Rebecca Kelly ’15 and Joshua Jerome ’15 were the keynote speakers at the annual honors convocation held Tuesday, May 5, in Newlin Hall of the Norton Center for the Arts. The speakers are nominated by faculty and selected by vote of the senior class. Their remarks are a highlight of the annual celebration of student achievements.
Jerome, a dramatic arts and politics double major from Boston, is a Posse Scholar and is the outgoing vice president of events for Centre Players. During his time at Centre, Jerome was the vice president of Centre Democrats, served as a representative and later a chair in the Student Government Association, and was active in the College’s theater program. He studied abroad in London, England, during the spring of his junior year. Jerome’s passion is to pursue acting once he graduates.
During the convocation, Jerome was honored as the male recipient of the Max P. Cavnes Prize, awarded to the best-loved and most-respected senior man. He also received the Drama Program Acting Award.
Grab a Hold of Your Future
Before I begin, I’d like to ask all of you to silently stand. Now that you’re all on your feet, and there is no risk of falling asleep, I want you to close your eyes. Focus your thoughts, and use this moment to embrace the uncertainty of the darkness. Now I want you to imagine the world of tomorrow. Out of the depths of your mind, I want you to fashion the backdrop of your ideal future. What does it look like? Is it a densely packed metropolis with flying cars, or an endless landscape of trees and hills? Who do you see? What are the people wearing, and what are the subjects of their conversations? What are the defining characteristics of the world you’ve imagined? More importantly, who are you in this world, and what does its manifestation tell you about yourself? How are your hopes and fears playing into your imagined world? You may be seated.
In addition to giving you the chance to outdo James Cameron, the purpose of that exercise was to impress upon you the idea that the world of tomorrow is fast approaching, and all of us will have a role to play in its development. It doesn’t matter if you’re majoring in econ or art history; if you’re Greek or Independent, part of an athletic team or simply a N.A.R.P. (non-athletic regular person), your contribution matters. The world of tomorrow has the potential to be so much better than the one we currently inhabit. You may not think about it in these terms, but everything you do—from your involvements in the community, to your pursuit of higher education at one of the nation’s best liberal arts colleges—is an investment in the future. In the same way that you were able to fashion idealized versions of the hereafter with your thoughts, all of you have taken the practical steps towards changing the world for good through your actions thus far.
However, the feeling of uncertainty that accompanies a new beginning is always lurking just around the corner. Time and time again, the tranquility of getting a handle on the present situation is prematurely ended by the disconcerting onset of the “next thing.” For me personally, I was just starting to get used to this whole college thing, but now they’re telling me I have to leave in 19 days. But that’s alright: I’m ready and willing to embrace the uncertainty of life after Centre, because I am not afraid to take hold of the opportunities that come along with it! By that same token, all of you sitting here today should not fear the future, but rather fear the possibility of letting its call to greatness go unanswered.
A shining example of this is found in the story of my family, who came to the United States from Haiti in hopes of establishing a better life. At a young age, my mother and her parents found themselves having to leave everything behind. My grandfather, who was a high ranking officer in the Haitian military, made the decision to flee the country following the development of political instability that threatened his life, and his family. Once the opportunity presented itself, my family said goodbye to their lavish home on the countryside—equipped with servants and other such upper-class luxuries—in exchange for safe passage to America, and the chance to join the ranks of its working class in Boston.
My grandparents worked tirelessly, cleaning city buses and hotel rooms, all in an effort to keep a roof over their heads and provide my mother with the resources that would allow her to pursue the American dream. And she did! My mom took America by storm. She sang in the choir at her church and was heavily involved in the community. She played on the basketball team at school, and was usually the lead female in her high school plays, where she acted alongside Ben Affleck and Matt Damon at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. All of this was made possible by the sacrifices my grandparents made, and their willingness to stand tall in the face of the unknown.
My father was 19 when he first came to America. The death of his father a few years before shook the foundations of his family and his world. In an effort to put together the fragmented pieces of his life, my father and a group of traveling musicians made their way over to the United States with temporary visas. The band went from place to place in an old van, working odd jobs by day and playing music by night. In spite of their musical success, my father’s band never sparked what they hoped would be the “Haitian Invasion.” With time running out on their visas, they were confronted with a tough choice: either they could remain in this country illegally and continue to perform undocumented work, or return to Haiti and subject themselves to the deadly and corrupt authoritarian regime of President Jean-Claude Duvalier. My father chose life and stayed in America as an illegal alien for seven years. In that time, he continued to work hard while pursuing his musical passion. It was in this pursuit that my dad and his band stumbled upon the chance to perform at a concert in Boston. Following their performance, my father stuck around long enough to hear my mom sing for the first time, and eventually both of them chanced to find true love. If my parents had shied away from the openings that were made available to them, the present reality would be a lot different. However, even with all the “what ifs” threatening to circumvent their every decision, my parents took chance after chance, and because of that I am here today.
As I reflect on the events of my short life, I sometimes think about where I would be if I had not embraced the opportunities that presented to me. I think about a reality in which I didn’t come to Centre. College was always part of my plan following high school. In fact, it was the only plan. From an early age, my parents instilled in me the idea that a quality education was a fundamental part of augmenting my development, and the most effective means by which I could hope to achieve success in this country. Being from Massachusetts, I had no intention of going out of state for college; after all, we have some pretty good schools up there. And I’ll tell you now, that I definitely had no intention of coming to Kentucky! However, all of that changed because of a green slip of paper that I found on my desk in high school. The note read something along the lines of “Congratulations! Someone has nominated you for the chance to receive the Posse Scholarship. For more information, meet us in the library after school.” My first thought was, here’s another piece of paper having to do with college, assaulting me with its overly effusive message. You know the type. I mean we’ve all been there: it’s like the messages you get in your inbox with one too many capitalized words and an excessive number of exclamation points, like that’s supposed to get you fired up about whatever it is. I always read them and think, “Nope, still not fired up.”
After attending the informational session, I made the choice to pursue the opportunity. What unfolded from that moment on was a three-round selection process that pitted me against thousands of other students from the greater Boston area. It was a grueling, to say the least. The rounds were spread out over the course of a few months, and each one required us to engage in different assessments in the form of activities. Some of the activities were tests of leadership and problem solving, others tested how well you could work with others, and one even required us to run around a room as while pretending to be chickens. That was actually the hardest test! Of course, we had to keep our grades up throughout the entire process, and do well enough on the SATs in order to remain eligible. After each round, I would make my solitary journey home on the outbound train and think about my performance that day, hoping that I had done well enough to make it to the next round.
As I advanced in the process, there came a point in which the Posse foundation told the remaining contenders to do some research on the six schools that they partnered with, and then choose our top three. Once they had our top selections, the Posse staff told us that receiving a letter from one of the schools on our list would signal our movement to the final round. If you were lucky enough to receive such a letter, then the choice of whether you wanted to go through with the last round was up to you. My top three schools were Bucknell in Pennsylvania, Denison in Ohio, and Centre College in…well…you know. My friend, who had received the scholarship just two years before, said to me, “Josh, if you chose to go through with this, go anywhere you want. But don’t go to Kentucky. You’ve got no business in Kentucky.”
As much as I wanted to heed his words of advice, I was won over by this notion of “Global Citizenship” that I found on Centre’s website. I had always wanted to see the world, and immerse myself in the richness of a foreign culture. The free passport was an added bonus, so I put Centre on the lower end of my list. It seemed like the safe thing to do. After all, I would be matched with my first choice, which meant that I would be spending the next four years of my life in Pennsylvania. After what seemed like an eternity, my mom told me that something had finally come for me in the mail. You can imagine my shock when I saw that large golden folder, densely packed with informational pamphlets, which read “Centre College” waiting for me on the kitchen table.
I am standing before you today because I chose to be my best, with no regrets. Looking back on it now, it’s funny to think that Centre was not the first school on my list. So much of what defines me now is a result of the outstanding experiences I’ve had here. Because of Centre, I was able to discover the joys of being an actor and develop a love of performance arts. My study abroad experience last spring gave me the chance to live in the pictures and scenes of the geography books that I had studied as a child. I have been blessed beyond measure by the remarkable group of friends, mentors and the family of eight other Posse Scholars who I know will always have my back. For those of you in attendance today, and you know who you are, I just wanted to let you know that I am so grateful to have you in my life, and I am happy that I took a chance.
I share these stories to highlight the fact that we must always be willing to grasp the opportunities that come our way. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not telling you to say yes to everything! While life is nothing more than a culmination of experiences, bear in mind that not every experience is worth having. What I am saying is we shouldn’t feel powerless to take charge of our lives. Abraham Lincoln, a man who is near and dear to all of us at Centre, said “the best way to predict your future is to create it!” I read that on the internet. The point is we should not limit ourselves to lives of mediocrity simply because that seems like the safe and practical option. In the words of Ms. Frizzle, from The Magic School Bus, we need to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” That means we won’t be perfect. That means we may not get it right the first time. That means our postgraduate plans may not go accordingly. The simple fact of the matter is, that’s okay! As we journey through this life, the bridges we burn can serve to light our way, if we let them! And by grabbing hold of the opportunities that present themselves to us with each new circumstance, we will continually make strides toward a more brilliant future. My parents had no way of knowing the outcomes of their choices, but their desire to live, coupled with a belief in the American Dream, drove them to seize the moments as they came. I know that I have a place in the future, because of what my parents did in the past. I owe it to them—for being my pillars of support—as well as to all of you—Centre’s vibrantly didactic life force—and to myself—as the master of my own destiny—to expand upon the legacy they’ve established. And on May 24th, on this very stage, I will come that much closer to doing so when I am the first one in my family to graduate from college.
by Joshua Jerome ’15
May 5, 2015