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The Relay

The first time I was here on Cromwell Field I was 16 years old.  My neon green track shoes just arrived in the mail. It was NMH 1994 and I was preparing for my first track meet. Coach Batty says to me, “I want you to try to run the 400-meter dash.” The 400, however, is not my race. I am a long jumper.  At 5 feet 10 inches, my competitive advantage is clearly in long jumping.  But, this is Coach Batty.  No one says no to Coach Batty.  So I said “Yes.” And as I take my place in the starters’ block, it occurs to me, “I have never seen anyone run the 400-meter dash. Have I even run 400 meters?”  The pistol sounds and I run as fast as I can. I am leading the pack at the 100-meter mark. I’m excited to be so far ahead.  I start to slow down and look for the finish line, but the other runners are now starting to pass me so I pick up the pace to keep up with them to the 200-meter mark.  I’m tired, winded, and am lagging behind as we get to 300 meters. There is no finish line in sight and as I round the track my pace starts to slow from a sprint, to slow run, to a walk.  I can feel myself dry heaving and the only thing I want to do is leave the track, better yet, lie down on the track.

I stop.  My head hangs down. I’m embarrassed.  I’ve failed my new teammates. I’m frustrated for having been asked to do something I didn’t train for and said yes to.

Someone starts to call my name and I look up.  It’s not just one person, but a few people, my teammates, calling out “Run, Tiffani”, “You can do it.”  Now it’s not just the NMH athletes wearing the white and maroon jerseys, but athletes from the opposing team start to call me by my number. I smile, pick up the pace, and then briskly start to run to the finish line.

Coach Batty came up to me afterwards and said, “You did good enough to continue to run the 400.  To prepare for the next race, I want you to train now with the cross-country team.” And I said “Yes.”

Now I would love to tell you that this ended with my receiving an athletic scholarship, becoming an Olympian, and winning a gold medal.

This, however, is not that running story.  My running career ended as a two-year junior at NMH. 

In life you will have many new opportunities. Some will start out amazing. But sometimes you will hit a wall and want to give up.

This, Class of 2019, is life. 

Graduates, I want to be direct with you. 

You are big-vision students. Each of us has the capacity in some way to change the world. That’s why you’re here. Consciously or subconsciously it’s in your DNA when you attend a school with a mission like NMH. 

But I want to be honest – big vision hurts.  Big vision feels like this race. And I want to hype you up because, when you hit the wall, I don’t want you to stop running and think that the race is over at 100 or 200 meters.  I want you to stay the course.

When I left NMH, I had one goal – aside from wanting to flee the New England winters — I wanted to emulate the diverse community I saw here.  I had friends at NMH from every corner of the globe – Daphne from Turkey, Hisae from Tokyo, Deb from Beverly Hills, Loira from the Bronx. The black-and-white world from North Carolina I had seen growing up was nothing like this, and I knew I wanted to feel what I felt at NMH forever.  So I attended USC and majored in economics and international relations with a goal of becoming a diplomat.

But my vision of this idyllic world and the reality of what I experienced were very different.

I started my race after NMH by saying yes to an opportunity to study in Brazil.  I listened to Brazilian music and checked out books to prepare me for this amazing travel experience.  My day as a global traveler had finally arrived at the age of 20.

I already had a passport, I just didn’t have any stamps in it.

However, when I arrived in São Paulo, I did not receive the global NMH welcome I had expected.  As one of four black students studying in our program – there were not enough local hosts that were comfortable housing each of us.  So I had to commute 1½ hours each way from school by bus. This was not ideal, given that most students and my friends lived much closer to campus.  I was placed with a loving family, but lived in a building where the concierge interrogated me every day before letting me in the building, even while I stood in the pouring rain. I knew they were unaccustomed to seeing someone like me, and in turn they felt threatened. 

Luckily, I found a new host family, and soon moved in with a wonderful Italian family in one of the nicest neighborhoods in São Paulo, much closer to my university. Boy, had my life really turned around. But on the day of my move, I was mugged by three street children, at knifepoint. 

This was only the first six weeks, and I hit a wall.  I wanted to give up. But I turned the disappointment into fuel. I decided to learn and write about the socioeconomic causes of some of my experiences. And I kept running. My local Rotary club in North Carolina read my work and awarded me a fellowship to study advanced economics in London. My community of North Carolina rallied and became a part of my larger team. 

By 25, I finally reached my goal of working for the State Department. Not as a diplomat, but as a graduate research assistant for the U.S. ambassador in Lisbon.   Working with him, I saw the influence that business leaders could have on the global community. So I decided to become a corporate attorney.

I went to law school and it felt amazing and I found a law firm that I loved and it felt great to finally make some money and pay off my law-student loans. 

My first project was a financing for an Australian media company. I had finally arrived as an international corporate lawyer.

And then the economy crashed in 2008 and my law school classmates and I were faced with the possibility of having our jobs rescinded.  And although I wanted to quit and do something more stable, but I still kept my job and I kept running.

Fast-forward nine years; I finally made it to the executive suite. The job was everything I had dreamed. I worked and travelled all over the world with my CEO. I accumulated more miles in a year than I had in a decade and I felt that I was making a difference. And then I read gender-pay-gap studies, about my company and the industry as a whole. And then I realized that equal work did not necessarily lead to equal pay. Dejected, I started to wonder whether all of my efforts and personal sacrifices had been worth the cost. And I wanted to quit.  And then I shared my concerns with my CEO, somewhat loudly. And to his credit, he asked me to stand with him and champion diversity and inclusion for our 8,500 employees and hold our company accountable. Globally, we’re not there yet, but I think you get the message — we have to keep moving. 

I’m going to continue because I’m not doing it for myself. Now, I’m running for you.

Cheering me on in my race are my colleagues and all of the communities that I have been a part of in my life. 

As you envision the next chapter of your life, I urge you to acknowledge the team that has helped you get to this point and will continue to cheer you on: 

Here at NMH, the board of trustees, your head of school, your professors, the staff — some who were here even when I was a student — who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make your educational experience a reality.

At home, your parents, grandparents, and guardians ensured you had a first rate experience at NMH to prepare you for a global community.

Not to mention your aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, friends, and sponsors; these are all the people who accepted your calls when you were stuck on campus with nowhere to go.  They sent you care packages, or picked you up and signed you out for the day.

This is your team, the team that will shout from the stands of life and cheer for you during your race. 

Some of you already know what course you want to start on. Some of you are still figuring it out, and that’s okay. 

If you’re really out of ideas, take your parents’ suggestions so you can get started on something.  The bright side is, the faster you do something you don’t want, the quicker you figure out what you do want.

Rest assured, opportunities will come your way. They may be amazing. But, in the event you hit a wall and want to quit, in those moments, I want you to remember this time.  Surrounded by your classmates, the greater NMH family and your family.  You are a part of a wider team.

My wish for you is not that you find your passion, even though I hope you do.  My prayer is that you find your reason to keep running.

When you do, I guarantee the race will be worth it.

Graduates to your starting blocks.

On your mark.

Get set.

Go.

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