Valedictory Exercises 2009: Staley Speech

Dawn Staley
Valedictory Exercises, May 16, 2009
University of Virginia

Thank you Joy for that wonderful introduction. I would like to say congratulations class of 2009. I am certain you all are glad this weekend has finally arrived. I am deeply honored to be here today and I would like to thank the class trustees for selecting me to give this address.

I have been asked to speak at several commencement ceremonies, and have always declined the invitation. The primary reason being, I'm a basketball player. I didn't invent the Internet or make new innovative strides in medical research or technology.  I dribbled a basketball, and now I teach other people how to dribble a basketball. How interesting and relative could that possibly be? But when the class trustees wrote and then called to invite me to participate in today's ceremonies, I immediately said yes. My consent to participate rested solely on duty. I feel indebted to this university. And, as such, have a duty, as will you, to answer the calls of this fine institution. And I figured if someone has to bore you all for 20 minutes, it might as well be me.

In preparing for this address today I made the grave mistake of reading the transcripts of past valedictory presenters. Such a bad idea. Each presenter, most much older than myself; presented with such eloquence and wisdom about topics so relevant and rich, I began to feel something quite foreign to me: intimidation. You might ask, "How could she lead the Cavaliers to three final four appearances, be on three Olympic teams, or better yet, grow up in North Philadelphia and be intimidated by giving a speech?" The answer is easy - it's all about timing.

All the prior valedictory speeches have stressed how exciting it will be to enter the work force and make a contribution to society as a whole. They talked about things like finding the right job, challenges of a first job, and how through hard work and determination you will find your place in this world.

Times are a little different now. 2009 ushered in its own unique set of circumstances; some of which this country has never experienced before. I agreed to give the valedictory address at one of the worst times in our country's history. At a time when the world is in complete economic turmoil and our country is as close as it has ever come to reliving the Great Depression, I have the challenge of finding the words to give you graduates hope. That's a little intimidating.

What can I possibly tell you to believe in? Internationally, we have our troops putting their lives on the line every day to protect our freedom. Domestically, we're prisoners of a failing economy. Our banking, transportation and housing industries are all in complete disarray.  The stock market is so volatile that thousands of people have lost their entire savings and retirement accounts and have been forced to remain in the work force longer- creating even more competition for you.  And to make matters worse, 611,000 jobs were lost... last month.

Advice like be strong and stay steadfast- phrases of past valedictory presenters seems just a little disingenuous today.

My initial thought was to tell you all to go to graduate school- to just stay in a little longer. But even then, at some point you're going to have to get out there in all this chaos we call 'the real world.'

I can only tell you what I know to be true- these times are not for the weak. Your strength has to come from your character. What you as an individual hold as your core values define your character. Utilize the values you adopted based on your own experiences along with the values your parents instilled in you to be courageous.

What you have learned in the classroom here at the University of Virginia is only a part of your education.   Your real learning happened as you grew, matured and developed over these past years. You're not the same person that left your parent's home four years ago. You undoubtedly have your own way of thinking and believing, which has been formed by your own unique education.

Take a minute to think about those experiences that shaped your character. Think about the journey you took to learn those lessons. You may have to rely on the constructs that came from these lessons to pull you through these uncertain times.

The only example I have to give is my own journey. Like many of you, I was drawn to the University of Virginia. But unlike many of you, my draw was not for its rich tradition, prestige or great academic reputation.

My journey to the University of Virginia was unique.  I was not born into a family that held strong beliefs about the importance of a college education. In fact, I can't remember my parents ever having conversations about college. My siblings and I were expected to finish high school and get good jobs.  My parents, who came on the heels of the black migration from the south to the north, settled in a North Philadelphia housing project, found jobs and worked to support their five children. For who they were, where they came from, and what they knew, they did exactly the right thing.

Only, on my way to that high school education and good job, did I find my passion. Although often asked, I can't tell you how I found basketball. I actually think it found me. I picked up a ball at around age eight and a passionate love affair began.

By my senior year of high school, every school in the country had expressed interest in me, but it was Debbie Ryan the then and current head women's basketball coach who won me over. When Debbie introduced me to the University of Virginia, it wasn't its rich history or strong academic tradition that impressed me. It was Debbie's talks of championships and of creating a legacy that I could actually leave that sealed the deal. Make no mistake; I came to the University of Virginia to play basketball.

When I arrived here on the beautiful grounds, I was quite ignorant and extremely unprepared. I remember standing right over there on the Lawn at Convocation, alone, and looking at a sea of unfamiliar happy faces.... I thought I was going to die. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I had never been away from my predominately black North Philadelphia community for longer than it took to play in a tournament. I had no idea how I was going to handle this vast difference for four years.

I actually didn't handle it very well at all. I know Debbie is out there today nodding her head in affirmation. I was a mess, and I gave her the blues. I resisted change, assimilation and help with everything I had in me for as long as I could.  My urban upbringing had shaped me into a    guarded, proud and extremely shy person.  I expressed myself on the court and it was there that I felt most comfortable.

It took a while, but I came full circle. These were my lessons: 


Although not a bad student, UVA has a way of placing just the right amount of academic obstacles in your way so that at some point in your academic career, you're going to need help. My time came during my first year. My eligibility was threatened, and because I still believed I was here only to play basketball, I had to humble myself to ask for help. It was asking for help that unlocked the doors to my academic success and my overall college experience.


When I first heard about the Honor Code I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard of. In Philadelphia, honor code was Latin for permission to cheat. I saw the Honor Code in effect during my second year. I understood then its effectiveness and the way in which it protected the integrity of the academic process. It is truly one of the reasons why this is such a great University.


I learned the fight song my third year. I ventured out to a football game and was absolutely amazed by the student camaraderie. Never before had I been a part of a collective group, with such pride and love for that which was theirs. Independent of race or creed, in that moment, we were only identifiable as Wahoos! I loved it!


It was also in my third year that I discovered that despite my best efforts, I could not win a championship alone. I learned that the value of teamwork is greater than the sum of individual ambition, and although I had been greatly recognized and rewarded for my accomplishments on the court, my greatest reward came from being a part of the team.  The ability to work collectively toward a common goal and to see that goal realized became the reason why I played.


It was my fourth year that I said good-bye to my collegiate career in dramatic fashion. When the final buzzer sounded that fateful day, we had lost to Stanford University in the final four. Holding back tears, I held my head high and looked each opponent in the eye as they hurriedly shook our hands. I let go of a shallow smile silently acknowledging just how far I had come, as just three years prior there would be no way I would shake a victors hand in acknowledgement of my own defeat.

Humility, integrity, tradition, selflessness and dignity, along with the values of respect and strong work ethic instilled in me by my parents, became my armor and ultimately defined my character.    It is with these qualities that I face the world.

Your lessons learned and the ways in which your character has been shaped by these lessons and experiences will undoubtedly look different than mine. But our commonality lies in the fact that we are aimed and that we are stronger than we appear. Your challenge is to believe this.

Success will not come easy, but it will come. If our new president has inspired anything in us, it is a daring willingness to challenge assumptions or conventions and the courage to tackle something difficult or dangerous: It’s audacity.

You have got to have the audacity to dream, to hope and to try over and over again despite the uncertainty of success. You have to have the audacity to attempt those feats you fear most, and to stand in the face of discomfort and smile your brightest smile. You have to have a belief in self far greater than anyone's disbelief.

And if you fall, and you might, get back up... because you're a Wahoo. You're educated, you're prepared, and you're of strong character. We bend, but we don't break!

Good luck graduates!