WLU Commencement, December 2016
Dr. Christina Fisanick Greer (WLU ‘96)
California University of Pennsylvania

Twenty years ago I was right where you are now—nervously waiting to come up on stage to get my diploma and hoping that the commencement speaker wouldn’t be boring. In addition to my diploma, the day I graduated I was handed a silver-plated bowl for being a graduate of the West Liberty Honors program. Later that night, my Honors friends and I filled our bowls with Fruit Loops and milk and inaugurated our ceremonial bowls. As you can tell, I was wild back then.

At this point, though, you might be thinking to yourself, “What could yet another professor have to tell me about my future? She doesn’t even know me.” But I might know you better than you think. Let me tell you a story.

You see, long before I first wore this doctoral robe, I was written off for a loser over and over again. I was born on Halloween in 1973 to an unwed mother with an eighth grade education. Having no money and no job, she took me to live in an abandoned church in Loudenville, which I jokingly say was a suburb of Cameron. We had no running water and an unreliable heat source. My mother tells me that snow came into the broken windows and onto the bed where we slept. Needless to say, this was a hard time, but before my fourth birthday my mother married a man who would become my step father, and we would move to a trailer park in Moundsville, where we lived my entire childhood.

Growing up was hard, but I was blessed with a great public school education in Marshall County. Unfortunately, bullying and other issues made the non-academic side of school hard, so when I found out I was pregnant in March of my senior year, I immediately dropped out. Sadly, when my daughter was three and a half months old, her father murdered her. And I was left a grieving mess with no education and an ex-husband in prison, as he should have been.

A year later I found myself aimless. I was working midnight shift at a gas station, and one night, after my grief had given away to numbness, I realized that I had a choice. I could either stay in this job that was neither paying the bills nor making me happy or I could get an education, and like all of you, I chose the latter.

I went back to John Marshall and repeated my senior year and then my guidance counselor recommended that I go to college. At that point, the only people I knew who had gone to college were my teachers. People like me, I had been told all my life, didn’t go on to college. They just didn’t. But in the fall of 1993 I found myself walking onto West Liberty’s campus ready to start my freshmen year.

At this point I was alone, afraid, and not sure of what would happen next, but before my first semester even ended, I knew I had found my place in the world. I was no longer bullied because of my shabby clothes or my big imagination. Instead, I built wonderful friendships that continue to enrich my life. Perhaps most important of all, though, it was at West Liberty that I discovered what would become my life’s work and purpose.

Towards the end of my second year, I realized that I wanted to be like my professors. I wanted to inspire others. I wanted to teach writing and literature. Most of all, I wanted to help students who were like me. Smart, capable, and determined, but who needed to build their confidence. Who longed for adult mentors who could help shape them. West Liberty faculty encouraged me to do my best by refusing to allow me to just do the minimum. It wasn’t enough for me to write a paper for an English class. Professor Harris urged me to submit it and present it at a conference, which I did! It wasn’t enough for me to earn my degree. Professor Thomas recommended me for the Honors program, which meant more work and more time, but I am so glad he did!

But if you really want to know the truth, West Liberty made me love college so much that I wanted to make sure I never had to leave, so I applied to Ohio University in Athens and got in!

I finished my Master’s degree in American literature and then applied to OU’s doctoral program in writing and rhetoric. I was one of only two candidates to be accepted that year. Life was hard, but life was good. I fell in love and got remarried. Then, as my new husband and I were making plans to welcome our son into the world, he was born three months premature and died in NICU at just one week old. Needless to say, the grief crushed me. After losing my daughter, the loss of my son opened up painful wounds. Thankfully, I had a great support system, and somehow I found myself just two weeks after I buried my son Nicholas taking my comprehensive exams. Two years later, I earned my Ph.D.

Soon after I started teaching English at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Life remained challenging. Being a poor student did not automatically make me a rich professor, and later I learned that there is no such thing. Jokes on me. Student loan debt, a broke down car, and the cost of living in the city forced me to stretch my paychecks so thin they shattered. But things finally felt stable in my life.

That is, until five days before Christmas in 2004. While we were out doing last minute Christmas shopping, our house caught on fire. By the next morning, all that we owned was destroyed, including our beloved cats who had been trapped inside.

This time. For the first time. I thought I would not get back up. I really believed that I would not find the strength to draw another breath. I remember asking the Red Cross worker who let us shelter in his van what happened to people who lose everything. He looked me right in the eyes and said, “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just don’t know.”

But as the days wore on, I found the strength within myself to put my life back together. I went back to work and toiled on. Eventually, I learned that California University of Pennsylvania was hiring, and it was my ticket back to the Ohio Valley. As excited as I was about the prospect, I wondered, like so many others, if it is truly possible to go home again?

I am happy to tell you that the Ohio Valley I ran away from so long ago is now my home, but I came back on my terms: a professor, a published writer, and a woman dedicated to helping others achieve their true potential. I now live in Wheeling with my son in a beautiful life I have created with the help of the wonderful education and support I received at West Liberty. In so many ways, all of my dreams started here.

I tell you all of this because if I listened to common sense and public opinion I am sure I would still be living in poverty. I would not have my education. I would not have a job that I love. I would not have my son.

Walk out of here today knowing that the road ahead of you is a bumpy one. College students today graduate with more debt and less job opportunities than any generation before them. You might have to leave the Valley. You might to have to take jobs that have nothing to do with your degree, but don’t let short-term struggles dictate your long-term goals. Dream big. Then dream bigger. Map out a course, but don’t lose sight of where you want to end up. At times you will wonder if any of it is worth it. At other times you will marvel at how fortunate you are. You have an education now. No one can take that away from you.

Remember, too, that you have already been tested. Through your own grit and determination you passed that biology test you couldn’t study for because you had to work over time. You managed to finish that English comp paper, even though your roommate was up all night playing video games with her noisy friends. And most importantly you drove up Rt. 88 every winter and are still alive to humble brag about it!

Each and every one of you have within you the power to overcome the odds. You might not always win the battle, but you can win the war.

One of my favorite poems is called “Mother to Son” by the great Langston Hughes, and I found myself through every one of life’s tragedies repeating it over and over like a mantra. I leave you with his words in the hopes that when you find yourself close to breaking—and you will–that they will bring you encouragement and comfort:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.