Holly Dodge spent two weeks writing her commencement speech, painstakingly editing and revising it up until, almost literally, the last minute.
She and several other Minnesota State University students had been nominated by faculty to audition for the job of student commencement speaker, and when auditions were over, the committee had a tough choice to make.
“Two hours later I got an email that they selected me,” Dodge said. “And I actually cried. … I’ve been working on this degree on and off for 10 years. And in 10 years I’ve had a lot of stuff happen to me.”
For Dodge, graduating from MSU carries a little more weight than the average graduate. Like all students, she’s pulled all-nighters and sweated through midterms and finals. But she’s also given birth to a child, been divorced twice, endured the death of her brother, lived through the trauma of her home burning to the ground, and toughed out getting a college degree mostly as a single mother.
Gathering in MSU’s Taylor Center this spring with the rest of the Class of 2020 and delivering the commencement address would be the cherry on top of a 10-year rollercoaster journey from college acceptance to graduation.
“When I first started going to MSU 10 years ago, I would joke with my friends about how one day I would deliver the commencement speech.”
And just when MSU was ready to give her a BFA, COVID-19 happened.
Like many schools, university officials decided that because of the virus outbreak, commencement ceremonies will be canceled. So, unless a miracle happens, all those seniors who worked hard and looked forward to the ceremonial end to their undergraduate careers will not have their storybook ending.
But Dodge’s journey to this point makes the decision seem, while understandable and justified, poetically unfair. She’s overcome a lot to get to this point.
“The day I got accepted to MSU I found out I was pregnant with my son,” she said. “I delivered right before spring break. And a year later, I got divorced.”
Two years after that, her youngest brother died of a fentanyl overdose.
While all this was happening, she’d been taking care of her aging father. Her mother died in 2007. So, with a lot of “life” making things turbulent, Dodge put her education on hold for a couple of years. She was four years into a five-year bachelor of fine arts program with a graphic design concentration.
She remarried and moved to a house near Janesville. While living there, her house burned to the ground. Luckily, no one was hurt (although a cat and two goldfish died).
“We completely lost everything,” she said. “It was really scary but it put life into perspective.”
She later divorced her second husband and has been a single mom since.
In 2018 she came back to MSU, pivoting from graphic design to creative writing. In the writing program, she said, she’s found kindred spirits and a supportive academic community.
“I’ve gotten quite close to my classmates. We see each other a lot,” she said. “In the writing community, there’s a lot of vulnerability and you learn a lot about each other. Since (COVID-19 happened), we’ve been friending each other on Facebook and emailing each other.”
She said a professor emailed her and her fellow students just to check in on them and to ask if they all just wanted a pass for the semester so they could get through it.
“One by one we all said we want to finish it up and keep learning,” she said.
A friend of hers mentioned the other day that Dodge, given all the adversity she’s faced, may be uniquely qualified to bear the burden of being the commencement speaker who never got to speak.
“They said, ‘Thank goodness it’s you and not someone else who would be devastated,’” Dodge recalled. “I am devastated, but I can see the silver lining. Resilience is a beautiful trait. I think it makes you a better more well-rounded person.”
Despite not being able to have that ceremony, Dodge has vowed to have her big day anyway.
She said that, on the day she would have given the speech, she’s going to wear her graduation gown all day. And even if she has to do it in her backyard, she is going to give that speech.