“Creating a Meaningful Life”

Dr. Diane Petersen ’66

2019 Keynote Address
2019 Ohio Wesleyan University Commencement Ceremony
May 11, 2019

Dr. Diane Petersen ’66 delivers the commencement address at OWU’s 2019 Commencement Ceremony. (Photo by Paul Vernon)

Wow. What a beautiful day at OWU. Right?

Four years – or more – of listening, questioning, studying, googling, and looking forward to this day of walking across this stage. And here you are right now … in a cap and gown. Cherish this moment. Savor it.

I want to thank President Rock Jones and Class President Caroline Hamlin for inviting me; greetings to members of the OWU family and all who are here to witness this marvelous event. … Heartfelt congratulations to the graduating Class of 2019.

Every one of you has a story to tell, and your personal story will continue for many more chapters after you leave the OWU campus. Storytelling is a lot more than just a presentation of facts and events. It’s filling in the major plot lines with meaningful descriptive details.

Being aware of your unfolding story enables you to pull your significant life experiences into a coherent, relatable narrative. One that conveys meaning and purpose so you can understand yourselves better not only through your own narrative, but also that of others. It clarifies the meaning of your life during times when life becomes most challenging.

I am about to share my story with you, and the important part is it was very much influenced by the values instilled not only at home but also here at OWU.

Values such as aligning your life toward the ultimate good, respect for all people, and service to others are useful in moving toward a meaningful life – so that life is richer and more purposeful than you can ever imagine.

As President Jones told you, I’m a Battling Bishop who’s walked in your shoes. Well, maybe not in Vans or Toms, but I have walked in your shoes. It’s an honor and a privilege to return to campus and share why this 1966 OWU graduate is here for you today.

When I say I’ve walked the walk, it was nowhere near the same walk as you. My freshman year at Ohio Wesleyan was in 1962. It was a time when students were transitioning from the conservatism and passivity of the 1950s to a more dynamic, open, and confrontational society of the 1960s. More and more students were “questioning authority” rather than sitting back and accepting the status quo.

The transformation of OWU’s campus and the national culture was just beginning during my freshman year. By the time I graduated, the Vietnam War was escalating and seriously dividing the country; Nelson Mandela was arrested and imprisoned in South Africa, and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. But what affected me most were the civil rights and the national women’s rights movements. Sounds like a repeat of what’s making headlines today, doesn’t it?

Back in the ’60s, very few high schools were racially integrated. But in New Jersey mine was. Students formed social groups based on common intellectual interests and abilities rather than by who was wealthy, middle class, or had the lightest skin. At the time, I had no idea that an integrated school was the exception rather than the norm.

When I arrived at OWU, any student who was not a member of the Greek system was labeled an “Independent.” Being an “independent” today is a good thing. Back then it meant you were basically unpledged and on your own. And that applied to anyone with my skin.

Here I was at a superb University, one in which the Greek system was a significant part of campus life, and it was one where membership started with the color of your skin. This was blatant racial discrimination, and it was so different from my high school experience. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had come to the wrong place.

But as I said earlier, student attitudes were changing. Of the 14 sororities on campus, I had many friends in Alpha Gamma Delta and when it came time to pledge, they invited me to join. I was thrilled to be recognized for who I was: smart, compassionate, and outgoing.

But that elation turned to disappointment when the local and national alumni leaders of Alpha Gamma Delta banded together to block my membership. The leadership initiated a campaign against me, and they did it by promoting divisiveness, fear, and uncertainty within the chapter. Those leaders went so far as to threaten the sorority with the loss of their national chapter standing.

The whole affair was downright ugly, and here I was caught in the middle. Half of the sorority wanted me as a sister and the rest were confused and afraid. I couldn’t stand seeing the sorority divided over disputes about my membership, so I withdrew my acceptance of the invitation to pledge. Talk about an ego buster. It’s not like I was the last kid picked for the team, I couldn’t even be on the team!

Mothers frequently give great advice in times of despair; mine told me, “When disappointment occurs, something even better will come your way. It just takes patience.” I always remembered Mother’s words, which proved to be true in repeated chapters of my story. After processing the hurt and disappointment of my rejection by the Alpha Gamma Delta alumni officials, I was able to reflect on what had happened and why.

Yes, the experience was incredibly painful. It made me feel small and vulnerable. But because I chose not to dwell on those feelings or internalize the rejection – I walked away from that disappointing chapter fully determined to move forward.

I set goals to get more involved in student government and other campus activities that did not have discriminatory practices. And I surrounded myself with friends who provided much-needed sounding boards for encouragement and validation.

One year later, a group of Delta Delta Delta friends convinced me to try again, and this time it was to pledge their sorority. They were very persuasive, assuring me that Tri-Delts did not have a policy, written or unspoken, that prohibited membership based on race or religion. This was a turning point for me. Everything I learned from the previous pledge experience made me stronger, more resilient, and even better, it gave me the courage to stick my neck out and try again.

The Tri-Delt’s founding principles of welcoming women of character also included “having a society that will be kind to all alike.” Kindness to all sounds good, doesn’t it? I certainly thought so!

Some of these women guessed that pledging an African American might raise a few eyebrows. But they didn’t care. They simply wanted me as one of their own. One member went so far as to say, “No one is going to tell us what to do and that includes who we will pledge.” To them, color and religion did not matter. Music to my ears!

Pledging an African American was possible in theory, but not in practice.

When it came my turn to pledge, I had all the requirements checked off. Letter of recommendation from someone who personally knew me in New Jersey. Check. Sign off from alumna advisor. Check. Unanimous vote from chapter members and the advisor. Check. All of the membership requirements were completed and you know what, that presented a problem.

No one remembers the Tri-Delta National Office headquartered in Texas ever paying any attention to the OWU chapter prior to my pledging. But they were paying attention now. It seemed as if a representative from the Delta Delta Delta national office was visiting our campus every month, including the national president.

Chapters and alumni, especially those in the South, demanded my pledge be revoked. There were many reasons.

One, they feared that pledging a woman of color could endanger future recruitment efforts at OWU and across the nation. Second, the sorority couldn’t hold social events in private clubs that barred African American members and it would be difficult to find alternative sites. They also worried about the backlash if an African American member brought a white date to an event.

These may sound like outdated reasons today, but such concerns created enormous pressure on the sorority and alumni in 1964.

I received many hurtful letters as did the sorority, calling our chapter an embarrassment and demanding my resignation. Someone told our sorority pledge trainer, “You will go to hell for this.” Another Tri-Delt was asked, “What will your sisters in Alabama think?”

Since all the requirements for pledging me had been fulfilled, the national office could not attack me directly. Instead they went after the chapter. Each OWU Tri-Delt active received a letter inquiring if this was the course they truly wanted to follow. The document asked them to imagine inviting me to have dinner in their homes or to spend the night with them. This was undoubtedly a tactic designed to get at least one dissenting vote in order to block my initiation.

They scoured the sorority archives, looking for any excuse to put the chapter on probation. And they found reasons that dated back decades! Suddenly the house was on just about every kind of probation imaginable. One of the reasons for probation was because a sorority sister put her pledge pin on a charm bracelet. That was apparently a huge no-no!

The probations kept the chapter from initiating new members for several months. It took the intervention of then-OWU President Elden Smith on the chapter’s behalf with the Tri-Delt national office and a lot of jumping through hoops for Delta Delta Delta to finally initiate me and other members of the pledge class in the spring of 1965.

For all the struggles and ill will that sprang out of that ordeal, I can honestly say it not only strengthened me to the depths of my being, it also intensified the feeling of pride, joy, and love I shared with my sisters. Those astonishing young women succeeded where other sorority chapters could not.

The OWU Deltas were ready to go to the mat for what they wanted and believed. OWU, the administration, faculty, board of trustees, and a group of courageous Tri-Delta collegiates paved the way and helped me open the door against discrimination in college sororities across the nation. I hope you feel as proud as I do that it happened at our beloved OWU.

So that is just a few chapters of my story. By sharing them, I hope you benefit from seeing how one person managed disappointment, setbacks, and opposition, then finally acceptance and victory.

Of course, a lot has changed since the 1960s, though unfortunately not enough. Insidious racism exists today. But I’m optimistic that basic human rights like equality, justice, and truth will win over the ignorance, hatred, and bias that people of every age experience around the world. I say this with absolute trust and conviction because you out there in the caps and gowns are moving humanity forward.

As I mentioned, your story continues when you walk off the stage with those hard-earned diplomas. Some of you know exactly what happens next. What if you can’t envision what happens next? Being in a kind of limbo can be very unnerving, confusing, and disheartening.

I’m here to let you in on a few secrets, though. If you’re smart enough to matriculate with a liberal arts degree from Ohio Wesleyan, you’re smart enough to know who you are, articulate what you want, and use that knowledge to make your next move.

The true beauty of a liberal arts education is that it teaches you how to learn, not just in the classroom or from textbooks but from life experiences. Knowledge is all powerful, I repeat all powerful. Acquiring knowledge on your own and realizing that learning is a reward in and of itself are important to reflect upon throughout life.

An Ohio Wesleyan University liberal arts education definitely gives you certain advantages. Respected magazines such as Forbes ranked OWU No. 1 in Ohio and No. 17 among “America’s Most Entrepreneurial Colleges.” The Fiske Guide to Colleges says OWU is one of the “best and most interesting four-year colleges, providing students with a solid liberal arts experience based not on bells and whistles, but on practical career-related experience.” Now is clearly the time for you to use the skills you acquired here. Keep your objectives in sight. Control how and what you think.

Here’s a question. When you look at where you’re going next, what do you see? A marketing department, nonprofit agency, back to the classroom? I’m living proof that what you think is about to happen might occur, but it also could change in the best possible way.

I recently retired from a 30-year career as a head-and-neck surgeon. Believe me when I say obtaining my degrees and navigating my career hardly progressed from A to B. In fact it was more like A to Z.

I came to college wanting to become a serious stage actor, but by the end of freshman year I developed a more practical mindset. It had to do with being financially independent and having a “career,” but not in one of the typical fields ascribed to women at that time – like nursing or teaching. So following graduation, I accepted a management position at AT&T.

While there I became acutely aware of sex discrimination, glass elevators, and glass ceilings. There was not one female district manager among the 1 million employees! It didn’t take long to realize my AT&T management career was going nowhere.

But having that job made me realize that working in corporate America was just not me. It proved to be a wakeup call that helped me realize what I really wanted. And that was to work in a profession helping others.

So I shifted direction and enrolled in the master’s program at Northwestern University, where I majored in communicative disorders. I was 26 years old.

After receiving the master’s degree, I worked for several years as a speech and language pathologist. Then I reassessed where I was. Looking back, it was a real ah-ha! moment. I realized I needed more of an intellectual challenge and opportunities to help others at an even higher level.

The next step was to take a deeper journey and seek things that I believed were truly worth wanting. I decided I wanted to be a physician.

My final formal course of study was a medical degree at the University of Michigan, completed in 1982 at age 38 followed by six years of residency training. My 10-year journey toward becoming a doctor is one of the most defining parts of my life story and those chapters are among the most satisfying and fulfilling.

Your education, like mine at OWU, will help provide the means and understanding to reassess along the way, make strategic plans, and know when to move on.

Making these decisions can be daunting. Don’t let fear of failure or dreams that seem too lofty hold you back. Once you know for certain what you want, and more importantly why you want it, start moving in that direction and continue on that trajectory at a steady pace.

I hope this story of rejection and recalibration encourages you to learn and grow from all of life’s experiences, to reach out for what you want, to be aware of the need for flexibility, to be willing to change paths when necessary, and to be able to deal with what author and NY Times columnist David Brooks refers to as the moment of annunciation.

That is the moment when the interest is sparked or the fire is lit. Brooks goes on to say, and I love this quote, “For a life to have meaning one must be aware of the soul that needs to be uplifted, not the skill that needs to be maximized.”

Seek and discover your purpose, know what makes your heart sing, and move in that direction.

Last but not least, a meaningful life is not entirely about work. Don’t allow work to become your identity. Oren Cass, author of “Once and Future Worker,” warns how “workism” can isolate you and keep you from being engaged and building relationships with family and the community. Heed that warning. Build relationships wherever you go. Take yourself away from the narrowness of your phone screen and appreciate the wide reality of the world around you.

And this is a simple message but so important: Above all be kind, recognize the worth of others, and come to them with a compassionate heart. Teach your children to be kind. Live by that example.

Embrace your self-worth as it will enable you to become selfless. Keep your hearts and minds open. Use your voice for good and for what is right.

When you receive your degree today, you’re also joining the alumni family of this prestigious institution. It’s a place where you’ve made lifelong friendships. Nurture those friendships and connections; they are incredible gifts worth treasuring.

Let me be the first alumna to welcome you to the Ohio Wesleyan family. You may not remember my name. Or the year I graduated. But I do want you to remember how truly excited I am for all of you today! OWU has left its mark on you. It has touched you to the very core, where you are not only educated, but transformed.

I am encouraged and heartened as I anticipate what you might contribute to the world in the years to come. You have been given the tools. Keep moving your story forward and make it a big and important story that you can devote your life to – one that gives it meaning.

It’s time for the OWU Class of 2019 to step out and lead. Be loud and be proud!