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Vice President Kamala Harris applauded graduating high school students across the country during a CNN “Graduation 2021” event over the weekend. She emphasized the strength that students have displayed throughout this past year.
“You now know that you have what it takes to get through pretty much anything,” Harris told students. “So when you come up against an obstacle, when you experience a setback — and you will, we all do — remember the resilience that you showed this past year. The determination. Remember that you have the strength to get through anything.”
Though that event was focused on high school graduates, students of all ages have shown some of that same strength while learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. And if anyone is looking for a strong, eloquent Maine voice as proof, they should watch the speech Grace Muheto gave earlier in May during the University of Southern Maine (USM) online commencement celebration.
Muheto was chosen as USM’s 2021 student commencement speaker, and she delivered a powerful speech. She explained how her family moved to Portland 7 years ago after leaving the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She had to leave behind everything that defined her.
“It was not easy, but for this moment right here, it was definitely worth it,” she said during the commencement celebration. “I would have never imagined that the 14-year-old girl who did not speak English would one day deliver the commencement speech at her college graduation.”
Muheto said she has been shy in unfamiliar situations since she was younger, including anxiety about presenting in class. That only increased in a new country and new culture, while speaking a new language.
“That 14-year-old girl had to push through her worries, insecurities, and the feeling that she would never be as good as someone who grew up here,” Muheto said. “She had to learn to never let her fears and other people’s opinion define her. She had to push herself outside her comfort zone and into an environment where she could find her voice. What better way to do that than to go to college?”
During her time at USM, she “encountered some of the best people, people who are not afraid to shine their lights and speak their minds.” She said they taught her “the key to success is all about how I choose to see and think about myself.”
Muheto also discussed how a year of pandemic living and isolation impacted her perspective.
“My faith, and all this time reflecting on my own perception made all the differences,” she explained, also noting that she felt she had taken life-changing opportunities for granted and not made the most of her time at USM. She said she had limited beliefs about what she could accomplish instead of being her own cheerleader.
“Now, I am prepared to be that cheerleader. By focusing on what is long lasting and meaningful, instead of what is temporary, I will keep on pushing through, until being fearless becomes a lifestyle,” Muheto said. “The courage to be fearless might sound simple, but it’s not easy, especially right now.”
She’s right about that. And she’s also right that we can choose to have hope for human decency and compassion during difficult times.
“Hope for a generation that is not afraid to demand change, and become the change. Hope for world peace, hope for acceptance despite differences,” Muheto said. “More importantly, I hope for love. I hope that we can love each other despite everything that we believe makes us so different.”
Muheto also expressed her pride for the graduating class of 2021. “We should take a moment to applaud ourselves for making it to the finish line,” she said.
All of Maine should take that moment to applaud this year’s graduates. These students have persevered through a difficult year, and if Grace Muheto’s thoughtful speech is any indication, they have a bright future ahead of them.