The E-Turn in Life: Being the Difference
By Amy Rauch Neilson
Antioch University McGregor Commencement Exercises
Sunday, June 29, 2008
2 p.m., The Schuster Center
I have a confession to make. When I first decided to pursue a master’s degree, it was all about me. How would a master’s degree make my life better? What better opportunities might come my way? That may not come as such a surprise to you, since I am, after all, a member of Generation X – better known as the “Me” generation.
I have another confession to make. I thought a master’s degree was nothing more than a series of hoops to jump through and, at the end, a piece of paper that I could use as a key to open doors that had thus far remained closed. After all, could there really be that much for me to learn that a bachelor’s degree and 15 years of professional experience hadn’t yet taught me?
At the time, I didn’t think so. Yet, I knew I needed that piece of paper, as, without it, the doors of some highly-desirable opportunities had been slammed in my face. And so I began my search for a graduate program.
I came across the Individualized Liberal and Professional Studies Program at Antioch University McGregor. It was the perfect fit. The ILPS program would give me an opportunity to design my own curriculum and to focus my studies in areas that I hadn’t had the chance to pursue during my undergraduate years.
I could see that there was much more to learn and discover. But it was still pretty much – yes, you guessed it — all about me. That is, until the day in March 2006 when – about half-way through my degree program — I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer. I was told that my cancer was likely already a Stage III, and that, chances were, I had five years or less to live.
A few weeks later, on a warm spring afternoon, I found myself with a basket of laundry, alone in my bedroom, my six-month-old son napping, my husband at work. As I folded a tiny pair of socks, I looked out the window and caught a glimpse of a sunset the color of orange sherbet. And I thought to myself, “How many more orange sherbet sunsets might I be lucky enough to see?” Then I watched as the rush-hour traffic on the nearby expressway zipped by. And for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that there will always be orange sherbet sunsets and rush-hour traffic – with or without me.
Six weeks later, I got a second chance at life. Further testing revealed that I had Stage I, not Stage III, cancer. My chances of long-term survival soared to 98 percent. I thought back to that day – the laundry, the sunset, the traffic. And then my mind turned to the words of Antioch University McGregor President Barbara Gellman-Danley: “At Antioch University McGregor, we believe you can be the difference.”
It was not that I hadn’t made a difference along my path in life. I may joke that I’m a typical Gen-Xer, but I am always there to give words of encouragement, help a sick friend, even pay for a stranger’s gallon of milk. But, in President Gellman-Danley’s words, I realized that there was a new challenge before me – one that called me to not only face my breast cancer diagnosis head-on and finish my master’s degree, but to actively seek out opportunities in my life where I could Be the Difference. From that day on, my life would be a series of what I now call the “E” Turn. In what ways could I touch E-ternity, and leave this world a better place long after I am gone?
If there’s anything I’ve learned at Antioch, it’s to open my mind as far as my imagination can reach to all of the possibilities that surround each of us every single day. You don’t have to be Madonna, Mother Teresa or Barack Obama to be the difference. In fact, oftentimes we think of ourselves as ordinary when who we are and what we are capable of is nothing short of extraordinary. Whether we throw a handful of small pebbles or a large rock into the pond, the ripples form a series of concentric circles that soon reach farther than the eye can see and touch E-ternity in ways we can only imagine.
What’s the difference between making a difference and being the difference? That’s the question I’ve been pondering, and I think I’ve found the answer. Making a difference is doing the right thing when the opportunity presents itself – as long as it falls within your own personal comfort zone. Being the difference is pushing yourself farther than you ever thought possible and taking on the challenges in life that force you to reach deep within yourself to find the courage you never knew you had; challenges that can be downright terrifying.
I had a taste of what Being the Difference means this past spring, when long-time Detroit Free Press reporter and columnist Susan Ager approached me and my family. She wanted to write an article about the four generations of women in our family who carry the Breast Cancer 1 gene. I invited Susan, along with a photographer, into our daily lives. They shared dinner around our kitchen table, accompanied me to my oncology check-up, played with my son.
The article was scheduled to run on March 23, 2008 – Easter Sunday. Three days earlier, on Thursday, March 20, I began to panic. What had I done? I asked myself. Along with me and at my urging, my husband, my sisters, and my niece had exposed some of the most intimate details of their lives. And I had gone a step further – allowing the Free Press photographer to photograph my reconstructed breasts. There was no turning back now. In three days, the article would land on the doorsteps of the newspaper’s one million Metro Detroit subscribers. What had I done?
Last week, I got my answer. As I walked into a breast cancer support group meeting, my oncologist stopped me at the door. “Do you realize what you’ve done? she asked. “Women have been coming into our clinic in droves, the article tucked under their arms.” Some, she told me, came for their first mammogram, others were ready to be tested for the gene. Still others, having seen my naked left breast – nipple and all – on the front page of the Life section – wanted the name of my plastic surgeon. If reconstruction can look that good, they told my oncologist, then maybe they’re willing to consider it after all.
I am the difference. My husband, who was by my side every step of the way, is the difference. My sister, Julie, a 20-year breast cancer survivor – is the difference. My sister Lisa, who tested positive for the gene and courageously underwent a series of preventative surgeries and reconstruction – is the difference. My niece, Natalie — brave enough to be tested for the gene at the age of 21 — is the difference. And by making the choice to reach beyond our comfort zones, to take risks and find the courage that we didn’t even know we had — we have tossed a pebble into the water and created ripples that I have no doubt will change lives, alter outcomes, and touch E-ternity. Whether it is 5, 10, or 50 years from now, I hope that those who I leave behind can say with conviction that I did indeed devote my life to Being the Difference.
I want to thank my family and friends as well as the Antioch University McGregor staff and faculty – and in particular, Dr. Jon Saari, adviser, professor, and friend — whose faith in me never wavered, even in my darkest moments. I congratulate you on your accomplishments today and challenge you, as you go forth into the world, to take an E-turn, find the path that is yours and yours alone, and to Be the Difference You Seek to See in the World, the one that an Antioch education has prepared each and every one of us to be. Thank you.