Education professor tells doctoral grads to be heroes

December 14, 2018
Thomasenia Adams
photographer: UF Photography

Thomasenia Lott Adams is a professor of mathematics education, associate dean for research and faculty development in UF’s College of Education and ordained minister. Her major research interests center on the teaching and learning of mathematics, and she has received significant funding from both the National Science Foundation and the Florida Department of Education. A UF faculty member for 25 years, she is a minister at the Showers of Blessings Harvest Center in Gainesville. Her speech is below:

Good afternoon.

I am elated to be here today with President Fuchs, other university administrators, members of the Board of Trustees, our commencement guests, faculty, staff, family, and friends --- to share in recognizing you, our doctoral graduates.

You are future transformative leaders, trailblazers, and change-makers, and it is my privilege to share this special day with you.

Your accomplishment, the highest of its kind, is a result of your consistent pursuit of knowledge and your devotion to excellence.

I have sat in your place, and I know that your achievement of obtaining this degree is long-awaited.

Your victory did not come without sleepless nights, without hardships, without disruptions, or without sacrifice.

You have finished what you started, and I invite you to take a moment to celebrate your triumph.

Graduates, I know that you have checked and re-checked every degree requirement and that you are sure that you have done all that is required of you.

However, I have one last request of you.

And no, you do not have to edit your dissertation again!

You have met your goal, and you may believe that you have reached your final destination, but know this, expertise is not enough --- not if you truly desire to have impact that is meaningful and lasting.

You have earned your doctoral degree.

This is your what.

My request is that you now discover your how.

From our earliest of years, we have heard tales of courageous men and women embarking on wild adventures to save the world.

Fairy tales, books, movies, TV shows, they all have one: that one character who rises, confronts adversity, challenges the darkness, and cares for all.

As they travel what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, these characters captivate us with their boldness and bravery.

They inspire us to maybe, just maybe, be a little bolder and braver ourselves.

But what if, for a moment, instead of searching for heroes in fiction, we search for them in our own lives and seek to be heroes ourselves?

Reflect with me, if you will, on the significant people in your lives.

Have they not exhibited remarkable strength and relentless courage in the face of adversity?

Did they not encourage your dreams and challenge your capabilities to help you realize your full potential?

Were they not there to remind you to get up, brush yourself off, and move forward again?

Were they not on the Hero’s Journey…. just --- for --- you?

When I think of those who have inspired and guided me, I think of my family.

I was born on Hancock’s Place, a small chicken farm in South Carolina, where my parents worked and where we lived in one of Mr. Hancock’s houses.

I am the youngest of eight children.

My father worked outside in the chicken pen catching chickens with his bare hands.

My mother, she worked inside a chicken house to help support our family.

We were sustained by chicken backs and chicken wings, the parts of the chicken no one wanted to eat then.

At a young age, my mother enrolled me in oratorical contests at church.

She would choose old, unusual, complex poems for me to recite - like Richard Wright’s, I Have Seen Black Hands from 1934:

“I am black and I have seen black hands, millions and millions of them

Out of millions of bundles of wool and flannel tiny black fingers have reached

restlessly and hungrily for life.”

My mother also selected poems like Margaret Burroughs’ 1968, What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?:

“What shall I tell my children who are black

of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin?

What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb,

of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn

they are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black.”

I would practice for hours and hours, but there were times it felt impossible.

How could I memorize all of the pages of poetry?

How could I keep my composure in front of a large crowd?

I was drenched by fear and immersed in doubt.

I would ask my mother why I could not recite simpler, popular poems like the other children.

However, my mother, my hero, knew better.

She would face me and say: “You pick the hardest thing, and go for it.

Nobody knows the next line but you!”

And they didn’t, and I would win!

While some strive to become heroes, others often do not recognize how much of a hero they really are.

As a girl, I would come home from school and on many days, I would help my father pull his boots off of his swollen feet.

I would share with him what I did that day.

I would show him my classwork, my homework, my quizzes.

Each time, he would do the same thing: Flip through the pages, study each one, give them back to me, and warmly say, “good job.”

When he found me reading, he would sometimes ask to look at my book, scan a few pages, and tell me it seemed interesting and to keep reading.

On the days I would come home feeling like I had not done a good job in school, he was consistent in his interest in and his encouragement of my school work.

These moments did not seem so significant to me as a child.

They may not seem significant to all of you right now.

It was not until I was 18 that I understood their magnitude --- when I realized my father was illiterate.

However, he did not let his inability to read and write silence the hero within.

He sought to provide me with the opportunity for more --- more than what he himself could be or could do.

He was fuel for…my…strength.

The hero’s actions can also be present in simple life experiences.

Each day as I live and work the life of a professor, I draw strength from memories of my big sister as we walked the long dirt road to catch the school bus because the school board would not allow the bus to travel to our house.

On cold winter mornings, my sister would cover my face with Vaseline and convince me that this would keep me warm.

But that’s not what kept me warm.

What kept me warm was her holding my hand and never letting me turn back, never letting me give up.

She too was a hero: enabling me do the hard thing to prepare me for the tough roads ahead.

Graduates, I know that many of you share similar stories.

Perhaps you too carry with you the hopes and dreams of your significant others, your mentors, or even students with whom you shared the doctoral experience.

Whoever your heroes are, they instilled in you the confidence to venture into the unknown, to aim high, to pick the hardest thing and to go for it.

While each of our journeys is unique, filled with its own defeats and victories, we do have this in common: We have our what, the doctoral degree.

Now, I challenge you to discover your how.

You are here today because you have charged forth on a mission.

You pushed beyond the limits, believed in your boundless potential, and rose above the fear.

The road was not always easy, the path not always clear, but here you emerge.

You will leave the campus of the University of Florida changed, transformed, strong.

Johann Wolfgang vonGoethe said, “Thinking is easy; acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.”

Therefore, here’s the important question: how will you use your doctoral degree to make a difference?

How will you affect change for the good of all?

What feat will you accomplish?

What problems will you solve?

How will you use what you have learned at UF to change circumstances for someone?

Today, tomorrow, how will you become a hero?

How will you create a chance for someone else to succeed?

How will you lead another to sit where you are right now?

How will you continue on the Hero’s Journey?

You have your what.

Now discover your how!

You are equipped…

to be better,

to seek more,

to live truth,

to reach higher,

to sow peace,

and to be the shoulders upon which someone can stand to see beyond the horizon.

Be the hero that UF has prepared you to be.

Thank you, and go Gators!

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