Joslyn Ahlgren speech for Spring 2022 Doctoral Recognition Ceremony

I’m “The Hard One”

Joslyn Ahlgren, an instructional professor and undergraduate coordinator in the UF College of Health and Human Performance, was the commencement speaker at Thursday’s spring doctoral commencement ceremony.

Thank you, President Fuchs. Good morning, graduates and congratulations!

I am thrilled to celebrate this day with you, but I have something to confess. When I graduated with my doctoral degree in the fall of 2009, I didn’t want to walk because I’d been so bored at my undergraduate commencement. NOT at UF, of course!

However, my mentor was graduating two other students who were flying in from across the country and she told me that if they were doing it…I should as well. As I was walking toward the platform, I looked up to see my husband holding our son, who was 18 months old. He was waving and his pacifier was hanging from his shirt on a little clip.  It felt like the kind of slow-motion moment that marks something special.  I experienced a lot of pride…and some relief, too. It was good that I walked in the ceremony. I hope YOU are also glad that you are here today…and I hope that you are experiencing all those same warm fuzzies and relief

I am one of those freaks of nature who loves to work out.  I started teaching fitness classes when I was 18 in my freshman year.  All through undergrad I taught 10-12 classes a week. It paid the bills…but I also felt blessed to earn income for doing something so fun and so unique.  20 plus years later, I still teach fitness and I still love it.   

I also started teaching Anatomy in my undergraduate years, as a teaching assistant.  During my sophomore year I had the opportunity to apply to be on the cadaver dissection team, which was an “add on” credit for the already intimidating 8-credit hour Anatomy and Physiology course I was taking.  Getting onto the dissection team was competitive and as a kinesiology major, not a pre-med, I was SUPER surprised to have been selected.  20 plus years later, I still teach Anatomy and I still love it.  

There’s something that working out and Anatomy have in common.  They’re hard.  And as it turns out…so am I.  Ask any one of my fitness participants.  Ask any one of my current or former students.  Heck…ask my kids!  I am THE HARD ONE.  

I am hard.  I set the bar high.  Because I know there is value in struggling.  As an exercise physiologist, I have studied and taught and personally experienced the benefits of trying and failing, trying and failing, and trying and failing some more.  And as freshly graduated PhDs…I know you know a little something about that, too.  But I have learned over the years that if you plan to have high expectations AND you are asking folks to do something they don’t really want to do — like burpees… or dissecting a fetal pig on their dining room table — you cannot be JUST the hard one.  

Whether you are moving on to teach and do research at a university, or headed for a job in industry, or plan a career at a nonprofit or NGO, you will work as part of a team.  And since you’re a Gator…you’ll be a leader.  Setting the bar high for yourself and for your team is the best path to great innovation and success.  

Today, I’d like to share with you three lesson’s I’ve learned that have helped me to be an effective leader in and out of the classroom. 

If you’re going to be the hard one, you may want to consider also being the FLEXIBLE one. 

In fitness classes, we want our participants to get a good workout.  Obviously.  But when someone comes to my class, I have little idea who they are, where they are from, or what their physical or mental state is—that day or in general.  The same goes for my UF students.  Even though I am THE HARD ONE, my goal is not to push them to their breaking point…, though a push is what’s needed for the best results.  My goal is to offer a range of options and encourage them to be brave.  But, I cannot make someone be brave.  If they choose to stay in their comfort zone…if they decline the push…if they don’t want to be brave … that is an available option…and it’s an acceptable option. 

I have to be flexible. 

When I was little, I loved swings.  But I did NOT like people pushing me because they would push too hard and then I’d feel out of control and get scared.  I have a strong memory (around age 5) of being at a park with my babysitter.  She was pushing my brother REALLY high, and he was loving it.  She asked me if I wanted a push too.  I vehemently said no. She must have noticed that I looked concerned about how high my brother was swinging (I definitely was) and she told me that she could push me more gently.  She assured me I didn’t have to go as high as him.  I still said no, but I was really grateful to her.  I was even more grateful that she didn’t make me feel pressured to go high or to even get pushed at all.  All these years later, I remember how being given the choice gave me power… and that helped me feel empowered.    

Have high expectations, but be flexible. Give people the chance to soar on their own. 

Let me also encourage you to be the RELATABLE one. 

I tell a LOT of stories in my classes.  Not fabricated stories…stories about me, my family, my friends…my life.  Let me assure you, I was born into the right body and into the right family to teach what I teach.  SO many diseases, disorders, damage, differences from cranium to calcaneus! 

One of the stories students like the most has to do with my mom and me when I was about 8.  We were walking into a building with new carpeting.  My mom has severe asthma and the carpet glue gave her a very intense asthma attack.  We left the building and she dumped the contents of her big 1980’s purse out on the lawn in search of her epi pen.  And when she found it…she handed it to me.  8 year old me.  Terrified for my life me.  Frozen stiff me.  She quickly recognized that I would be no help and she administered the epinephrine to herself.    

I tell this story when covering the effects of epinephrine on the beta receptors found in respiratory smooth muscle.  And it would be much faster to just explain where the receptors are and what they do in response to binding of this particular chemical ligand.  But sharing my story helps students relate to the material…and also to me.  That has probably not happened to any of my students before…but they can relate to my emotional state. 

This is also why the best fitness instructors DO the workout WITH their classes.  If you haven’t done a peloton class, you’ve probably at least seen the advertisements.  The instructor is always on the bike.  When people see you enduring the same discomfort they are, they know you can relate to their pain. 

Have high expectations, but be relatable. Be vulnerable enough and humble enough to share in the experience.  Hashtag “relatable.” 

And finally, you can have tremendous impact by being the TRANSPARENT one. Being transparent means knowing the WHY and being willing to articulate that.  My Anatomy exams are heavily applied.  I ask my students to learn a huge volume of material in detail ranging from microscopic to gross and THEN I ask them to USE that information to figure out disease symptoms, mechanisms of injury, or even comorbidities.  This makes my students highly uncomfortable because they will have to think, not just remember.  But I tell students on day one that the exams will be this way and I tell them why.  I don’t tell them this to scare them.  I tell them this so that they will know that I’ve considered the consequences of the decision to make my exams very hard…and that it’s worth it.  

In order to share the why of whatever it is you are asking of others, YOU have to know the why.  So, it’s a worthy endeavor to ask yourself regularly, “Why am I doing this?”  You might be surprised how many things you can simplify or even take off your plate entirely when you ask yourself that question. 

Have high expectations, but be transparent. Be clear about the why.  

When you are flexible, and relatable, and transparent…you build trust.  And when someone trusts you, they will work hard FOR you and WITH you.  And then a magical thing happens.  You no longer have to be the HARD ONE.  Because along the way, that trust in you transforms into trust in themselves.  They begin pushing themselves to work harder, to learn more, to lift heavier, to run longer. 

I want to leave you with an example of when the trust I carefully and thoughtfully fostered led to a profound moment for one of my students, and for me.  She was kind enough, and vulnerable enough, to share the following brief personal reflection with me and has given me permission to share it with you today.  She wrote…   

“I was very apprehensive about dissecting the sheep brain. It was hard enough reading chapter thirteen on the brain. It stirred an immense amount of anxiety. 

I very briefly mentioned that my youngest child was diagnosed with a brain stem glioma in my introduction to the class. He was diagnosed on Christmas Day of 2002 at the age of seven. 

Ultimately, he succumbed to his disease four days after my birthday in 2004.

Despite my many efforts I still often wondered was enough done? Could they really not do surgery? 

Though this dissection has not been a panacea to all my questions it has given me the closure I so desperately needed. When I opened up the sheep brain and got to the brainstem, I now knew everything humanly possible was done to save my precious son and I understand why surgery truly wasn’t an option.

I wanted to share this with you and let you know that I learned so much from this dissection and it gave me closure in areas that you’ll never truly understand.” 

I will always keep this this note from my student, because it will always remind me of why I am THE HARD ONE.  By being flexible, relatable and transparent, by building trust and seeing my students learn to trust themselves, they learn and grow and … sometimes … as with my student who was able to make peace with herself over her son’s death … they even face off with a deep personal trauma. That is why I will continue to be THE HARD ONE. 

Graduates, whatever you do next, whatever career or careers you find yourselves in tomorrow or in 20 years, I encourage you to go out be the HARD ONE, and the flexible one, and the relatable one, and the transparent one.  Because the trust you build will matter.  It might not matter in the way you planned…but believe me…it has the potential to change lives—including yours.  

Thank you and, again, congratulations.

Joslyn Ahlgren April 28, 2022