“Class of 2021: Senior Class Representative Address”

Shay Manuela ’21

Senior Class Representative Address
176th and 177th Ohio Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremony
May 29, 2021

Shay Manuela ’21 delivers the Class of 2021 senior class representative address at OWU’s 2020 and 2021 Commencement Ceremony. (Photo by Paul Vernon)

Greetings to the faculty, the staff, and the families of our graduating class. Greetings to the students who could not be here today and are attending virtually: Know that your classmates feel your presence today in this stadium.

I know many of you defied great odds to get this day. I also know some of you have family members who have had to make great sacrifices. I know because I’m one of you.

As a Communication major, I learned three things: 1. People have a natural desire to fit in. 2. Our brains create scripts that inform our expectations of how life works. 3. The messages we are exposed to play a powerful role in constructing our realities.

In life, we often choose which stories we share and which ones we don’t. And in a social media generation, the stories we share are often our highlights.

Today I want to share a story that I have not shared with many on this campus. I was born in the Netherlands, in Western Europe. My mother was Black, an immigrant, low-income, and a single parent. My grandmother had six daughters and worked multiple jobs and night shifts to care for them. Her grandmother was a descendant of slaves and worked as a washerwoman.

See, in this position, society created a narrative about my possibilities that focused on what I couldn’t do, rather than what I could. I was told that I was too Black and too poor, that I did not belong in certain spaces, that education was the key to success—but then they would change the locks.

I had always dreamed of going to college in the States. However, these messages told me this was not a path for someone like me. When I explained this to a mentor in high school, jokingly stating, “I am not Sasha Obama, after all,” he replied, “What does she have that you don’t?”

Now, admittedly, there were a few things she had that I didn’t—a labradoodle, infinite wealth, a father for President—but that moment inspired me to dare to look beyond the limitations imposed by others. My decision had been made: I was going to college in the States.

That day I started writing my own story. I paved my way through the jungle called college applications and washed dishes to pay for my admission exams and school books.

My mom always told me the sky is the limit. And months later, I sat on a plane flying over the Atlantic Ocean. Just as my grandma had crossed the Atlantic Ocean two generations ago, in search of better opportunities for her daughters.

Stepping into my power allowed me to rise beyond the narrative society carved out for me: serving as a leader in student organizations on campus, interning with Saturday Night Live, and graduating magna cum laude.

Today I stand here as the first college graduate in my family. Thank you, Mom, for always believing in me!

The story I shared was one of resilience. While it may not be your exact story, I think all of us have a story of resilience: the first-generation students who are breaking a cycle, the women who will continue to shatter glass ceilings, the students who lost a friend or family member.

This same resilience marks both of the graduating classes. In the middle of a global pandemic, we continued pushing for our dreams. And now we sit here in Selby Stadium celebrating an in-person commencement. Who would have thought this would be possible today!

Reflecting on our journeys, it was often the chosen family at Ohio Wesleyan—of alumni, staff, faculty, and the peers sitting next to us today—who taught us lessons beyond those in the classroom. Lessons we can take with us for life.

Let all of us take a moment to reflect on a person who has helped us get to where we are today. …

The first class I took in college was with Dr. Dailey. Her example showed me a new script: one where you could be Black, a mother, a wife but also an academic and a mentor. Dr. Dailey, thank you for your support and belief in me!

At the same time, I hope this encourages us to pay that gift forward. Globally, only 7 percent of adults have a college degree, making those with a degree a minority. This degree is a privilege. Don’t let it blind you, but rather let it open your eyes to those who do not have a voice.

As we embark on our journey today, we face an important responsibility. Your words and knowledge hold power; how will you use yours?

Dr. Dailey once said that “leadership is service.” The degree we are receiving today is a gift: one we can use to uplift others as we continue paving the way. Though this may sound like a daunting task, I believe it is one perfectly fitted for my fellow Bishops.

During these past four years, our experiences prepared us for what lies ahead.

We volunteered at organizations within and beyond the Delaware community. We studied in foreign places, learning about other cultures and ideas. We cheered for OWU in our head-to-head rivalry with Denison, and our student-athletes won on and off the field.

We let our voices be heard, and we did so creatively: sit-ins, protests, fashion shows, and spoken words. We advocated for new dining services, a new meal plan, LA CASA, and a new House of Black Culture, which I had the honor of living in.

We also advocated for new senior apartments that are currently nearing the end of construction and will be opened this fall. ... You’re welcome, Class of 2022.

Dear graduates, as you step into the next chapter, please remember that only you define your life. Do not give others control over your script, but write your own story, for your purpose is what sets you apart.

Let the resilience and advocacy that you showed by graduating today be an assurance that whatever challenge you may face, this too shall pass.

Dear classmates, congratulations.

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