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Reflections from graduate Khalia Jelks Williams, PhD, at the 2018 GTU Commencement
Good Evening. First with deep gratitude to Deans Uriah Kim and Kathleen Kook for the very kind and humbling invitation to offer the graduate remarks this evening. To the faculty, staff, and trustees of the Graduate Theological Union, I extend a heartfelt thanks for the ways in which you have shaped an environment that fosters creativity, growth, and intellectual freedom; especially to the liturgical studies doctoral faculty who have all embraced me, inspired me, and helped me to find my voice as a scholar and practitioner. And to this esteemed graduating class, congratulations! We made it, and this is our time to celebrate! And last, but certainly not least, I offer a special word of thanks to all the families and friends that are here to celebrate their loved one’s achievements. We also celebrate you for your love, support and sacrifice along the way. Particularly to my family – my mother, husband, two sons, and my dear friends who have all traveled from near and far to be here today.
My reflections on this evening have been titled, “The Journey of a Lifetime.” Admittedly, when Dean Kook asked me for this title back in March, I had no clue what I was going to share with all of you today. However, what I did know was that if I had to sum up my experience as a student at the GTU … and if I had to encapsulate the totality of my journey up until this point, the best way to express it was in that title: the journey of a lifetime.
It was in my first semester of coursework that my husband gave me this cute little pink teddy bear with 2011 written across the chest - this was the year I entered the program. He gave it to me to mark the beginning of this leg of my academic pursuit; one that he clearly articulated was a marathon and not a sprint. Having completed his Ph.D. in engineering a few years earlier, he knew the path upon which I had embarked and was encouraging me to pace myself along the way. A few months later while in Atlanta for the summer, I met with my pastor and shared all that I accomplished in the first year, all the plans I had in store for the next year, my timelines and expectations, and she shared three words with me, “Enjoy the journey.” Then a couple of years later, while eight months pregnant and writing my dissertation, I was lamenting to a dear mentor of how I had not stuck to my own writing timeline and was running behind schedule … and she ever so gently said to me, “Khalia, have grace for yourself, and let life happen.” Because life was happening. Since starting the program life has continued to happen. I relocated back to Atlanta, got married, had children, taught classes, met church commitments, grieved loss, celebrated achievements, and worked fulltime; all while writing; all while learning; all while discovering not only that which I was researching, but also learning and discovering myself in a very new way. And those episodes of wisdom – to pace myself on this marathon journey, and to find the joy in it, while having grace for myself as life happened - were sustaining nuggets that helped me become keenly aware of how formative this entire process would be.
Now, I share this because just as life was happening for me, I am undoubtedly aware that life was happening for every single one of you who sits here today celebrating this mile marker achievement. If each of us shared a bit of our journey, I am sure the stories would be filled with all sorts of life happening; yet we are here. In a national landscape where lives are busier than ever before, we figured out the balance of academic demands and personal (and for some familial) obligations. In the midst of volatile social and political realities, we have managed to face, address and even protest deeply unsettling challenges to our sense of well-being in the world; all while studying, writing, and discovering. Life indeed has been happening; so much so that many of us, in our brief (or not so brief) time here at the GTU, have found ourselves learning and researching in a different way. We have found ourselves wrestling with new truths and ideas; and we have even discovered ourselves, our callings, and our destinies in a very new way. This my friends has been our journey; the journey of our lifetime.
And so today, I am excited because today does not mark the end of a journey. Rather today marks a point in which we pause to celebrate how far we have come, and eagerly anticipate where we are headed. As I look over this room at all of the graduates, I see a group of scholars, activists, and leaders who are on this marathon journey of life and continual learning with me; a group being continuously shaped and formed by both our scholarship and all that life has to offer. I see a group committed to social, political, ministerial, and professional change; ready to offer all that we have within us for the sake of creating a better tomorrow.
Today, as we enjoy this journey, we celebrate every word read, every paper written, every exam taken, every presentation given, every long night studying, every aha moment, every assignment submitted, every professors feedback, every brainstorming session, and every encouraging word that helped us through. Graduates we are gathered here one more time on “holy hill,” where religions meet the world, celebrating our academic accomplishments. May we remain committed to a well-paced journey, embracing joy along the way, while remembering to have grace for ourselves as life continues to happen. Congratulations graduates!!! We’ve made it, and I can’t wait to see where the next leg of this journey takes us all.