In her keynote address to the Hamilton Holt School class of 2008 on Saturday, May 10, former Lieutenant Governor of Florida Toni Jennings advised the 377 graduates receiving associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees to consider who they want to be rather than what they want to be. Inspired by Maria Shriver’s comments on the Today Show regarding Shriver’s recent book, Just Who Will You Be?, Jennings said, “You should not allow your career or your job to define who you are. It might be what you are, but it’s not who you are.”
Though she rose from fifth grade teacher to Florida’s youngest female legislator to the state’s first woman Lieutenant Governor, Jennings often finds herself being asked the what-do-you-do question since leaving public office and returning to her family’s construction business. “I guess I’m unemployed,” she said, displaying her legendary sense of humor. “But that’s not who I am.” Commending the Holt graduates, ranging from 21 to 70 years of age, for pursuing higher education while working jobs and raising children, she offered five “tips of the trade” for discovering who they are and how they might improve.
Be a good listener, call your parents, and don’t worry about getting the credit were her first three tips. “If you worry about who gets the credit,” she said, “that tells a lot about who you are.” Designating “give back” as her fourth rule, Jennings said, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Her final guideline—do what you love and seize opportunities—came with a codicil: “The hardest part about opportunities is they usually show up disguised as hard work.”
Jennings closed her address with a story about a cracked water pot whose leak enabled flowers to grow along the water carrier’s path. “It’s the cracks and the flaws that each of us has that make our lives together so interesting and so rewarding,” she said. Charging her audience to look for the good inside each other, she said, “While we celebrate what you have become—a new college graduate—we’re never too old to also think about who we will become.”
Outstanding Graduating Senior Donte Mabra also addressed the graduates, quoting his father as he challenged each classmate to strive for greatness in his or her chosen life endeavor. “If you’re going to be a bum, be the best bum!” he said. Mabra admitted it took years before he understood the point of his father’s rather startling directive. “Whatever it is in life that you do,” Mabra explained, “do it in such a way that history bears witness that no one could have done it better.”
Mabra, an organizational behavior major who has served the Central Florida community for 12 years as a 911 operator-dispatcher for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, encouraged his fellow students to resist conformity and mediocrity in their pursuit of excellence. “We are a byproduct of the expectations that we impose upon ourselves,” he said. “There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” He implored his audience to invest their words and deeds with such conviction that “even your whispers are heard as roars.”
Mabra warned his classmates, however, that pursing greatness wouldn’t be easy. “It is through the struggle that we are made strong, and it is the very battle that affords us victory,” he said. He urged them to make exemplary life choices, saying “Life offers us no guarantees except the opportunity to be the best individual that we can be.”