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I relied on my faith to help me, especially when I was tired and confused, and during moments of panic, worry, anxiety and fear. If I found myself in periods of just surviving, I looked into the mirror and reminded myself about who I am and what I want to be.
Chapel Talk, September 14, 2022 by Director of Advancement Bernice Whaley
Many years ago, a baby girl was born in a taxi on the way to the hospital in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Yes, in a taxi! She decided to come into the world very quickly—and she survived. It was exactly 10 months and 28 days after her older sister was born in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Her mother was born and raised in Germany during World War II. The war lasted most of her childhood and she never graduated from high school. As a young adult, she met the baby’s father at the U.S. Air Force Base in Frankfurt, Germany where she was working as a secretary.
Just after the little girl’s first birthday, her parents split up and she and her sister ended up in a Catholic home, while their mother was recovering from a mental health crisis. After they were reunited, her mother and the children relocated to Mainz, Germany on a ship that traveled across the Atlantic ocean for days.
Although their mother traveled back to the US without them, the sisters settled into their new life with their grandparents in Germany. They made many fun memories: eating German chocolate, picking berries with their grandfather, Oktoberfest in the Fall, and visits from St. Nicholas in December. They not only survived; they perhaps began to thrive.
When the little girl was to begin elementary school, her mother and a stranger arrived at her grandparent’s house in Germany. Their mission was to bring the sisters back to the United States. The girls were introduced to the stranger as their father. It wasn’t until, years later, when they came upon a wedding picture of their mother and another man, that they learned he wasn’t their birth father.
It was just a couple of days before the start of the school year when the little girl arrived at her new home in Pennsylvania.
She attended a local public school with only a couple of words of English in her tool belt. But she survived.
As the young girl began to settle into yet another new life, she was enrolled in ballet classes and began studying the cello. Soon she had the amazing opportunity to dance in The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. She was the youngest dancer on stage.
By the time the little girl turned nine, she had two new younger sisters and an adorable baby brother who called her Snoopy.
But life at home had become quite stressful. She had discovered that her father was an alcoholic and watched her mother battle the emotional turmoil of her family crisis. Her mother asked her father to leave the day after he decided, with his children watching, to burn their still undecorated Christmas tree in the fireplace.
Her mother once again found herself alone, this time raising five children, in a country in which she was not yet a citizen, without a high school diploma, and not even a driver’s license. The young girl often questioned how they would survive.
However, her mother was determined. She didn’t just want to survive, she wanted to thrive. She studied for her license. She attended immigration classes and became a US citizen. She enrolled in college and studied psychology. She was able to get into college because the college could not understand her German records. It was quite amazing and fortunate for her.
When not in school, the young teenager, now 15, spent the majority of her time caring for her younger siblings. She would help her family in any way she could. And, she was very proud of her mother!
Suddenly, the teenager’s world was once again turned upside down as her mother began fighting for her life, battling cancer. A couple of months later, her mother graduated from college summa cum laude, in front of a cheering crowd of faculty and classmates. It was a glorious moment for her and her mother, but at the same time, completely terrifying.
That little girl was me.
After a valiant battle, my mother passed away the week of my 16th birthday. I was sad but equally angry—how could she have been robbed of her life when things were finally starting to go her way?
My three younger siblings moved in with their father who at this time was living in the Bahamas and my older sister and I were left behind to fend for ourselves.
We worked full-time in the evenings and went to high school during the days. We were recognized for our amazing survival skills, a skill I was very proud of—for awhile.
I didn’t want to just survive. I wanted to feel happy and I wanted to feel alive. I wanted to be successful in life. I wanted to trust adults again. I just didn’t know how.
Then, an amazing adult came into my life.
She recognized my inner struggles. She described me as an angry teenager. Of course, I don’t remember being anything but a wonderful teenager! She asked me to tap into my faith. And then, she asked me to do something every morning, which at the time, I thought was incredibly goofy. She said, when you wake up, and look your worst, go into the bathroom, look into the mirror at yourself and say, “I love you. You are beautiful. You are happy and you can thrive.” Repeat it until you believe it, she said.
I spent the first few days giggling, but then I began the real work. And before long I began to believe in myself.
I began to get back the energy I had lost years ago, the energy I needed to do the hard work to thrive.
I enrolled in college and began a trajectory that took me through three educational rounds until I finally obtained my doctorate. I met and married the love of my life and best friend. I started working for a retail pharmacy chain for $3.42 an hour and worked my way up to vice president. I stretched out of my comfort zone when the company was sold and I began consulting for major retailers in the US and abroad. And, when Governor Jack Markell encouraged me to become a member of his Cabinet, I stretched even further out of my comfort zone to embrace the opportunity.
Throughout, I relied on my faith to help me, especially when I was tired and confused, and during moments of panic, worry, anxiety and fear. If I found myself in periods of just surviving, I looked into the mirror and reminded myself about who I am and what I want to be. I believed in myself. I practiced forgiveness. I did the work!
I want to leave you with this message.
Surviving in life is simply living life, while a thriving life means you are loving life.
Let me say that again: Surviving in life is simply living life, while a thriving life means you are loving life.
You can sit quietly in class and survive or you can actively participate and thrive.
You can do the minimum and survive or you can try new things, stretch out of your comfort zone, and thrive.
You can sit here counting the seconds for me to stop talking and then never think about what you heard again. Or, you can keep growing spiritually, reflect on what you have heard tonight and do something completely new tomorrow.
Tonight, I challenge each of you to find a place each day where you can be alone, with or without a mirror, and talk to yourself. You only need a few minutes alone to do this. Will this feel goofy— most likely— but it works!
Use your name. Tell yourself that you love yourself. Tell yourself that you're a beautiful human being. Tell yourself that you are happy. Tell yourself whatever it is you want to be. Do this daily until you completely and fully believe in yourself.
You all have been given the ability to thrive. Challenge yourselves!
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