friends, faculty, staff, honored guests and fellow graduates - good afternoon and welcome.

johanna speech 

Like many of you, I have spent a significant amount of time these last two years developing and clarifying what's important to me. The whole process began with a squabble I had with a close friend in high school. As we were walking out of school towards lacrosse practice, my friend Wade and I were discussing the upcoming class T-shirts. I didn't like the proposed design and asked Wade to convey my opinion to the members of student council when they voted. He refused. "No," he said. "If you don't like the t-shirts, you go talk to student council." I protested that since he was on student council, he could just do it for me. Again, he refused. Perplexed, I asked him why he was being so difficult. Why couldn't he just say what I thought at the next meeting so I wouldn't have to go? "Because," he said, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

I was startled by his emphatic response to my innocuous complaint about student council. Fortunately, while those words sounded cliche to me that afternoon in high school, they have grown to be a mantra of sorts. Certainly, finding the problems is easy. As we move into a new phase in our lives, we will surely encounter many situations we will view as problems. We will face unethical bosses, clients and even friends. We might have concerns about our children's teachers or our city's government. We may drive past our society's untouchables and wonder what can be done. The hard part is to decide to try and make a difference, to stop grumbling about change and actually make the effort towards justice. Today, I would like to remind you that as we graduate from the University of San Francisco, we have a tradition of making a difference.

Making a difference is one of the most compelling things I have learned during my time at USF. When I applied for admission, I briefly noted the tag line "Jesuit Education since 1855," but I had no idea what that meant. I didn't even register the cross on the logo until I arrived on campus. I certainly knew nothing more than talking head commentary about what social justice was, either. Even though I was raised Catholic, I questioned what this "Jesuit" stuff was all about when I started my program here two years ago. What was a Jesuit education anyway? Why did it matter if it was a Jesuit, Catholic or a secular education as long as I learned what I needed to graduate and succeed?

Well, I learned that it does matter. What I have learned about the Jesuit tradition closely matched my own personal approach to life which my friend had inadvertently helped me develop so many years ago: that if we don't make an effort to change the wrongs we see around us, then we are complicit in their negativity and social impact. I learned that the university's mission fully embraced the educational, catholic, Jesuit and societal components to educating the whole person. I learned that we as students were welcomed whether we were Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish or practiced no faith at all. We form a dynamic mixture of cultures and representing over seventy countries, we were encouraged to share our own cultures while exploring the complexities of others'.

But what did Jesuit mean? The statement of mission I received when I started my job on campus said that "the University recognizes the uniqueness of the individual and that it prepares leaders who will work for justice for all people." Hmm. Well, those are lofty goals aren't they? They certainly looked good on the thick stock paper of the mission statement. I didn't quite buy it. They want us to be men and women for others? What was that? As my studies progressed, however, I was fortunate to experience the potential of social justice in my own life.

My department, the Sports & Fitness Management Program, while well connected in the professional sports industry, encouraged me to use my required fieldwork hours to co-found a non-profit youth sports program. Last spring, I was able to participate in the Arrupe Immersion project. The Immersion project, as its name implies, creates an opportunity for students to become immersed in environments that lack social justice - from the Tenderloin to Guatemala to Tijuana- to study and engage in dialogue with people of many cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. Through my observation and participation in these activities, I learned that the Jesuit philosophy is truly universal it its appeal. Social justice can be embraced by all cultures and religious faiths, because it simply calls us to practice what we preach when we claim to recognize societal ills - it calls us to choose to serve the poor and needy and to be a voice for those who cannot speak. It doesn't tell us how. It doesn't demand an oath or allegiance. It asks us, if you see a problem, try and fix it.

The Jesuit legacy of social justice is now our legacy. We must face the problems of today not as complainers, using popular rhetoric, but as solution makers. There is no more saying 'Somebody should really take care of this homeless problem'. That "somebody" is you. It is me. There's no more saying, 'Somebody should step up. Somebody should look into that. Those kids could use a mentor." We are that "somebody." It is our turn to make justice in our own worlds - our turn to not laugh at jokes about race or gender or religion. Our turn to reach out to the homeless, the hungry and the orphans. It is our turn to not be silent in consent or convenience, but vocal in action and change.

I trust that all of you, like myself, have spent countless hours processing information that is pertinent to success in your fields of study. You have spent valuable time and resources committing to a path of knowledge and employment. Some of us have lived on campus and others have commuted from all over the Bay Area. We are married, partnered and single. We are parts of families as daughters, sons, siblings, and even as parents. No matter what our affiliation with university life, as we graduate today, we are all now a part of the Jesuit tradition. We have been taught that knowledge is power. It most certainly can be. It is also a privilege. We, as masters graduates, are armed with advanced knowledge in our fields - we are teachers, we are managers, we are explorers, artists, writers and thinkers and hopefully, we will prove to be DO-ers, as well. I challenge us all to accept the responsibility that comes with that knowledge - the responsibility to continue to live for and with others - the responsibility & joy to not just identify what needs fixing in our world, but to make the continual choice to rise to BE the solutions.

Congratulations, Class of 2002, and may light, love and peace guide your paths.