Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Courage, Failure and Dreams: A Milken Educator's Graduation Advice

June 16, 2017

Thomas Dennison Jayda Pugliese Havre de Grace graduation 2017

Milken Educator Jayda Pugliese (PA '16) has been in demand this spring as a graduation day speaker. She's gladly addressed the graduating students at several schools, but she was particularly happy to honor one request from within the Milken Educator family: giving the featured commencement address at Havre de Grace Elementary School in Maryland, where Thomas Dennison (MD '16) teaches fifth grade. Here's the inspirational talk she shared with Thomas' students on their last day of elementary school.

Good morning! Let me begin by extending my most sincere congratulations to you, the class of 2017. It is a privilege and an honor to be here today as your keynote speaker. Standing before you makes me feel as if I have done something important, as if I have changed the world. It's quite humbling. But I believe it is important for you to know that my journey to get to this very point was not easy.

You see, neither one of my parents received the opportunity to graduate from high school, though they always valued the importance of a good education. They did what they could to provide me with as many educational experiences as possible, but by fifth grade they could no longer help me with my school work.

Honestly, fifth grade was my most challenging academic year, and that includes everything, kindergarten through 12th grade. You endure so many changes in the fifth grade. The work gets harder. Your teachers and families expect more from you. You may even feel a level of pressure to grow to become something amazing. For me, fifth grade was also the year I found out that I was losing my hearing. Doctors informed my parents that it would only be a matter of time before I would become completely deaf.

With all of those challenges, fifth grade was the year when I learned who I wanted to be in the world. I was afraid to be different. I was afraid to be unique. I was afraid to be me. I would often say, "What if they don't like me? What if I am not smart enough?" I struggled with those questions throughout middle school. But with the help and support of my teachers, I learned three very important lessons that I'd like to share with you today. I hope these lessons will help guide you in the next chapter of your lives.

First, you need to have courage.

With courage you will be bold enough to take risks. You will have the strength to be compassionate. And you will have the knowledge to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity and honesty. Put simply, courage is being yourself every day in a world that tells you to be someone else. Courage is embracing what makes you special, and sharing that gift with the world.

Second, you need to know failure is okay.

I am sure you know this already, but in life, things may not always come easily. At times you may fail reaching for goals you really want. But please know it is okay to fail. Our failures are part of our lives. If you do not make mistakes, you will not learn. And if you do not learn, you will not change.

You will not become any better or more intelligent without doing things wrong sometimes. When something bad (like failure) happens in our lives, we often want to give up. Giving up is the easy way out. You really have three choices when faced with failure. You can let it define who you will become, which means you quit when something gets too hard. You can let it destroy you and change you into a negative person. Or you can let it strengthen you. That is the choice you always want to make. Let your failures strengthen you. When you do fail—and you will!—make sure you reflect, pick yourself up, and always keep moving forward.

And last but not least: Never give up on your dreams.

Walt Disney once said, "All of our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them." What ever you decide to do in life, do what makes you happy, and please, always take your dreams seriously. Actually, don't call them dreams. Call them plans. Call them goals. But take them seriously.

Dreams are real if you have enough drive to pursue them. Your teachers and families have prepared you with the knowledge you need to pursue any given path. Your dreams are your own. Don't let anyone tell you you can't achieve your dreams. You can.

I am proof that you can reach your dreams. I am standing here before you, someone who has faced many obstacles but has had many of her dreams, plans and goals already come true. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school. The first in my family to graduate from college. I became a teacher. Soon I will graduate with my Ph.D. and will become Dr. Jayda Pugliese.

As a teacher, I always try to give back to my community and make the world a better place. As a teacher, I was able to raise thousands of dollars for my classroom for an industrial 3-D printer. My fifth-grade students and I began printing prosthetic hands for children. Last fall, just like Mr. Dennison, I won the Milken Educator Award, the "Oscars of teaching."

All of this may sound impressive to you. I have not reached all of my goals, but I have never given up or stopped dreaming. I have never stopped moving forward. Of everything I have ever accomplished, I'll tell you what am I most proud of: I am proud that I learned to stop being afraid to be myself.

Before you officially move into middle school, I want to remind each and every one of you how your family members, teachers and staff members feel about you, and how you should feel about yourselves. I want you all to repeat after me:

I am special.

I am unique.

I am kind.

I am talented.

I will change the world.

Yes, you will. You will change the world. Maybe you already have, or maybe you have not had your chance yet. It may not be tomorrow, maybe not a year from now, but one day your impact on the world will be realized, as long as you keep moving forward and never stop dreaming.

As you leave here today, remember to be yourself. To quote my favorite author, Dr. Seuss:

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the person who'll decide where to go.

Thank you again for having me today. Congratulations and best of luck to all of you on the next chapter in your lives. I cannot wait to see what the future brings.


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