NSights Blog

New Student Opening Ceremony keynote address: 'The answer is you'

Dr. Albert Lee delivered a stirring keynote address to the University's new students. His message: Strive every moment to be your best.

(Editor's note: On Aug. 26 at Lawlor Events Center, Albert Lee, director of the Nevada Chamber Opera and vocal professor in the School of the Arts, delivered a stirring keynote address to the first-year students gathered for the 17th annual New Student Opening Ceremony. When he finished, Dr. Lee received a standing ovation. Below is text of Dr. Lee's speech.)

As a classical musician, an opera singer to be specific, I am usually afforded the great opportunity to perform music of some of the greatest composers and words of the greatest poets to ever live.  In this medium as the keynote speaker for such an amazing occasion welcoming the class of 2020, new and returning faculty and staff, welcoming the new Dean of CLA, welcoming a new crop of graduate students I found myself challenged. What could I possibly share with this group to send you on your journey ahead empowered, inspired, and equipped? I wrote down a proverb in my journal that is always a source of inspiration for me. I wrote two other phrases that could be centering thoughts for my remarks to you today. In the end, when I asked myself what I would share, the reply I finally got last night around 9 p.m. was "The Answer Is You."

Because we are in an academic environment I cannot go any further without giving credit to the author and inspiration for this thought. Michael Bernard Beckwith, the spiritual teacher and author, teaches a series with this statement as its title. But I want to go in a different direction. I would like to begin by telling you about my summer. By all accounts it was one of the most memorable of my life. I gave six performances this past summer, two of a personal nature and four professionally. I would like to share three of them with you this morning.

And before I proceed I want to preface what I'm about to say with this; what I'm about to share may be a little heavy. But if you would hear my heart, I think you'll find a few nuggets to take with you along the way. You see, Class of 2020, we are entering this school year during what seems like a tumultuous time. Together, we will have the opportunity to be a part of selecting the next President of the United States, together, we will have the opportunity to select members of congress, and together, we will have an opportunity, if you are registered locally, to weigh in on the direction of public schools in Washoe County. It is a PHENOMENAL time to be here, it's a phenomenal time to be entering college at the University of Nevada, Reno, and it's a phenomenal time to renew our commitment to our highest ideals as Americans, as members of this community, and most of all as human beings. I believe that sitting before is limitless potential, untold possibility, and the unfolding of a level of greatness that UNR has never witnessed. The Answer is You Class of 2020.

This first performance was at the wedding of a dear friend just outside of Washington, D.C. Now I've been singing weddings since I was six years old. This shouldn't be a big deal really. But this was quite different.  I was singing as the couple to be married was processing down the aisle and couple that was getting married was two men. Now I grew up in a conservative Christian home, I am a member of a church that can be conservative in some of its teachings and here I was singing as a gay couple entered. The father of one of the grooms said on several occasions leading up to the wedding that he was not going and he was not interested in being a part of such foolishness.

Why on earth would I share this story in this setting? I share this with you because if you look very carefully there is a message for the journey ahead. You see, the nervousness and discomfort that my friend's father felt, that even I felt for that matter, is no different than what some of you are feeling right now.  You're away from home, in a new environment, and around new people. You will be in classes with strange teachers, living close to people who live very differently than you lived in your house where you're from.  But what I learned at that wedding is a lesson that I want you to carry with you along this journey. Instead of running from discomfort, instead of avoiding challenges, instead of bowing out in the face of fear; I admonish, I implore you, I beg of you see the lesson in the uncomfortable moment.  Ask yourself, how can I grow from this experience? What is life trying to teach me in this moment? You may not get an A in every class but you will be stronger, wiser, and better. What I've learned along the way and what was true in that moment is that your gift will always make room for you. What you offer to this community is as important as the education you are seeking.

The second performance that was significant this summer was on June 23rd. I was in the church where I grew up. My family was there, several of my dearest friends were there as I sang the Lord's Prayer.  I had performed this arrangement of the Lord's Prayer since I was in high school. But this performance was unique. I was standing in front of a casket singing for a funeral. The person lying in the casket was my brother.

Why would I share with you one of the most difficult moments of my life where I had to actually perform and could not simply grieve? I share it with you because between now and the time that you put on academic regalia and walk across the stage to get your degree you will have every reason possible to quit.  You'll be able to come up with every excuse known of why you can't meet a deadline. But I stand here as your cheerleader and your example there is nothing that can ever stop you but you. Was I grieving? Yes. Was I hurting badly? Yes. Did I wish that I could have been somewhere else not facing that challenge at that time? Absolutely. But I let my determination rise above my grief. Please don't get me wrong.  I'm not suggesting that you bury pain. I'm not suggesting that you ignore your grief. But I want you to promise me and promise yourselves this one thing; that you will not take the path of least resistance; that you will not look for the easy way out; that you will strive at every moment to be YOUR best, whatever that may be.

The third performance I want to tell you about was in a small town in Germany. I was performing an arrangement of Amazing Grace with the Nevada and New England Ambassadors of Music and we were dedicating the performance to victims of terrorism in Nice and in Munich that had just taken place. Despite that tragedy and our goal to provide comfort in healing, my mind was elsewhere.  Just a few days before this concert in a small village outside of Innsbruck, Austria where were also giving a concert I was called a nigger and told to get out of town. Startled, angry, and uneasy in foreign surroundings I found my way back to my hotel room and I stayed there. I did not want to go out. I did not want to talk.

Why would I share a story about being called a nigger by someone who meant it as a dagger through my heart, and to violently demonstrate to me I did not belong there? Because I want you to know that each of us here have a role to play in either the eradication or perpetuation of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and ageism.  The night that I was called a nigger there were a few people standing nearby.  They said nothing and they walked away. On this campus, at this great institution, in this diverse environment you will see and hear things that stereotype, marginalize, and minimize. Will you come to the aid of one who is being marginalized by peers or even faculty or will you walk away? Will you reject derogatory language when you hear it or will you remain silent? Will you treat someone who doesn't look like you or doesn't speak English as perfectly as you do, like an outsider, or is that person just as much a part of the Wolf Pack as you? Class of 2020 you have the power to shape and reshape this community. You are not here simply to get an education so you can get a job. That's what community college and trade school is for. You are here open your minds, broaden your horizons, and find your place in this world in which we live.

You know, in that moment I SERIOUSLY did not want to sing. Not in that town and not anywhere in the German speaking world. I told you earlier that your gift would make room for you. I've been in situations where my gift was welcomed, but I was not. I could offer song, share my art, entertain the masses, but my humanity, my story, and my experiences where not necessarily welcome; where my gift was used but I felt discarded. I tell you now what I told myself then; you can't be anyone but you, you can do anything but offer what you have; give to the best of your ability and know that whether it is respected or rejected that you can sleep well at night knowing that you have taken the moral high ground and that somewhere, someone was changed because your gift entered their life.

Before I take my seat I want to leave you with this: If you endeavor to be the best you, if you push past obstacles, if you can push your ego aside and ask for help when you need it, you will find that the person you are today will not be the person that walks across the stage and receives a degree. You will see the unfoldment of a you that you never dreamed existed. Embrace the uncomfortable, push pass the challenging circumstances, be the presence that uplifts all, pursues justice and values equity and you will leave UNR with not only a degree but an experience that you will never forget.

Now for the practical:

On Monday you will begin getting syllabi from each of your classes. Let me share with you what you're going to do. This is your first assignment. There is no grade. And it will not be turned in but I expect that it is done. You will gather your syllabi and you will get a calendar. It can be a written calendar or an electronic calendar. You are going to begin filling in that calendar all quizzes, tests, exams, papers, and major assignments you have due.  If it's a writing class and writing isn't your strongest area, you're going to back the due date up by at least three days so that you can take your paper to the Writing Center and get assistance. If it's a math or math-related class and you know you struggle, you will take some time with the material for that class every chance you get.  You will not tell yourself that you can't do something. You will ask yourself how am I going to get this done? You will do your reading before class and you will take notes.  This is college. You must be an active participant in the learning process and not empty heads waiting to be fulfilled. Now! The music students who are assembled know that I will walk up to you at any time and in any venue and ask you if you've done what I asked. Am I being hard just for the sake of it? No! I'm pushing you to be your best. And in return, your best inspires me to keep on striving to be my best.  Can we be accountable to one another in that way?

Wolf Pack, Michael Bernard Beckwith shared this in his message. Every problem you face is a question trying to ask itself; and every question you have is an answer trying to reveal itself. Every answer is an action trying to express itself; and every action a way of life trying to be born. If you would be available to what this moment is offering you, if you would open yourselves up to every challenge, if you step out of your comfort zone to embrace different people, different experiences, new ways of thinking, and different ways of being, you will be the leaders of progress in this community and in this world. And you will be the greatest group this institution has ever assembled. Wolf Pack!!! THE ANSWER IS YOU.

Audio version of the above recorded live:

Albert Lee