Mariel Hufnagel Keynote Speech to SCCC Graduates

Our ED Mariel Samantha Hufnagel was honored to be the keynote speaker at Sussex County Community College’s 2018 graduation on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 in Newton, New Jersey. Below is a transcript of her remarks made before the graduating class:

Good evening President Dr. Jon Connelly, esteemed Trustees, distinguished guests, faculty, administration and staff. Welcome to all the families and friends … and most importantly a big CONGRATULATIONS to the class of 2018! YOU DID IT!

I am honored, humbled and grateful to have been chosen as your 2018 Commencement Speaker. Not too long-ago, graduates, I was just where you are. In 2015 I graduated proudly with my Associates Degree from a New Jersey County College. County college strong, baby! And just last night, I graduated with my Masters of Arts in Public Administration with Distinction.

I would like to start by telling you a story…

In 1986, a beautiful and innocent little baby was born in Topeka, Kansas and adopted by a woman from New York City who wanted nothing more than to be a mother but was unable biologically. This baby was brought into a home with both love and opportunity. This beautiful baby, grew into a little girl. Unfortunately, this little girl developed some very serious mental health issues – bipolar disorder, severe addiction issues and a terrible eating disorder. This girl grew into a teenager, who’s life began to spiral out of control. By the time she was 17, she was heavily addicted to alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine, and believed herself to be both worthless and hopeless. By the age of 20, her addiction had progressed, bringing her to the gates of hell and death’s doorstep. This now young woman – experienced sex trafficking, homelessness, incarceration – and was desolate and destitute.

If you haven’t guessed by now, this story is about me.

Tonight, I stand here in front of you as a woman in long-term recovery – which means I have been alcohol and drug free for over 11 years. I stand here full of hope and the knowledge of my innate worth and dignity.

So, what happened? How did I get from there, to here? Why do I speak so openly about my failure – a history which one might think should be shrouded in secrecy and shame? For me, rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. My experience could have made me bitter, but instead it has made be better.

I believe my addiction and subsequent recovery can be a metaphor for life. Oftentimes blessings are disguised in disappointment, mistakes and heartache. We must have the courage to examine our “failures” as opportunities for growth. You may never fail or experience despair on the scale I did. But, some level of failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing. Do not be afraid of failure! Instead, embrace it, examine it and use it propel you to do more and try harder. You will never truly know yourself until you have been tested by adversity. Failure taught me things about myself that I could not have learned in any other way. You must not give up, you must keep going. It is okay to aim high, AND MISS! Life, albeit beautiful; is messy, difficult and scary! Acceptance of this as fact will enable you to survive its vicissitudes. Engage with an open mind, open ears and most importantly an open heart. Above all else, find yourself and honor yourself. This is process of taking risks and making mistakes; self-inquiry and self-examination. This takes bravery. We are all braver than we think.

Before I continue, I would like to ask all of the mothers, first generation students, and veterans (current or active) to stand and be recognized with a big round of applause. Many of you graduating today have had to make tremendous sacrifice to get to your seat today. Juggling employment or parenthood, spending countless hours studying, and neglecting family friends and perhaps even your own self-care. What got you through the late nights, the 5th cup of coffee, the disappointment of not doing well on a project, test or assignments? What made you get in the car and head to campus when you really didn’t want to? What kept you from throwing in the towel? The answer to that question, is your why. This ‘why’ is what will carry you through life. Through the dark moments, the painful moments, the hellish moments, the scary moments. My ‘why’ is what carried me through my Associates degree, my Bachelors degree, and my Masters degree. My ‘why’ is what carried me through my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. My ‘why’ is what carried me through the death of best friend. My ‘why’ is what carried me through being broke, being scared, being unemployed. My ‘why’ is also what I have honored when celebrating my greatest accomplishments and milestones.

As a non-traditional student – 25 years old, a 4x college dropout and a convicted felon – school meant more to me than a college campus, with desks and chairs, papers and books. In college I found a safe place to learn, not just about biology and sociology, but about myself and my dreams. Education has been a vehicle for me to build my self-esteem and cultivate my own leadership abilities. Talent and intelligence is handed out equally. But, opportunity is NOT. Education however is the great equalizer. Education open doors that otherwise could not be opened. No one can take your education away from you.

I would like to tell you 3 quick stories, of seeming kismet – which I believe are actually a testimony to hard work and right action paying off.

First – as I was at school in Ocean County College, I was volunteering with an organization in Trenton – I worked hard, showed up when I said I would, and did the things I said I would – and did them with a smile (even when I was tired, and gritting my teeth, and annoyed that I had committed myself). This organization proceeded to offer me a paid internship and then a job. I worked there for almost 5 years.

Second – as commencement geared close in 2015 at Ocean County College, I was asked to be their student commencement speaker. The Kean President was a part of the platform party that evening. After I gave my speech, on the stage, in front of thousands of people, Dr. Farahi asked, “Where are you going to school next?” and I replied honestly, “Rutgers.” He then proceeded to ask me, “Why not Kean” and again, I replied honestly, “Rutgers gave me more money.” He responded, “Come to Kean, we’ll give you a full scholarship.”

Third – early last year, I hear about a new Foundation that was offering scholarships to students in recovery from addiction. I applied for the scholarship – because we all know that college is expensive – they called me in the Spring, to inform me that they wanted to award me with a scholarship … and, also wanted to talk about a job offer. They ended up recruiting me to be their Executive Director – and the last year I have had the tremendous honor to build and run The Ammon Foundation.

I believe that these three instances are not credit to my brilliance, charm or good looks. These three instances are testimony to the sheer fact that the Universe is always conspiring for our greatest good. There is no straight path from your seat today to where you are going. Your job and is to show up every day and work hard. Your job is to ask yourself if you are honoring your ‘why’. Your job is to open your eyes, ears and most importantly my heart to recieve new opportunities.

As you leave here – going on to continue your education, or perhaps immediately joining the workforce – you have two choices: 1) you can follow someone else’s script; or 2) you can write your own story. If you know your ‘why’, it will be easier to write your own story. Perhaps you will be scolded for having quixotic ambition or told that your dreams are unattainable. Have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition. Write your own story! As you graduate today, I want to put some pressure on you. You have the privilege and the burden to change the world. This may seem like a large calling. And, it is.

I’d like to tell you one last story (and my favorite story) –

An old man was talking a walk at dawn on the beach. He noticed a young boy up ahead skipping along the coastline. He noticed that every couple of feet he would stop to bend down, pick up a starfish, and throw it into the ocean. The boy repeated this process over and over again.  Finally catching up with the boy, the old man asked, “What are you doing?” The boy answered, “It is low tide and the stranded starfish will die if they are ashore when the sun fully rises.” The old man thought for a minute, furrowed his brow, and then replied, “The beach goes on for miles and there must be millions of starfish. How can your effort make any difference at all?” The boy smiled, bent down, picked up a starfish and threw it safely into the water. “It made a difference to that one.” and he skipped away.

This is how I attempt to live my life, and I hope you will join me.

I believe that kindness, compassion, service, forgiveness and love can change the course of people’s lives and ultimately the world. I believe deeply in each of you and your ability to change the world for a better place. Do not collude with the evil in this world by living apathetically or silently. Stand up for those who cannot stand. Speak for those who cannot speak. Shine as a beacon of light, for those whose lives have become dark. Be a part of all that is good and decent in our world.

And last, in closing, I would like to read this poem, that my mother actually read to me last night before my graduation and brought me to tears.

“If-“ by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too:

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream- -and not make dreams your master;

If you can think- -and not make thoughts your aim,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same:.

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings,

And never breathe a word about your loss:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on! ‘

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings- -nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.

Thank you Sussex County Community College, and once again, CONGRATULATIONS GRADUATES!