Sarah J. Penner’s Address to the Class of 2023

Published: April 28, 2023 | Author: Southern Utah University | Read Time: 6 minutes

Commencement speaker Sarah Penner (middle)Southern Utah University student Sarah J. Penner is originally from Layton, Utah, but has loved making Cedar City her home for the past four years. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a double-minor in German and theatre arts. Following graduation, she will be returning to school to obtain a master's degree in mental health counseling and hopes to work with a global population in crisis management and providing mental health services to asylum-seekers and other disadvantaged communities.

Penner’s Address at the University Commencement Ceremony

It is surreal to be standing here with you all today. Eight years ago, I was walking past the Student Center with my high school theatre department, admiring the kind of breathtaking sunset that I now know can only be found in Southern Utah. I knew, after a day of performing and admiring other’s work and drinking too much warm apple cider from the Utah Shakespeare Festival, that this is where I would end up. 16 years ago, I was sitting outside the Adams’ Shakespearean Theater with my family, eating berry tarts and begging my mom to let us stay just a little longer. I have always known that I would make Southern Utah University my home, that I would get to know and come to love every corner and crevice of Cedar City as I completed my undergraduate degree. What I didn’t know then, at eight-years-old or sixteen-years old, was how even when you make a plan for your life, things tend to happen differently than you ever expected.

I’m sure most of you can relate to such a sentiment. Growing up is never what we expect it to be, never what was shown us in the movies or told us by beloved authors. As you look back on the last four years of late night study sessions fueled by caffeine and chick-fil-a, early morning classes where attendance was always more difficult than the content taught or homework assigned, and (especially this year), the tons of snow you scraped off your cars, I can guarantee there were moments that you weren’t expecting. Maybe you met your best friends.

Maybe you picked up a sport, despite never having been athletic before. Maybe you lost someone you cared about. Maybe you switched majors (like I did), and maybe you switched your major more than just a few times. Maybe you learned a new skill, or had your heart broken, or are graduating with an entirely new friend group than the people you started this journey with. Maybe you spent a month of your life in a foreign hospital, and a year of your life learning to walk again.

13 months ago this week, I heard the words, “Du hast Glueck, am Leben zu sein,” from the mouth of an Austrian orthopedic surgeon. Generally translated, it means “You’re lucky to be alive.” At the time, I was two months into an incredible Study Abroad experience in Vienna, Austria when I decided to go on a Ski Trip with the other International Students. On my first run of the day, I lost control of my skis and crashed with enough force to break my femur and my hip in my right leg. My conversation with the surgeon followed a helicopter ride over a supposedly incredibly scenic view of the Austrian Alps, and an emergency surgery to stabilize my injuries. I would go on to endure a second surgery and spend the next month in the hospital, logging onto my Zoom classes when I had the energy, and hoping every day that this would be the week I would get to fly home and the worst month of my life would come to an end. That week finally did come – but things didn’t necessarily get easier. Even now, over a year later, after committing to my full recovery, moving back to this small town I call home, and taking two more semesters full of 17 credits each, things aren’t “easy” – and as unexpected as it is, I’m grateful for the difficulty.

In my final semester, I have spent hours researching the concept of Human Resilience in order to draft my final Capstone paper. The fact of the matter is that Resilience is difficult to define in scientific terms. No one really knows exactly what makes a person resilient, or what puts them at risk to not develop resilience. Researchers have, however, identified some protective factors (or things that help us deal more effectively with stressful situations) that might contribute to our resilience. These protective factors include basic ideas such as success in educational opportunities and positive peer relationships. Although these things seem simple, they make a huge impact on how we develop resilience – and they are found in abundance on the campus of Southern Utah University. We are graduating from an institution that goes the extra mile to help us succeed in not only our education, but also our personal endeavors. If there is anything we are leaving this institution with today, it is our resilience. Whatever your unexpected difficulties may have been, you found that resilience within yourself, and you kept going.

And you are going to need that resilience as you move forward – whether your future path is leading to graduate school, employment at your first “big kid” job, moving away from everything you’re familiar with, starting a family, or whatever else this beautiful world has in store for you. When you are met with the kind of difficulty that stops you in your tracks and steals the air from your lungs and turns your world upside down, I hope you remember your time at SUU. I hope you remember that you have done this before. Remember the feeling that you get after you have a good cry, and then you get back up and take a shower and drink some water and sit down to study for the test you’ve been procrastinating. Remember what it feels like to show up to class, even when you’re exhausted and depressed and overwhelmed. Remember how you have fought tooth and nail for the diploma you’ll be receiving today, for the success of your future self. I hope that you allow these memories to motivate you to find your inner resilience, and put one foot in front of the other. I am confident that the joy to come will far outweigh the difficulty you endure in the moment.

I also believe that all scientific terms and research aside, resilience is something that can be inherently recognized. I see it in your faces – incredible human beings who are graduating, despite the natural difficulty of an undergraduate education, despite completing a portion of your education in the middle of a global pandemic, and despite whatever personal hardships you have faced over the past four years of your lives. The resilience in my spirit recognizes the resilience in yours, and it gives me hope for the future. Ideally, your futures won’t include falling down mountains in foreign countries, but they also won’t be as simple as admiring a Southern Utah sunset or eating delicious pastries in the summer sun – and that’s okay. As C.S. Lewis once said, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” All the opportunities this world has to offer are yours to take, and that is a gift, despite the hardships to come. Whatever it is that your future holds, I am confident that you, the class of 2023, will meet it with courage and grace.

Congratulations, T-Birds. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Tags: College of Humanities and Social Sciences Psychology

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