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Maggie Cavalenes, the student speaker selected for the winter convocation by Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. (Photo by Mahathi Mula)

When I got an email last May looking for applicants for a social media position with The Red & Black’s Special Publications team, I knew I had to apply, both out of need for work and interest in the subject. My original internship had been canceled because of COVID-19, and I needed something to keep busy. Staying in Athens during the quiet summer months was not in my plans, but it was what I needed.

I had left the clubs I had leadership roles in during my final spring semester of college, giving myself the room to join one final organization through to my winter graduation. The Red & Black was an organization I had always admired and considered joining but never had the time for. The folks at The Red & Black welcomed me instantly, no qualms with the fact that I was entering my fifth year of college with no newsroom experience. While it is bittersweet that I could only spend eight months on staff, it felt like the right fit during the weirdest time.

Working on Eat & Drink, UGA 101, the Visitors Guide and more has been nothing short of an incredible experience, even though I have never met in person most of the people I speak to virtually each week. Thank you to Rebecca Burns and the 2020 summer and fall editorial and Special Publications teams for making me feel right at home.

I was selected to be Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s distinguished student speaker for their winter convocation after auditioning in November. When I decided I wanted to audition, I knew I wanted to address the pandemic, the people who made my college experience what it was and share a bit of the period of my life where I dealt with and eventually overcame severe anxiety.

I recognize the college is not without its flaws, but I know it has the ability to be great.

Below you will find a transcript of my speech, recorded on Nov. 17 and aired on Dec. 17 on Grady College’s YouTube channel.

Good evening fellow graduates of the fall class of 2020 of the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication. Good evening as well to the family, friends, and Grady faculty and staff that got us all to this moment today.

It is important to begin by addressing the elephant in the room: we are not in the same room together to celebrate today. While I wish more than anything that we could be together in person, I am grateful to have this virtual convocation with you all. Completing our college careers during a pandemic was nowhere near what we had in mind, and I commend you all for getting to the finish line in spite of our unique challenges. It is important to acknowledge the devastation this pandemic has caused and to allow ourselves to feel the entire range of emotions that come with it. But today, I hope we can take this moment together to celebrate what we have accomplished.

Today is a day that we have all been waiting for. No matter how long it has taken to get to graduation, we should all be so proud. Though we can’t be together physically, I hope we allow ourselves this time today to celebrate this amazing achievement.

The four majors of Grady are intertwined by their roots in storytelling. Humanity is built upon stories, and at Grady, we tell great ones. I want to take a couple minutes to share a piece of my story.

As someone who moved to Georgia when I was eight-years-old from Illinois, I had no ties to colleges in Georgia or any clue about college football. Choosing the University of Georgia was not a hard choice, and I happily went, having spent two summers at week-long camps at Grady College during high school.

Right before my sophomore year, some sort of switch flipped in my brain. I suddenly struggled to leave my bedroom and to believe that I belonged in college.

I eventually started going to therapy and feeling more comfortable outside of my apartment and making new friends, but my self-esteem was still extremely low. It was at that time I was accepted to Grady College as a public relations major. In my Grady classes, I realized something: the people at Grady believed in me, during a time when I had no belief in myself.

When my anxiety tried to convince me that nobody could think I had the capacity to be successful, Professor Joe Watson told me he thought someone with my capabilities must be at least a senior. To my sophomore self, struggling with severe anxiety and imposter syndrome, this meant the world.

When, on an off-hand remark, I said I wanted to study in Washington, D.C., my then-advisor Victoria Cooper got me into the last slot on the Grady in D.C. summer program. It was hands-down the best summer of my life, even though getting on the plane there was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.

That summer was the catalyst for many amazing opportunities in and out of Athens. I realized that no matter what corner of the country or world my career takes me to, there will always be Dawgs rooting for me nearby. Four and half years later, I still don’t know very much about football, but I am so proud to be a Grady Dawg.

Although the building consistently confused me as I tried to get from one level to the next, I will always remember studying in the Peyton Anderson Forum, returning to the Tate Starbucks day after day and the camaraderie of the halls as classes changed. I made some of my best friends in the world in Professor Watson’s Intro to Public Affairs class, at Her Campus UGA meetings and in D.C. at Delta Hall.

As one of the few who genuinely likes to attend office hours, my main reflection from those meetings is this: the moments we second-guess ourselves are when we lose the story. Professors Kim Landrum and Tom Cullen will attest to teaching me this, and though their classes were tough, I attribute them to making me a better communicator. I have no doubts that I will always call Athens, and that building on Hooper Street in particular, a second home.

I lost my story during my journey through Grady when my anxiety made me doubt myself, but I reclaimed it. In the future, and probably right now, we will all second-guess ourselves, and our stories, and our employer’s stories. But, trust yourself. Push yourself to be the best you can be, and push your college to be the best it can be. If you can finish your capstone class during a global pandemic, you can pretty much do anything.

I can’t wait to see what all of you do next, and what part of the world your stories lead to. You’ve made it all the way here. Take life one day at a time, and just try your best. I believe in you, Grady College believes in you, and the University of Georgia believes in you.

Again, I want to thank my family for their limitless support, the lifelong friends I have made for their kindness, and my professors for their wisdom and guidance to get me here today.

I sincerely thank you all for your time. Congratulations, Class of 2020!