Lisa Borders' Life Lessons

Commencement speaker's advises Class of 2019 on embracing adversity

Part of the Commencement Stories 2019 Series
Lisa Borders roused the students with her life lessons. Photo by University Communications
Lisa Borders roused the students with her life lessons. Photo by University Communications

Good Morning, everyone.

Thank you, President Price, for the opportunity to address the 2019 Duke Graduates. It’s a privilege and my great pleasure to be here.

To my fellow trustees, the Faculty of the University, the Administrative teams, the parents, guardians, significant others and friends, thank you for not only enabling this occasion, but also joining us to celebrate the fruits of your labor.

And to our Honorary Degree Recipients, thank you for your incredible contributions and achievements. There’s a reason you now hold  ‘Laudable Blue Devil’ status.

And most importantly, to the graduates, thank YOU for the work you’ve put in and the contributions you’ve made to Duke. We are thrilled that you had...and I quote…”courage to start, strength to endure, and resolve to finish.” 

And because of that, you are about to be awarded all the rights and privileges of a minted BLUE DEVIL. So, CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Feels good, right?

Right?! I know I feel good because we’re here to celebrate all of that — and because it’s Sunday.

Sundays have always been special in my family. Sundays are for speaking up — and for bringing people together. My grandfather, William Holmes Borders Sr., was the pastor at Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended many of his Sunday sermons — the very same sermons I loved as a girl, the same sermons that encouraged and inspired me to be the person I am today.

And it’s not just ANY Sunday for me. It’s been forty years since I graduated from Duke. Can you believe that? Four decades ago, I sat right where you are today.

So this is a big day for me — and I am hoping you might indulge my nostalgia and commemorate this moment with me.

With a panoselfie. Real quick?

Thank you for that. I had to. My mother always took a photo of me at every progress point growing up. She’d show those photos off to everyone who came to our house. I can’t imagine how proud she’d have been to see this photo, of me, at my former stomping grounds, with all of you. 

Now graduates, it’s certainly your day, but it’s also Mother’s Day — the one day a year we offer a deserved salute to those who bore us biologically and those who stood in as surrogates for our many needs and wants.

Please show some love for your Mothers and all the Mother-figures who have seen you through this experience.

This is my first Mother’s Day without my own mother, who I lost last August. 

While she’s not here physically, I can still hear her voice whenever I reach a significant milestone or face what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle.

And if she were here today, I know exactly what she would say to all of you.

In response to your achievement, it would, no doubt, be a clear and compelling show of support: ”You did it!” she would say, with a HUGE smile and an even bigger hug.

“Adversity is like the agitator in the washing machine. It beats the heck out of the clothes, but they’re clean when they come out.”
-- Lisa Borders

But she would also keep it real with you — like she always did with me. She would tell you that your future, like any of ours, is going to be hard work. I can hear her now: “Lisa, listen to me...”

“Adversity is like the agitator in the washing machine,” she would say. “It beats the heck out of the clothes, but they’re clean when they come out”.

 

ATTITUDE

My mother is right — because you will encounter difficult times in your life, requiring really tough decisions and time-sensitive responses.

My first taste of adversity came in 1969, when I helped to integrate a private school in my home city of Atlanta. I was one of a handful of African-American students —  student of color #8  — who passed the entrance exam and was admitted to attend. While passing the exam was the technical requirement for acceptance to the school, it was not the path to acceptance from my peers. In fact, from 7th grade to 12th grade graduation, I endured being called the N-word at least once a day.

It was tough to get through a single day, let alone come back the next day and repeat the routine all over again. I can recall telling my mother that I didn’t want to go to school there anymore; the challenges were just too much. And she replied with that same washing machine adage more times than I can count.

But what that experience taught me wasn’t just that she was right—that adversity is a certainty—but that the only person’s behavior you can govern is your own. And just as importantly, what doesn’t kill you DOES make you stronger.

With my parents’ advice, I decided to be better...to work harder to overcome preconceived notions and to prove I could not just perform—but excel—at that school. And while my efforts may have been lost on my classmates, they were not lost on the Admissions Office here.

“Discouragement doesn’t have to be debilitating. If anything, discouragement should drive you to open your own doors and design your own future.”
-- Lisa Borders

Duke accepted me as an ‘early decision’ candidate and, for the first time, I felt seen, heard and truly valued. One of the finest universities in the nation — was willing to bet on me. I was, and I remain, eternally grateful for the opportunity to attend and graduate in the Trinity Class of 1979. My Duke degree and our Blue Devil family have opened more doors than I could have imagined and stood in support when I needed it the most.

Graduates, today we still find ourselves with this same morass of exclusion and intolerance I experienced all those years ago. The high degree of acrimony is unyielding and discouraging, but I want to make sure you hear this:

Discouragement doesn’t have to be debilitating. If anything, discouragement should drive you to open your own doors and design your own future. 

 

PUBLIC CHALLENGES

And just remember that when you open those doors, there will be people on the other side. Some cheerleaders, but some critics. The challenges you face on your uphill climb will often come with an audience, because the reality is this:

Adversity doesn’t always happen in private.

I know this all too well.

As I said, my grandfather was a pastor for 50+ years, leading civil rights marches, desegregating the public transit system and helping the first African-American policemen secure steady jobs. My father was a physician, one of only 100 black doctors in the state of Georgia when he started his practice, and my mother was a civic leader who co-founded a coalition of neighborhoods across segregated communities.

Following in the tradition of my elders, I pursued a role in public service as President of the City Council and served for six years. As the leader of the Legislative Branch of municipal government, I learned the mechanics and operations of the City. And when it was time for my next step, I threw my hat in the ring and decided to run for Mayor.

I entered as the front runner with the highest name recognition. That said, there were issues along the way; my parents became ill — my father with the ravages of Diabetes and two amputated legs and my mother diagnosed with the early onset of dementia — and I decided I needed to withdraw from the race to look after them.

But my father wasn’t having it. His argument was that I should step up! That I should return to the race to try and get elected and give back to a city that had given our family so much. But by then, my campaign’s momentum was gone. I lost the race and was devastated. Every question you can possibly think of I played out in my head. Had I disappointed the people of Atlanta? Did they lose faith in me?

After three days of self-pity, my perspective changed. I realized there were many more ways to support my city and my fellow citizens without being in elected office.

And the lesson became crystal clear several roles into the future:

Failure’s not fatal. It’s feedback.

I wasn’t supposed to be the Mayor. Had I been Mayor, I would not have been available to work as a senior officer at The Coca-Cola Company where my maternal grandparents had worked for a combined 45 years. Jobs that enabled my mother and her sister to be ‘first generation college graduates’. \

Nor would I perhaps have been on the radar to become a trustee here at Duke, alongside my good friend and fellow Dukie, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

And had I not met Adam, I may not have ever been a candidate for President of the WNBA, the Women’s National Basketball Association, one of the most rewarding roles I have ever undertaken. 

So, I’m not just asking you, I’m advising you to anticipate defeat. Strongly advising it. Defeat is how I ended up before you here today. So don’t be surprised when it comes your way, too. Acknowledge it. Engage with inquisitive abandon and leave indelible fingerprints wherever you may go. Search for the environments that may give you grief but that will also help you grow.

 

UNIVERSAL MEANING IN MEDICINE

No one taught me the importance of that existential exploration better than my parents. And it was my father who showed me that in fact, it is in discomfort where we find our most defining moments.

“It is incumbent upon each of us — each of you — to not only get out of your comfort zones, but find the power in discomfort itself. And sustain your own health so you can not only help assuage the discomfort of others, but so that you can lead an informed and compassionate life.”

My dad became a doctor because he knew the circumstances were not the same for everyone, that some people were not as fortunate as our family was, and that as he put it, he wanted to help eliminate “dis-ease.” That’s literally how he said it to me.

When I was a little girl, I would go on house calls with him. The patients all knew and loved him and I saw how much he prided himself on being a caretaker, someone who did his very best to reverse their compromised position — to put their mind and bodies at ease.

But there was one house call I remember the most. It’s seared into the back of my brain as if it happened yesterday. His diabetic patient was having a hypoglycemic attack. He told me to get the orange juice. I did, and I watched him save a woman’s life.

I’ve never been able to shake the haunting feeling of this specific house call because of the significance it would take on later in my life — and because it reminds me that even doctors meet the same inevitable fate of becoming patients.

When I tried to tend to the diabetes my father developed later in life, I thought of her shaking, pale face.

And when I looked at his limbs — a double amputee, I thought of how he fought for her life, when she could not fight for her own.

And I thought of how in his old age, he was experiencing the discomfort and dis-ease he had so seamlessly kept at bay for everyone else.

But even so, I knew we were lucky, my family — luckier than most. We could afford my father’s insulin. We could afford what it took to look after him.

And as a student here, I was blessed to have the extraordinary Duke Health System looking after me. But this isn’t accessible to everyone. What we have here is an anomaly, when it should be what we’re accustomed to.

As the President of a Level 1 Trauma Center’s Foundation, I saw firsthand the physical and financial devastation which can overwhelm an individual and their family when basic healthcare is not available or accessible. Chronic conditions run rampant. Genetic disorders go undiagnosed and contagious conditions, like the current outbreak of measles, stop being the exception and instead become an epidemic. 

But it is through deliberate exposure that we develop empathy for those who appear different than us, that we see that adversity is all encompassing. Those house calls were not accidental lessons from my father. They weren’t because he couldn’t find a sitter or because he thought I might be bored. They were there to prepare me and to open my eyes to this simple fact:

There, but for the grace of the universe, anyone of us could be adversely affected.

That’s why it is incumbent upon each of us — each of you — to not only get out of your comfort zones, but find the power in discomfort itself. And sustain your own health so you can not only help assuage the discomfort of others, but so that you can lead an informed and compassionate life.

In sports, we call for “fresh legs” when our health is on the decline, when our bodies are met with dis-ease, when veteran players get sick or tired. I would submit that my generation, your parents’ cohort, is the veterans and we are winded. We’ve been in the game since the clock started. Don’t get me wrong: We’ve still got it. But we also need your enthusiasm, your energy, and your emotional intelligence to impact the field of play in the game of life. 

So let’s wrap this thing up — it’s time to move on to the REALLY exciting stuff...the conferring of degrees!

Duke is a VERY SPECIAL place. To get in is no small feat, but to get out is a true accomplishment.

Every one of you graduates is to be commended for your hard work and effort to this point. From our youngest grad at 20 years old to our most seasoned grad at 72, you are ALL AWESOME and we are truly proud to welcome you into the full Duke Family!

You have earned the endorsement of those who have come before you and we expect you will honor the legacy of improving the world by your contributions in the years to come. 

And while it may not be easy to determine your passion or decipher your purpose, we will always be here to support you as you navigate this experience we call ‘life’.

We will always be here to not just tell you, but show you, that the only way around adversity isn’t around it at all.

It’s straight through it.

So expect adversity. Invite it. And then embrace it. Because it will be your greatest asset. It will help you be a better human being. It will teach you the same thing my mother taught me.. that no matter how bad it might feel, that even at your lowest point...you got this.

Because Dukies are like titanium. We may be dented on every side, but we are NEVER CRUSHED. And after all, we are “FOREVER DUKE”.

Many would now say, ‘go forth and conquer’. I’ll offer a parenthetical as coined by a Dukie from the Class of 1980, “DevilForth and prosper!”