When I first landed in Zambia to launch Clothed in Hope in July 2012, I was just 2 months into the real world having graduated that May. At first I was hit with a wave of all that I didn’t know that I didn’t know, like how not to be ripped off by an auto mechanic, or how to drive on the left side of the road in Zambia, or how to run an organization comprised of women who are almost the same age as my mother. I quickly learned how young I was and how little I knew.
But diving into the role of running an international nonprofit organization, I was also surprised with how much I did know. And I attribute the majority of that to my undergraduate education at the University of South Carolina. During days of figuring out exchange rates with our budgets and pricing of products to sell overseas, I was thankful for my accounting classes. And when it came time to sell those products, with dozens of women counting on me to get our product line up and running, I was thankful for marketing and retail promotion classes. And when discovering the ins and outs of running a business and a nonprofit, I was strangely thankful for Business and Media Law, by far the hardest classes I took in my undergraduate career with the “I Survived Dr. Jay Bender’s Law Class” mug to show for it.
I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without the University of South Carolina. It was there I discovered who I am, what I am capable of, and what my dreams are. It was there during my junior year that Clothed in Hope was born. And it was also there that we received a $10,000 gift from a class to get us off the ground.
I received an email a few weeks back that granted me the opportunity to give back from all that’s been given to me. I was invited to speak at the College of Hospitality, Retail, and Sport Management Hooding and Cording Ceremony as the Guest Speaker. Such an honor- a humbling and exciting one.
After practicing my speech and trying to psych myself up, I walked onto the stage I would be speaking from at the Koger Center. I looked out and saw hundreds of empty seats, and a tinge of excitement flowed through my veins. I remember sitting there four years ago, so unaware of what my future would hold, but so proud of what that ceremony represented from years of hard work and dedication. I remember the nervousness as my peers and I prepared to step into the unknown. And I also giggled at the naivety of that 21-year-old self.
I soon learned that the group I was expecting to be around 150 was actually 500 attendees who would be staring at me as I spoke about Clothed in Hope and my story from Carolina. I entertained feelings of nervousness for a few minutes which soon turned to excitement and gratitude the second I walked on stage next to the Deans of my college.
After opening remarks from Dean Oh, I took my place at the podium front and center on the Koger Center stage. A few echoes of inadequacy bounced around in my mind, but they were quickly shut out by the excitement of the opportunity to speak with those who would walk in my shoes as a new graduate.
I shared my story of CiH, of the surprises life brings, both hard and good, and that how we react to them will shape how we live. I shared about the opportunity each and every one of us have to impact our world for the better, whether we work in Zambia with vulnerable women, or work in a cubicle next to a person struggling with the hardships of life. Each one of us, where we are, has the ability to change the world. We just have to make that choice, to choose to use our skills and talents to better this world we live in.
I shared the story that I learned over the last 4 years that I wish I heard before leaving the bubble of college. That life is indeed hard, with its fair share of challenges, but its also full of immense opportunity. That dreaming isn’t foolish, and it’s actually what gets you through the trenches of post-grad life. I felt like I was handing the torch to these brothers and sisters of mine, hoping that as I passed that torch, it would light a fire within each graduate to recognize their full potential to rock the world for good.
A few weeks have passed since I spoke to that group of students. They may have forgotten the words I spoke, as they were overwhelmed with the excitement of graduation weekend. But I haven’t forgotten what it did for my soul, reigniting my own flame, taking me back to my roots, and overwhelming my heart with gratitude for the place that got me started.
To the University of South Carolina: thank you. I may travel far and wide from my Carolina home in Columbia, SC, but my heart is forever with this incredible institution. And to those of you who are just getting your start, or getting a new start, in this big world: you can do it. I know you can.
With Chikondi and Forever to Thee,