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Maureen Davenport O'Connor '93

As St. Jane de Chantal said, “Courageous feelings do not lie within our power, but courageous conduct does indeed lie within our power.”

Your courage extends far beyond these walls and long after this morning’s ceremony. You’ve created a strong, supportive, kind and fiercely loyal community of women who have a lifetime bond.

To the class of 2019, what an amazing day and accomplishment. Your journey here is complete…you arrived four years ago as nervous freshman excited to learn what was so special about Marshmallow Roast and junior retreat…you graduate today as leaders of those important traditions. You are – as I’ve heard from everyone I have spoken with – a class that goes above and beyond to give back to the community. You graduate as women of faith, vision and purpose. 

I know that because 26 years ago, I sat where you are. Back then, I never imagined I would be here speaking with you today. In fact, I was a little nervous to leave this place I considered a second home, and these friends who felt more like sisters. I loved it here and “here” was comfortable. Change made me nervous. It still does.

But after hearing about you, you have nothing to be nervous about. You are headed to Princeton, Georgetown, University of Virginia, University of North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Penn State and JMU. You are a class with extraordinary accomplishments  –  you’ve pursued achievements in STEM, you are equestrians, and you have won championships…

But what would those achievements be without the other things you have built during your time here at Visitation: your faith, character, friendships, work ethic and, as St. Francis de Sales said, your ability to “be who you are and to be that well.”

As you start your next chapter, remember that Salesian spirit. Carry it with you. Remember your Visitation community of 123 good friends. Don’t let others define you and always be who you are.

So, who am I? Well, I have a great job, and I love my work – but it’s called work for a reason. The hours are long, and the travel is a grind. At the same time, my husband and I are raising four children, ages 5, 7, 9 and 11. People often ask me “How do you do it all?”

The reality is: I don’t do it all, and I definitely don’t do it perfectly. I am sometimes great at work and sometimes I am a great mom, wife, daughter, sister and friend. Other days I am slightly above average – and by the way, I am a generous grader unlike your teachers here at Visitation. But, our family is amazing and our kids are happy and thriving. At work, I am surrounded by smart and good people of the highest integrity. I view that as winning. These days, I try not to waste a lot of time on worry or stress. The truth is I wasn’t always my best self when I was in high school – I worried more and wondered what others thought of me too often. But, the seeds of who I would become were planted while I was here, and I carry the lessons I learned with me.

About 10 years ago when I had just started a new job at Fannie Mae, I had a remarkable “Visitation moment”. You may not remember it, but the financial crisis of 2008 was devastating for many people and Fannie Mae was at the center of it. I joined the company at the height of the crisis. To say it was a challenging time is a massive understatement. The days and nights tended to blur together. At one point when I was a few weeks in, I was asked to present to a group of business leaders. As I walked into the room, I attempted to mask my skittishness with a smile, when suddenly one of the assembled strangers said: “Did you go to Visitation? I think my mom was your English teacher.”

Ice broken, bond established, presentation successful. The lesson for me was that it’s good to be smart – even better to be the most prepared – but never underestimate the importance of looking up and connecting with people on the most basic human level. We are all human and that human connection – that Visitation connection – matters in life.

Visitation has given you an incredible academic opportunity and environment. You’ve known hard work, and learned its value. That’s one of the reasons you chose Visitation, and why you put in the long hours it took to succeed here. But, as I look back on my time on this campus, I want to tell you that it’s not actually the academics, outstanding as they are, that make this place so special. The discipline, rigor and outright grit it takes to thrive here will be important ingredients to succeed in whatever you do next. But the Visitation experience, what makes it special, is the Salesian spirit and those Little Virtues that are easy to take for granted while you are here but become your moral compass when you leave.

I want to focus on three with you today.

The first virtue is GENEROSITY. There are many ways to be generous. Financial generosity is important, but sharing your time and skills is just as important. Don’t hoard your gifts or get too “busy” with life that you have nothing left to give. Connect with your community. Reach out to a friend who may be struggling, and find time to help even if it feels like you don’t have any time to spare.

As I mentioned, our kids are young so our bedtime routine still involves reading. My favorite book when I was little and one that I have read too many times to count is: “The Little Engine that Could”.  For anyone who hasn’t read it, the Little Engine is a generous spirit who is determined to help. Yes, it’s a children’s book but the Little Engine inspires me often…It’s going to get over that mountain to help the little boys and girls on the other side no matter what – no matter how tired, how hard, or how improbable it felt during the journey. Be the Little Engine, work hard for and give back to your community, help a neighbor or roommate who needs you, prioritize things that are hard and rewarding and then keep chugging along.

The second virtue I want to talk about is OPTIMISM. I think the virtue is technically “joyful optimism”. I haven’t mastered the joyful part just yet, but I am ALL IN on optimism. This is an important virtue and it goes beyond a positive attitude. To me, optimism is about recognizing and accepting challenges, and highs and lows and blending them together to create a collection of experiences that is uniquely you.

So whatever you do next, I encourage you to soak it all in. Celebrate success and embrace failure…which by the way IS VERY hard to do especially for “Type A” overachievers…trust me -- try to think of it not as a failure but rather as your First Attempt In Learning. Every person has a different experience we can learn from. Listen to others. Notice them. Find the good in them.

St. Francis de Sales said: “The Church is a garden patterned with unlimited flowers...all of them provide a beauty most pleasing and perfect.” Take heed of the flowers in your life’s garden. They can bring joy and optimism even on the hardest of days.

The third virtue I want to talk about is KINDNESS. Kindness is the most underrated and, I believe, the most important virtue. It’s really hard to be kind every day. But, when you show kindness to others – no matter how young or old you are – it is almost always returned. “Pay it forward” is a cliché but I believe it’s true. Kindness counts. I have felt extraordinary kindness from the sisters, staff and faculty at Visitation, and from the lifelong friends I met here.

A lot of people talk about “tradition” at Visitation. What you’ll find as you get further away from your time here, is that the traditions run far deeper than gold/white or junior retreat …The strongest traditions, and the ones that endure, are the simple moments between friends, and the deep certainty that you are part of a community.

There’s an important confidence that comes with knowing that we – as Visitation graduates - ALWAYS had and always will have each other’s back.

Whatever you major in or whatever career you choose to pursue, it will be competitive. The formula of hard work, generosity, optimism and kindness can help you thrive and set you apart, whatever field you choose. And as you go forward, remember the impact of those little – but mighty – virtues.  

I’m not big on inspirational quotes or those little signs people share on social media that are meant to inspire but more likely to annoy. But I do have one sign that inspires me and my family. It hangs prominently on the wall in our mudroom, and I like that we walk by it many times a day. It’s something that comedian Conan O’Brien once told the graduating seniors at Harvard. He said, “If you work really hard and are kind, amazing things will happen.” I believe that.

Look around you. These classmates, these teachers, have been your community and your strength. They have lifted you up, challenged you, and supported you. With them, you have learned to “Live Jesus.” You have shared moments and memories and forged lasting friendships. So today my advice to you is simple: Work hard. Be generous. Be optimistic. Most of all, be kind. And go out and make amazing things happen.  

Thank you and congratulations!

This is an excerpt from the keynote speech given by Maureen at Visitation's 2019 graduation.