Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh, a welcoming village of kind, strong people, a kingdom where champions are crowned every year. She fell in love with a smart, handsome prince. She had four caring children, a dream job helping others and even a spare castle in Disney World. She was the girl, you know the girl in that song, the girl who has everything… well she had everything, except a good therapist.
Good afternoon, class of 2021! Congratulations and welcome to your happily ever after. I would like to thank Archabbot Martin, Father Paul, Chairman of the Board Chris Donahue, faculty, administrators, family, friends and graduates for allowing me to be a part of your celebration and to be in the presence of your resilient energy that is so palpable today. My husband, Rob, was baptized right behind us in the Basilica, and a shout out to his father, Bob, who is a distinguished Bearcat alumnus, as well as his uncles. Our family is eternally grateful to this institution for the values and education they have received from this very special place.
Class of 2021, you arrived today despite the biggest challenges ever in the history of academia. Never did any of us ever dream of a time that a chemistry lab would be completed via Zoom, that in the shadows of the Fred Rogers Center, your ‘neighborhood’ would dictate who you could interact with, that the Basilica doors would be closed and we were unable to receive holy communion. Things were unimaginable. You did not have traditional experiences, and that is what makes you unique.
Class of 2021, you have learned over the past 16 months that fairytale endings and happily ever afters do not come without battling dragons. All of you are now beginning to build your life story. It’s an exciting moment that is not to be taken for granted, not to be squandered, and not to be limiting. Your journey begins with your faith in God, in yourself and in your personal and professional relationships.
Now back to my fairytale. You are graduates, you are very smart, so I know you already figured out that the princess in my opening story was me. So, allow to me share my short story. How did I get from Pittsburgh girl to Steelers owner, Disney World resident and mental health advocate, to standing on this stage? Am I living happily ever after?
So, let me tell you, shortly after I graduated from college, I met my husband, Rob, at a bar in Richmond, Virginia, on a Sunday night. He had just come from Pittsburgh after attending a Steelers game. We exchanged “Here We Go Steelers” chants and chatted about our favorite players when he proceeded to ask me out. Now, I had decided, that I should expand my experience and date southern guys. But Rob was convincing. He said, if we went out, someday together we could own a boat... not much of a draw for me. So he continued to promise. “I will speak to you in French,” he said. I don’t speak French, so no help there. Then, he paused, and said confidently, “Cindy, stick with me, and together you and I will one day own a share of the Pittsburgh Steelers.” Now he had my attention.
It was crazy. Everyone knew the Rooneys owned the Steelers. He might as well have said we would become the Kennedys. But there was something in his eye, something in his promise that I knew it would happen for us. Today, together as a team, we are partners as one of the largest minority owners. I should tell you that we never did own a boat, or speak French in our home.
Over the years, Rob and I have dreamt some of our wildest dreams and achieved many that I’m not sure I ever thought were possible. Yes, we’re a proud part of the Pittsburgh Steelers ownership group. We’re also proud of our family’s collective, Citrone 33, a private family foundation that is making a difference in the world. We are developing a mental wellness initiative designed specifically to help young, college-age adults. We have a seat around the table in the fight against breast cancer and the importance of organ donation.
Our family is on the ground in developing countries advocating for women’s health care. Giving back is a passion for us. Rob set fire to what was within me, and I am here to set fire to what is within you. And I believe that we are living happily ever after, THE, well maybe not the end.
That is only half the story. Here is the part that doesn’t often make the edit. Back to that princess - she needed to ask for help so she could be happier.
My journey and successes came with their fair share of challenges. I lost my parents at a young age and with that, losing the unconditional love a parent gives you. I was scared and insecure. I am a breast cancer survivor. I remember when I was diagnosed, my breast surgeon looked at me and said to me, “This is going to be a horrendous year. It’s going to be hell. But you are going to survive.” I am happy to report I am cancer free, but there is always that nagging anxiety it will return.
I am here to tell you that cancer wasn’t the hardest thing that I went through. The hardest for me was the fear of being a good mother. Of doing the best job possible and equipping my children to be happy. I have always believed that I should lead by example and not getting help to manage my own anxiety and emotions was not the precedent I wanted to set. My job as a parent wasn’t done until I was able to first equip myself, and then my children, with skills and tools to address their own mental wellness.
As we are reminded on a plane, first you put on your oxygen mask, then your children’s. That decision to seek help was transformative. It changed the course of my life and is part of the reason I’m standing here with you today. I learned to face my challenges and view them as growth opportunities.
For you, this past year might very well be one of the most difficult of your life. It will certainly be one you will discuss for the rest of your life. But while I was well into adulthood before I learned the coping skills that you’ve amassed several of over just the past 16 months. While navigating a pandemic was lonely, Bearcats, you never walked alone. Your professors, your fellow students, and the spirit of God surrounded you and will continue to walk alongside you.
During this unprecedented time together, you learned what it feels like to be isolated and struggled to find new ways to connect. But you did it! Kindness, acceptance, gratitude, resilience and faith - these are the valuable skills that you learned being part of the Saint Vincent and Pittsburgh communities. You’ll carry these with you, and you will lean on these strengths during challenging times.
Remember - God gives us growth opportunities under the cloak of these challenges and the chance to grow closer to him and to each other. Our father, who art in heaven, in His divinity shared His son with us to lead by example and witness firsthand that even the son of God faced trials and tribulations in his humanity. The challenges, and the growth opportunities, are part of the happily-ever-after plan which will be different for each of you. Tonight, before you sleep, and hopefully dream, take a moment and think about your happily ever after scenarios.
So, don’t forget that Jesus is your number one verified influencer, with over two billion followers in the world.
Fittingly enough, you are the first class to graduate here on Chuck Noll Field. When you leave this stage and start your – as Coach Noll would say – life’s work, your Saint Vincent education has prepared you for success.
When you think about it, much of what’s been accomplished here on the soil of Saint Vincent has been because of commitment, grit, resilience. Herb Boyer. Fred Rogers. Dan Rooney and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their accomplishments didn’t always come easily either, but they trained hard here, they built a strong cultural foundation, and cultivated a community to support them. You, too, are a part of that legacy.
Like those before you, you will leave here with more than a diploma and a degree; you are leaving here with power. You each have your time, ties, talents, treasures and trust to lean into to improve the world around you. It’s about creating shared experiences, experimenting and innovating, and achieving and making a difference every day. That’s what creates exponential goodwill, regardless of where you go or what your life’s work is.
More than that, while you’ve spent the past several years unpacking who you are, you’ve simultaneously been packing for the longer road ahead. Your story is ready to start a new chapter.
Rev. Fred Rogers says, “All of us, at some time or other, need help. Whether we're giving or receiving help, each one of us has something valuable to bring to this world. That's one of the things that connects us as neighbors—in our own way, each one of us is a giver and a receiver.”
When I think about my dream and what makes my life special, it’s the ability to give back. To share resources, to have that feeling that I’ve helped someone today. This has been incredibly important to my family and we instilled these values in our children. It is the Pittsburgh way; it is the Saint Vincent way. Every one of you has something to give and every one of you should be open to receive.
We created Unpack U - as in “University” - in 2020 to help students in developing and maintaining their mental wellness as they navigate the challenges of college life and beyond. I invite each and every one of you to join our mission. Today, and these next couple of days, may all blur for you as you pack your bags, say goodbye to friends, and begin new adventures. But I’d like to leave you with a few thoughts to hold onto.
First, it’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to just be OK. So be kind to yourself. The greatest love story or fairytale is about loving yourself.
Second, never be ashamed to ask for help. As a Saint Vincent family, we should be a community that not only willingly seeks help, but gives help, even before someone asks for it. I still ask for help daily.
Third, practice acceptance. Welcome life and all of its good and bad moments instead of resisting them. Remember, there is no judgment!
You may have assumed that your assignments were done, but I leave you with two final assignments. You each have a copy of the Little Black and Gold Book of Gratitude on your chair. It is a gratitude practice journal that’s created with the Steelers and 33 of the greatest players and coaches that have graced this practice field we sit on. Use it to practice gratitude.
Finally, let’s take a few seconds to be truly present. A Bearcat break. Take this time to experience this great moment in your life, look at your surroundings, smell the air, listen to the sounds, and, most importantly, feel the love, the support, the pride of your family, your faculty, your friends, the holy spirit and most of all yourself.
Class of 2021, it’s your moment to start your ‘Once Upon a Time.’
God Bless You.