Commencement speech by Jacob Zelinski, Marquette University Class of 2019
Before I begin, I want to make two memories that’d I’d be remiss to let pass. First, I want to find my parents in the crowd, tell them that I’m proud of them, and I’m here because of them, and I love them, to the moon and back.
Second, I want to thank the professors I had who went out of their way to instill in me passions which I know will never dim. It worked, everyone! Thanks!
Graduates of 2019, what a privilege it is to stand before you today, in all my personhood—my whiteness, my queerness, my first-generation student status—and be heard. I’d like to begin by calling in the energy we’re creating in this very space right now with our differences and our voices and our identities. May we see these differences as sparks, as fire starters, as smoke signals to our varying stories of justice and growth and power.
As for my Marquette story, it is bookended by heartbreak. And as odd as it may sound, I’m grateful.
In a letter given to me as I was preparing to graduate from high school, a teacher of mine, Fr. Cyril Pinchak of the Society of Jesus, said his only prayer for me in life was that my heart would break. He said he realized how weird that sounded, and that I would only understand with time and with age. I’m beginning to see what he meant after these four years.
We carry a lot on our hearts. We etch in lessons and love and Christ’s words right on top. When we etch things into our hearts, they become part of us, for it’s in the heart’s breaking that these etchings seep into who we are as human beings—emphasis on the being.
My Marquette story starts with the execution of Marquette alumnus, war journalist, friend, son and brother, James Foley. 2014. The world wept. Hearts in every corner of the globe broke.
But this heartbreak gave way to new life informed by Jim’s legacy—a legacy that I bear before you today as a scholar in his namesake. When I first arrived on campus, I thought professors and old friends of Jim were looking at me to be as exceptional as he was.
But, in meeting his family and close friends and hearing story after story of his humanness and humor, his grace and compassion, my anxieties gave way to heartbreak. I began to mourn this man I never had the privilege to meet, and that made all the difference.
It is why I picked the majors I did. It is why I went abroad to Cape Town, South Africa. It is why I believe in the voiceless and why I fight with moral courage. My life is infinitely blessed by this heartbreak, by James Foley.
And while that first heartbreak has since healed into something beautiful, my heart has recently broken again. My older brother, Joey, who graduated from Marquette in 2017 with a degree in biomedical sciences, passed away in a car accident about two months ago. He was 23 and everything that came with it—beautiful, eager, confused, hopeful, nonchalant yet entirely driven, my closest confidant and first friend.
And when my life was weathered by this storm I never dreamt of being in, I was grateful to be rooted by and within the Marquette community, and I knew that I was meant to be here. And I’ll never thank the powers that be for taking my brother away, but yes, I thank God for covering my heart with etchings of my big brother, because I have never felt closer to Joey than I have on this day, in this moment, with him living on within my brokenness, within my healing.
Since Joey’s passing, not a day has gone by on this campus that I haven’t smiled. Laughed. Said “thank you” or stopped to appreciate where I was; Stopped and thought “damn, I love my people here” or “I had no idea how many individuals here want to make sure I’m getting out of bed and carrying on” or “Look at all of these people who are staring my heartbreak in the face and loving me, still” or, better yet, “damn, this is where I’m supposed to be right now.”
On a smaller scale, losing our Joey, and involuntarily opening my heart up has also opened my eyes to the little glories at Marquette, too.
Have you ever really considered what color the floor is in the AMU? Have you ever listened to your favorite song as you watched the reflection of the sunset against Schroeder? Or really admired the vines against Marquette Hall, or tried to sing along, out loud, with its bells? (It’s pretty tough, but it’s fun). Or really thought about the beauty in running into a dear friend that you appreciate just casually on your way to or from class? What about the way the street lights reflect off of Wisconsin Ave at night after it rains? And don’t even get me started on the way the tulips still decide to bloom after 10 inches of April snow.
There is a grace that seeps from the day we lost our Joey. The sun broke on the worst day of my life and it broke me open into some I’d never thought I’d be—someone more grateful, more determined, more loving. Before you today, with a cap and gown and broken heart, I am filled with hope and joy as I aim to catapult myself into exactly who I am called to be.
Something HUGE had to happen so that I could really see the god of tiny beautiful things in my life… but this grace was there all along; Something huge doesn’t have to happen and hearts don’t have to break.
Let this moment open you to something huge—Getting your first degree, getting your final degree, watching your first child or your baby graduate from university, celebrating your last year or first year or 14th year teaching… Whatever. The universe wanted everyone in this room to be here pretty badly—and can’t that be huge enough? Can’t we step into the heartbreak that surrounds us and let the etchings on our hearts inform our next steps?
If I’ve learned anything in my experiences with heartbreak, it’s that you can’t have it all, but you can have songs at sunset that remind you of your brother and
experiences that humble you and check your privilege and
a spring day in late February and
time to lead, time to listen, and the wisdom to know the difference.
And you can’t have it all, it’s true, but you can have people who come into your life unexpectedly and do nothing less than rock your world and
heroes that inform the way you live your life like Maya Angelou, Harvey Milk, and your very own mother and
a long phone call with someone you love on your way home and
full circle moments where you realize how far you’ve come
And yes, you can have opportunities knocking on your door that you never expected and
summer scents that make you think of your father and
your voice, and democracy, and upcoming elections,
and snow days announced early enough to run to Caffrey’s in your pajamas during the coldest winter of your life
And YES! There’s more! You can have second chances and
the moral courage required to help heal the broken world and
vulnerable moments that reveal how strong you really are and
Fridays and fresh flowers.
and cleansing, clean air –
There is a list much longer than this
of all you can have today
Because it’s true: You can’t have it all.
You can’t have life without loss, without tragedies, and moments that bring you to your knees, and heartbreak after sacred heartbreak.
But you can have this poem,
this moment, this day, this privilege, this prayer—wholly –
and you can have every drop of grace this world has to offer you
if you’d only let this be your SOMETHING HUGE,
let this be the breaking of the dam—of your heart –
the flood that officially baptizes you in the wild, clear waters of
Be blessed, graduates. Thank you.
Reposted with permission from We Are Marquette.