A Message for 2020 Graduates
Honors graduate, Heidi Moe Graviet, represents the Honors Program as the student selected by the Honors Executive Committee to speak at the 2020 BYU University Commencement. While she did not have a chance to address the studentbody this year, we invited her to share a message with you, her fellow Honors graduates:
Dear Class of 2020,
Five years ago, on a sunny evening, I drove to the top of a hill overlooking my hometown in rural Idaho, parked my car, and cried. I had received my final rejection letter from every college I had applied to. Every college, that is, except BYU. It seems funny to think about now, but at the time, I was devastated. Though I knew deep down that BYU was the place I needed to be, attending college on the East Coast with my sisters had been my dream since I was six. I’d worked towards it for twelve years, only to fail by a technicality.
When I returned home that evening, my dad didn’t say anything—he just handed me a copy of Hugh B. Brown’s currant bush story.
And here I was again on this same hill, almost exactly five years later, with grief in my heart. I grieved that I wouldn’t be able to speak to our graduating class—another lifelong dream. I grieved for the ruined plans of my friends, the loss of my full-time job offer, and the cancellation of a month-long research trip to Japan to study my ancestry—all consequences of the pandemic.
With the familiarity of crushing disappointment from circumstances I couldn’t control, it initially felt like I had returned to exactly where I had been five years ago.
But this time, I realized that I was at a crossroads. As I had entered college, I had been so focused on the doors that had closed behind me that I failed to see the mountain God had cleared right in front of me. It took two years of agonizing over my lost hopes before I finally embraced my path at BYU, found my place, and began to grow—I just couldn’t stop looking back.
It’s so easy to focus on what could have been, or what should have been: things that were supposed to happen, and never did, opportunities lost, or relationships that should have worked, but didn’t. Many of our lives were supposed to transform during this time in ways that may now never happen, and it is so painful to try to let go.
In the classic story often referred to as “The Currant Bush,” Hugh B. Brown recounts how he had worked his way up the military ranks for years through great effort and honorable service, only to be rejected from his dream position of general because of religious discrimination. He was qualified—he’d done everything right. But he had lost it all on an unjust technicality.
When Elder Brown got home, he shook his fists at heaven and exclaimed, “How could you do this to me, God? I have done everything I could do to measure up. There is nothing that I could have done—that I should have done—that I haven’t done. How could you do this to me?” Then he heard a voice from heaven: “I am the gardener here. I know what I want you to be.”
As I reflected on my own experience, my mind opened to the realization that attending BYU had turned out to be one of the greatest blessings God has ever given me. I had been able to watch the sun set on the sea of Galilee and connect with my Japanese heritage through my Honors research. My studies in humanities had fed my spirit and soul with the sheer joy of literature and taught me what it means to have the privilege of being human. My professors had empowered me to transform into a fuller, more agential version of myself. Because of this university, my priorities had flipped, my capacities had increased, and my heart had changed. I reflected on how everything I’d thought I’d miss from not attending my dream university had been compensated a hundred-fold.
My soul flooded with gratitude. I felt acutely the last words of the story, as Elder Brown reflected on the incredible and unprecedented path his life had taken, “Thank you, Mr. Gardener, for cutting me down—for loving me enough to hurt me.” I realized that I wasn’t exactly where I’d been five years before—because I was a completely different person. After our education at BYU, we’ve all changed. We’ll never face our challenges the same way again.
We’ve all been cut down during these last few months—some in devastating ways—by circumstances beyond our control. We’ve lost jobs and internship opportunities. We’ve struggled to pay our rent. We’ve canceled weddings. We’ve missed births. We’ve exchanged connection for the loneliness of isolation and lost expectations for graduated life, security, safety, and perhaps even lost family members and friends to the virus. On graduation day, when we were supposed to be celebrating our hard-earned achievements and marching into a bright future together, we were miles apart, heading into a dark night of global uncertainty.
But even in the depth of our grief, questions seem to arise at the edges of our loss—questions of deeper meaning. This pandemic may have landed on the year of our graduation for reasons we may not yet understand. What if, somehow, we are exactly where we are supposed to be? What if we can take this on—and rise?
Regardless of whether you’ve made it through the worst, or still cannot see an end, we’ve all been forced to confront questions of who we want to become, what matters to us, and how we want to build our lives because of this pandemic. What we will do is up to us.
As we move forward through this night of uncertainty, we will occasionally feel fear. There will be times when we might falter, and we will need to draw upon reserves of courage beyond ourselves to keep going. We will need to remember for what—and whom—we persist.
My grandmother was born during WWII when bombs were a constant threat to her coastal city. Her mother died soon after giving birth. As the city was no place for a single father to raise a large family and a brand-new baby, my great-grandfather made the hard decision to adopt my grandmother out to a family in the country who could raise her. When her oldest sister Yumiko, then a high school student, returned home to find my grandmother missing, she confronted my great-grandfather, exclaiming, “How could you give Hisako away? She is family!” Yumiko walked miles out into the country to retrieve my grandmother and then spent the next four years of her life raising her, walking door to door daily to beg for milk to feed her.
Yumiko’s high school life and future plans were abruptly changed by a world war, the sudden death of her mother, and the splitting of her family. Though she may have felt scared and discouraged, even crushed, she didn’t let these events defeat her. When faced with impossible circumstances out of her control, she displayed extreme courage and made them her own.
There have been so many moments over these past five years when I’ve been overwhelmed by fear and my strength faltered. At those times, an image of my teenage great-aunt carrying a baby through the streets would appear in my mind and something would light inside me—a grit, or power. The thought of her sacrifice for our family, for me—a person she would never meet—gave me the will to become the person I needed to be to meet my own challenges in order to honor that sacrifice. Knowing that she had seen something worth fighting for in a hopeless situation inspired me to move forward in spite of fear.
Remembering the people who have made sacrifices before us allows us to live powerfully; it gives us the will to push through in order to honor their efforts and to uphold the trust of all who are counting on us. In our worst moments, when we fear we cannot soldier on, we’ll find that we can continue—for them.
My fellow graduates, we are at a crossroads. Now is the time to let go of what could have been and take hold of what will be. Certainly the gardener knows who we can become, and His future for us promises so much more than we have lost. If the darkness ever feels heavy, I hope we can remember all of the people that have made us who we are. We’ve been built at the hands of our faculty and by the blood, sweat, and tears of our families and friends. With such extraordinary people at our backs, we cannot fail.
Congratulations, everyone, on our graduation! Here’s to the best to come.