The promise of hard work paying off is just around the corner for graduating seniors, who will receive their diplomas May 12 at the Maverik Center.
This year’s commencement speaker, once a new grad herself, went on to become the first woman on the Utah Supreme Court in 1982 and eventually the court’s chief justice. Because of her achievements, Christine Durham was selected as Westminster College’s 2018 commencement speaker, according to President Steve Morgan.
“Christine Durham is an inspirational leader and trailblazer, and we are very pleased to host her as our 2018 commencement speaker,” Morgan said in a press release. “Her dedication to gender equality, diversity and inclusion are all core values of a Westminster education. We look forward to her sharing her experiences and advice with our graduates.”
The Forum spoke with Durham, who is now retired, about her college experience and her advice for both new grads and incoming first-year students. This interview has been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.
Q: What was your first day of college like?
A: My recollection is feeling significantly off balance because I went to high school in Paris, France, and then went to college in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and my family sorta just dropped me off with family friends in New Jersey and I had to take the bus up to Wellesley. I had to travel 3,000 to 4,000 miles from home in a place I had never lived and didn’t know many people. I was exhilarated, but I was feeling a little off balance wondering how I would find my way.
Q: What was your last day of college like?
A: The end of college for me was a very bittersweet experience. I had a wonderful time in college. I loved the intellectual stimulation and I had so many dear friends. But at that same time, I was married and I was very much oriented towards the future. I was feeling nostalgia that you already feel as you are completing a passage, but at the same time I was very excited for the next step. I felt a sense of gratitude to my alma mater, my school and to my friends.
Q: What would want to tell your younger self during that time?
A: I wish that I had been more sophisticated and savvy in some of my academic work, and I stumbled into a major I really love. No one really told me — and it is something I tell beginning students — but you never really pick your course work by your titles. Do some research and find out who the truly wonderful professors are. Students can be much more proactive about putting [themselves] in the classroom with some of the more extraordinary teachers. I wish I would have been more sophisticated about not picking the class but picking the teachers.
Q: What was your favorite college experiences?
A: I went to a women’s college and so my favorite experience, I think, was being exposed to the deep intelligence and intellectual demands and exchanges in the actual classrooms. And the vast majority of us were women and that was a real blessing for me. So, my favorite experience was being at a college with very smart women.
Q: What were your least favorite college experiences?
A: Well, you know, we all hate exams. That is an interesting question, though. I recall being with a friend and we were moaning and groaning about our schedules, exams and the uncertainty of job hunts. We looked at each other and took a solemn pledge to never go around saying these were the best years of our lives. But, of course, the truth is, looking back on it we had so many wonderful years with, relatively speaking, so little responsibility and so much opportunity. So, I suppose the least favorite part is also one of the best — and that is the uncertainty. You are in the process of knowing who you are [and] what you want to do next, and it is stressful to not know if it is going to work out.
Q: What advice do you have for first-year students?
A: Well, like I said before, researching teachers. But another piece of advice I have for first-year students is to get out of your comfort zone. One of the best parts about going to a liberal arts college is being exposed to the whole range of human scholarship, history and knowledge. If you just stick with what you think you were good at in high school, you are going to impoverish yourself and limit your experience. So another piece of advice is to get out of your comfort zone and do something different. Find out something that you know nothing about.
Q: Do you think you would have done anything differently?
A: Well, I wish I had taken my own advice. But given what I had to work with, I have very few regrets. I was one of the lucky ones.
Q: Anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
A: I wish I had known that life is very long and a decision may seem like it will make or break you. But it probably won’t matter much in the end. The key is to find the work you love and do the best you can. The doors will open and opportunities will arise. I worry too many young people today think they have to get to college ready to know what they want to do with their lives and take every single step exactly perfect to be successful. That is not how it works. Careers and life stories are built as much by accident, in terms of matching up a willingness to do something with an opportunity to do it.
Q: What is your speech about?
A: I am going to touch on some themes, particularly about how life works and thinking about the choices you’re making day to day as well as long term plans. That is as far as I have gotten.
Q: Why do you think you were chosen?
A: My impression is they decided to select me because of the experiences I have had in leadership in Utah’s community. I have been able to do a number of things in my profession as the first woman to do them. I was the first woman on the general jurisdiction trial bench in Utah, first woman on the Supreme Court in Utah, first woman chief justice on the Supreme Court in Utah. I attribute so much of what I have been able to do with my own liberal arts education. I think it was appealing to Westminster because of its community ties and because of its aspirations of a liberal arts college. But I am just guessing!