Commencement keynote speaker: Believe in yourself, believe in your path

Editor's note: The following is the transcript of Durham Tech alumna Luzita Francis' keynote address for the College's 2024 Commencement.  

Thank you President Buxton for inviting me here today, and to you all, esteemed faculty, proud parents, maybe even proud children, supporters, all those who made this accomplishment possible. Most importantly, I want to thank the Durham Tech graduating Class of 2024. You’ve earned my congratulations, and my gratitude. As Kurt Vonnegut said in one of his many commencement speeches: “By becoming informed and reasonable and capable adults, you have made this a better world than it was before you got here.” I thank you for doing so and am honored and humbled to address you and celebrate with you today.

When I was asked to give this speech, I laughed, nervous about giving a speech of course, but also because I was surprised. You see, I graduated in 2015, and you might be able to tell I am not in my 20s like some of you. I did not take the straight and narrow path to the graduation walk across this stage. I thought back to the commencement speeches I’d heard, and I remember feeling how different my path was from theirs. I reflected about my path: how unsure each step felt, and if I would ever arrive where I was headed. I didn’t have examples of success I could relate to, so I often didn’t even know if I was on “a path.” I thought about what I wish I’d known then — how much would it have meant to me if someone had stood up here and told me there were many paths? Today I’d like to pass along some advice I wish I’d heard at my own commencements, and I’ll do so in the context of how I learned these lessons. 

So that’s what I’m here to tell you. There are lots of paths to where you’re going, and you got here, at this new beginning, right on time.

Commencement is about a new beginning. It may be the culmination of your studies, your years of hard work at Durham Tech, but it is also the commencement of a new chapter in your lives.

Durham Tech gave me one of my biggest beginnings, and I walked across this stage nine years ago, along with my 19-year-old son. I walked across this stage as a proud student and as a proud parent, as a proud Latina.

Where to begin? It’s hard to tell my story without extensive footnotes. My story doesn’t fit neatly into a standard questionnaire. I am from London, Jakarta, Bogota, Medellín, a town called Armenia in Colombia. I’m half Irish and half Colombian, but I’m also British. My kids have five nationalities and three passports each. And that’s just the answer to “where are you from?” My life is also full of paradoxes. I went to some good schools, loved learning and was a great student, but I dropped out of high school. In other words, my status has often been “it’s complicated,” something that has defined and challenged me, but which I take a lot of pride in today. Education has always been important to me, though. My father would always tell me that people can take everything away, but they could never take away your education. It was a winding road to Durham Tech to realize this. I had other lessons to learn first.

Back in Colombia, I got my GED at 21, pregnant with my third child and about to get divorced. To say that people felt sorry for me is an understatement. In just four years I had gone from top student in my class to a single mother of three. I had tried to go to college just months earlier, but doing it alone with three kids proved untenable. Life was hard. Life in Colombia was hard with three kids. I had no financial help, but I did have family to help with the children while I worked, and I worked hard. Looking back, two things stand out: that just enough people believed in me and that I was met with a lot of kindness, and with that, great opportunities.

I struggled to find work without a degree, with kids, and while pregnant. I had computer and language skills and an interest in humanitarian work, but what made all the difference was that a few people took chances on me. This began my work in translation and interpretation: I got to work for an international child sponsorship program, to aid people displaced by the violence in Colombia, and eventually for an international security company. I was a fourth- and fifth-grade math teacher too, all of this with no more than a GED on paper. I’ve had to make a lot of choices in my life that were hard choices about how to make ends meet, hard choices about what was best for my kids, and one of those choices was when I made the choice to leave Colombia and the subsequent choices to move around the world.

In 2006, I began my time in the USA, joining my children with their father in North Carolina. I didn’t want to come to the States, though it made logistical sense. I could never have imagined then the life I have now, but it’s all made possible by this reluctant move. Here, I met my husband, and he is what made me want to stay. No more single mom life. I worked as an interpreter and translator while watching him finish his undergrad degree at UNC-Chapel Hill and hoped to do the same one day.

I figured one day I'd be secure enough to have the luxury of pursuing more education, and continued working with this in the back of my mind, until I took a job at Duke Regional hospital where many of my co-workers were students at Durham Tech. I wasn't familiar with how the education here worked. If I had known earlier what I know now, I would have gone to Durham Tech years before. I didn't know about financial aid, so I thought I needed to save money and have a decent job before going to school. It turns out, in my case and my path, that the shortest route to going to Durham Tech was getting that job first. Durham Tech is accessible to all; you just have to put in the work once you're here. This gives so much room for students’ individuality: for us, for where we come from, and where we are trying to go. I hope you take a moment to appreciate this as I do.

I can’t emphasize this enough: the best way to be is to be yourself. A school that enables that, which doesn’t have a mold you must fit, is invaluable. This is important because being genuine, authentic, honest, and transparent can get you a long way. Embrace who you are and pick your own path. You may feel that going to Durham Tech is an unconventional path, but just look around you and realize how many people are sharing this path with you. Imagine all those who have come before you and shared this path. Take a step back and see how much you have transformed during your time at Durham Tech. If you don't see it now, you will in the future. And now you will go out into the world to forge a new path, something unique to yourself, to your passions, to your interests. I felt alone for many years as a single mother of three, wanting to do better but being restricted by my circumstances, thinking I was behind in life, but then I get reminders every so often that I am not alone, that some people believe in me and would like to see me succeed, that I can succeed, and that I can do so my way. I knew I would find joy in getting an education. I knew it would be hard and would require an effort. I worked four nights and 48 hours a week, Thursday through Sunday. There were days I hardly slept but I was energized by the direction I was heading. Juggling full-time study and full-time work was a struggle, but I look back on that time as one of my happiest. I was finally in college. How good it feels to work toward something hard is a valuable lesson that has stuck with me since leaving Durham Tech, as an occasion like this will show you.

The road was not smooth, though. In my second year — my third semester at Durham Tech — my husband had an appendicitis. This was actually a very lucky thing because they discovered that he had kidney cancer that had not spread outside the kidney. I scaled back my classes that semester and focused on his recovery from the kidney removal surgery. If he hadn't had appendicitis, he wouldn't be alive today. Because I had to drop some classes, my time at Durham Tech was extended, which I honestly didn't mind, and that gave my eldest son the opportunity to catch up to me. 

Durham Tech became a second home and launching pad for my family. All my children went to Durham Tech. My eldest started in his senior year, taking classes in the afternoons, and catching up to me. My second son went to Middle College and also got an associate in arts and an associate in architectural technology. He currently works remotely as a building information modeling lead for a company in Los Angeles. He loves his job. My daughter went to Middle College and was valedictorian for her class. She went to N.C. State and studied architecture. She works for the largest and top architecture firm in the world. She loves her job. My eldest son graduated with me, and we both went to UNC-Chapel Hill. He got a degree in information science and now works as a software engineer for a healthcare startup. He loves his job too. Five of my children's cousins — my nieces and nephews — graduated with my son and me. They are all over the world now, in Australia, Portugal, and here in the U.S. The one in Portugal is pursuing a doctorate degree in chemistry. Can you tell my family likes Durham Tech?  

Believe in the path you’re on. You will feel unprepared, even on well-trodden paths, everyone is unprepared. You learn as you go. If you are forging your own path, do not let being the first stop you. If you find a passion, follow it. Nothing compares to doing what you love. It will be lonely sometimes, scary, uncertain. Do your research. Understand the options and resources. Connect with people who know. Dream about it. Ask questions. Let life surprise you. When I started at Durham Tech, the only thing I knew was that I wanted to do something related to healthcare. I researched and found that the health policy and management undergrad program at UNC-Chapel Hill suited my passions and interests. Did I know it ranks second in the country, tied with Harvard? No, but I sure do now! Did I know that I would be the first community college transfer to the program? Yes, and it was a scary thought. It is an extremely competitive program. Did I know that I'd be the only Latina in my cohort? No, but I was proud to represent. I was taking a path no one else had taken before. It was worth it. I got in.

Begin to believe in yourself. If someone believes in you, take that as an opportunity to believe in yourself. If someone doesn't believe in you, take that as an opportunity to prove them wrong. We are always stepping into the unknown, doing things that we have never done before. Self-doubt is a normal part of the process. I used to think I was a terrible writer. I probably was. I did my high school in Spanish in Colombia, South America, so writing in English felt like a weak spot to me. Durham Tech changed that. I stressed out so much from those initial English classes, focusing hard on improving my writing. And then there was practice, practice, practice. When a professor approached me in grad school to write a textbook chapter on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, I jumped at the opportunity. It's a subject dear to my heart. The chapter ended up being the highlighted chapter for a graduate school level textbook on Human Resources in Healthcare. I credit Durham Tech for my writing skills. Thank you Professor Bingham.

New beginnings can mean new goals and putting aside others because you have outgrown them. Sometimes we make goals that don't align with our values and true interests. You can dream big but also you can adapt your goal as you go along and learn more about the path you have chosen. Be flexible. It's ultimately not about the goal but being where you want to be right now, right this moment. Ask yourself if what you’re doing feels right. Ask yourself if you’re happy. The world needs happy people. But as the Dalai Lama said: “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” I have had many changing goals as life hit me with curveballs and sometimes wrecking balls. I initially wanted to be a medical doctor because I wanted to help people, but I discovered that I could help people in very different ways. I wanted to help the Latino community, specifically in healthcare, and because I did my undergrad in health policy and management, I was able to work with the Latino community in discussions with Gov. Cooper, the Secretary of Health and her staff on how to improve healthcare for Latinos. It was an honor to apply my health policy knowledge and help the community at that level, doing things that would impact the whole community.

New beginnings can come at any age. It is never too late. Don't dwell on the past or your failures, and just look to the future. You are never behind. You are right where you are meant to be. Durham Tech has taught you more than you can imagine. It has taught you about making a plan and executing it. It has taught you to aim for something and get it. I was where you are now at the age of 37, along with my 19-year-old son, graduating from Durham Tech. We went on to study at UNC-Chapel Hill together, and we graduated from UNC two years later, just a few months shy of my 40th birthday. My dream was to graduate from college before my kids, but my son caught up to me and I'm proud he did. I was 18 years older than my classmates at UNC, nearly two decades, but I never felt old. I felt that I was showing them that being nearly 40 isn’t old at all. I went on to do a master’s in health administration where again, I was the oldest in my class. Nobody cares how old you are, so don’t make age an obstacle or an excuse. I am now working on a second master’s in information science, and I have stopped paying attention to how old I am compared to others.

My time at Durham Tech holds a special place in my heart. In the words of the poet Rumi, "As you start to walk on the way, the way appears." That's what Durham Tech felt like, a path appearing before me, and it was a path that excited me and opened my life up to possibilities that I had never even imagined. It was also the beginning of a learning journey, one that will continue for the rest of my life. The way continues to appear.  

Congratulations to the Class of 2024. May you have exciting new beginnings throughout your life. May you be unafraid of new beginnings. May they be wonderful.