Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On extending oneself

My first foray into speechwriting occurred somewhere around May 2004, when I went to speak to a Hadassah luncheon in Toronto about the challenges facing students on campus. I still have a thank you note from them somewhere in my parents' basement.

Speechwriting was not the most well-worn tool in my writing arsenal before late April, when on a lark I decided to enter the Harvard Extension School commencement speaker contest. My style tends to be to run long, and what I would consider only the second speech I ever wrote was twice as long as it needed to be when I entered the contest. (Special thanks to Shanna for reading it and suggesting cuts.) I was flattered and shocked when they called to tell me I won - and needed to chop three of the first four paragraphs. Two sessions with an extraordinary public speaking professor later, I was ready to give my first major address since my bat mitzvah. The text is below the embedded slightly sketchy quality Youtube video.

Lessons learned?
Try things that you're not an expert at. That's the only way to become an expert (or at least proficient, in the meanwhile).
Take public speaking from Marjorie North should you ever have the opportunity.

By Aliza Libman

In this year of the Harvard Extension School centennial, it’s clear that our school has fashioned a place for itself at the intersection between past and future. We take our classes on the same campus where many long-dead presidents once walked, but our prominence today is probably more linked to our Googleablity: When you Googletm “extension school”, we’re the first link that pops up. When you Googletm “extension” by itself, we’re third. This factoid is something that everyone graduating today from Educational Technologies, Information Technology, and Management recognizes as a substantial achievement.

We all have unique stories – and, as a teacher, I feel compelled to tell you that if we’re all unique, then really none of us are. In my journey through the Harvard Extension School, I discovered a number of different “extensions” that make me proud to stand here today. I think you will all glimpse shades of your own experiences in my story. I have previously mentioned that I’m a teacher. I grew up in Toronto Canada, and fell in love with Harvard (and Boston in general) at a young age. But an undergrad career at Harvard was not my destiny– I shudder to think that I actually handwrote my application form (in the year 2001!) – and though they never believe me, I always tell my private school students that not getting into Harvard for undergrad was the best thing that ever happened to me. Instead, I got a great education degree in Toronto for a sum of money that seems shockingly small in retrospect, and – because I was still in love with Beantown – got a great job teaching religious education in Brookline. And though people laugh when I say the excellent public transit drew me to Boston, it’s hard to scoff at my happy ending – I found a great career and a wonderful husband, all because I did such a poor job filling out my Harvard College application form.

So by now you are probably all wondering, “What on earth does this have to do with extension?” The first way I have found to connect this term to our school comes from the fact that I felt my career was missing something. Like many of you, I came here to extend my marketability. Many people often feel that the amount of respect they get for their skills is not directly proportional to their achievements, and we are here today because we wanted to earn degrees that would formalize what we already knew about ourselves. My desire to have a master’s degree led me to Harvard Extension’s Math for Teaching program, which stood apart from the dozens and dozens of interchangeable M.Ed. programs that didn’t interest me one bit. I didn’t want to take basic human development again or reflect about how teaching math made me feel, like I did with my first education degree. This brings me to Extension #2: By allowing students in the Math for Teaching program to choose which disciplines to study, Harvard extends the options available to teachers looking for professional development. While some of you took graph theory, I took Statistics for Baseball Fans, and learned about many important concepts I’d be able to discuss with my students – whether it was linear regression or the propensity of very few players to steal the majority of bases. Similarly, though computer science was offered every semester, I was more interested in probability. There were many ways I found these varied courses could work together nicely - like the time I used Bayes theorem to calculate the conditional probability I’d get at least a B minus on my calculus final, given the fact that I had a 70% percent chance of pulling an all-nighter.

The third extension I’ll mention is not one I’d prefer to discuss, but we cannot ignore the fact that there have been days when all this personal and professional extension and advancement has left us feeling overextended. Days when we ran to refill parking meters on breaks during lecture, when the red line got stuck underground three days in a row in December, when we were caught between commitments to class and commitments to our other priorities. We’ve all had to ask ourselves – what is most important to me? Is it my job or my GPA? We’ve had to sacrifice and accommodate, but we have found that a hand of support has been extended to us by our classmates, professors and colleagues. I personally found my program director, professors and thesis director willing to meet with me early in the morning and late in the evening, a level of personal accommodation that I would never have expected to be routine here.

My story is one of extension. No amount of calculus would enable us to do the time management necessary to balance Harvard, work and family. I’ve had to adapt my plans in life to accommodate various unexpected developments, but I’ve found a program that was better suited for me and my needs than I ever expected. I’ve also had to be flexible about what I consider appropriate and acceptable for myself. Many of us have had to extend the amount of time it takes to do what we wish to accomplish – according to the Extension School website, the average age of one of our students is 35. Many of us have had to broaden our personal definition of “cum laude” – given all that is demanded of us in all areas of our lives, it should be Latin for “I almost can’t believe that I finished.”

We have a lot to be proud of. There may not be that many of us, but you and I know that the adversity we overcame to be here, at this stage in our lives, makes our collective presence at Commencement quite the triumph. Whether it’s writing papers while packing lunches for our children, studying for finals while on break at work, or in my case, getting the take home final exam faxed to my hotel in DC and then completing it while on a bus with 30 exuberant 14-year-old girls, we have all moved mountains to be here today.

We’re all here for different reasons – but we are all here to extend our prospects. We’ve all had different paths through the school. Some of us know all our classmates and some of us have sat in classrooms filled entirely with strangers the entire semester – come on, you know you have – but we have all offered a hand of friendship or had one offered to us.

Though each of us has had a different experience, we have all been enriched. We know our lives will be changed because we took a chance, made some sacrifices, and extended our lives to include the Harvard Extension School. It’s too soon to tell how these degrees we are earning today will change our lives, but we’re here to celebrate because we know that we are fortunate that Harvard Extension was available to us.

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At 9:19 a.m., Blogger Michael A. Burstein said...

Very nice speech.

At 12:29 p.m., Blogger adena said...

awesome libby! always a rockstar.


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