2022 Commencement Speech

SHILPA T. PANKAJ, MD, FAAP

Duchesne Class of 2022 graduates, esteemed faculty and staff, parents, family and friends,

I am absolutely thrilled to be here tonight! When Ms. Swenson asked me to deliver this year’s commencement address, I felt so honored and privileged to have been given such an incredible opportunity. I was flattered. I was excited. But I must admit, I was also a bit terrified! Public speaking admittedly is not something I am frequently asked to do as a physician - but I can only hope that I do this great honor justice, for it is such an important night for all of you. I remember my graduation night here 24 years ago. (I will leave it up to these brilliant graduates to do the math on how old that makes me!)

I remember the white dress my parents had custom made especially for the event, donning the same lovely white crown that rests upon your heads, seated in those very same seats. I remember proceeding to this stage holding a beautiful bouquet just like the one you are holding now, with Pachelbel's Canon in D playing in the background. To this day, every time I hear that song it brings me back to that feeling I had on this very night in 1998. I remember the butterflies in my stomach, the lump in my chest, and the exhilarating feeling in my heart that a new exciting chapter was about to begin - juxtaposed with a bittersweet feeling that an absolutely beautiful one was coming to an end. 

Some of you may have been at Duchesne your whole life, while others may have just joined during high school. My journey at Duchesne started in the 5th grade. My dedicated parents had done their homework researching and visiting and applying to all of the top tier private schools in our great city - as I am sure many, if not all, of the parents seated in the audience here tonight have done for you. I am sure your parents chose Duchesne for you for their own unique reasons - the rigorous academics, the single sex education, the Catholic faith, the small close-knit community. Whatever reason they may have chosen, the values they wanted for you remain the same as what my parents wanted for me and what I want for mine. We want our daughters to be to be seen, supported, protected, and cared for. To be challenged academically and to be aware spiritually. We want them to grow and thrive in an environment where they feel at home, make meaningful friendships, and find great mentors.

When my family landed upon Duchesne, my mother realized upon touring the school that it was a part of the same Sacred Heart network of schools that she had attended in Mumbai, India. The fit seemed perfect for our family. I started as a second generation Sacred Heart student at our great school. Before Duchesne, I was a relatively shy, introverted child. I often preferred books to playdates. I was studious, but was the type of student that even if I knew the answer to a question the teacher had asked, I was hesitant to raise my hand. My time at Duchesne changed all of that for me. I found great friendships. I loved my teachers. Over time, I became comfortable voicing my opinions, pursuing my interests, developing my passions, being silly and goofy with friends and, for lack of a better word coming into “my own” as a young woman.

When I think back to what it was about this school that really made my experience so special - I think it circles back to our 5 Goals of the Sacred Heart. This will probably be the last time you will ever hear about these goals as a student on campus, and I would like for you to take this opportunity to reflect on your experience here and how you might implement these cornerstones - that have been so lovingly ingrained into you – as you embark on your future endeavors as an alum of the Sacred Heart.

I began learning about the Sacred Heart goals in the 5th grade, but it was not until later in life that I found myself relying on our first goal, “A personal and active faith in God.” Even though I am not Catholic, I can appreciate that Duchesne instilled in me a sense that a practice of faith, prayer, and reflection - no matter what religious affiliation - was important. There will be times in your lives, both expectedly or unexpectedly, when you will rely heavily on your faith. For me, it happened very unexpectedly. At the age of 22, I lost my father to terminal illness. He passed away just 6 weeks before I started medical school. He was my confidant, my biggest cheerleader, and the most calm, thoughtful, loving, and kind man I have ever known.

The grief associated with the loss of my father at such a young age was overwhelming, but my faith in God is what carried me through. With much prayer and reflection, I gained the strength to begin my medical training with a passion and perseverance that I knew would make my late father proud. Later in life, I made decisions through faith that I knew in my heart would have been what my father wanted. I married a man he would have loved. I chose to follow my mother's footsteps and pursue a career in pediatrics. I joined my mother's practice and became a partner in the family business. I chose to send my daughters to the same school he and my mother chose for me - Duchesne. 

Some of you may have already started the journey of developing your personal relationship with God. Life can be full of unknowns, but one thing remains constant – our first goal can carry you through both times of joy and times of adversity.

Now while adversity is not always something you can prepare for, you can prepare for the academic challenges that are soon to await all of you at the various esteemed universities you will be attending. Our second goal is, 'A deep respect for intellectual values.' My time as a student at Duchesne taught me the value of hard work, of time management, of multitasking. The academic rigor, though grueling at times, gave me the confidence to thrive at my alma mater – the University of Pennsylvania. I remember hosting Calculus tutoring groups in college after surviving and mastering the "epic" Calculus classes of Mrs. Hurwitz. I remember writing papers and getting compliments from professors about the organization of my essays thanks to the passion and dedication of English teachers like Mrs. Hungerford and the senior Dr. Bradley. I have not taken a Spanish class since Sra. Larsen's Spanish Literature class my senior year, yet I am able to converse with ease with my Spanish speaking patients 24 years later.

This same academic vigor served me well during the painstaking years of medical school, the tireless hours of training as a medical resident, and now the day to day managing of a business and taking care of my patients. I am so grateful for the challenging academic program I endured at Duchesne, and you will be too! The skills you have learned and mastered today will be the groundwork to future successes and accomplishments in any academic or professional environment you choose!

A Sacred Heart education is not just about academics, it is also about cultivating a culture and spirit of charity. This brings us to our third goal - 'A social awareness which impels to action.’ I know that the pandemic has made it challenging for you girls to pursue Social Awareness projects, but I was so happy to hear that some of you were able to work virtually to give lessons to kindergarteners in New York. And this year you were able to go back to sites such as BEAR and Our Lady of Guadalupe. When I was in Upper School, Sr. Karam was the director of our Social Awareness program. I am so honored she introduced me tonight! I actually ran into her at an alum event recently, and she is still giving me the best book recommendations!

During my Junior year, I approached Sr. Karam about a new social awareness initiative. My best friend and I had spent our summer training to be teen counselors for Houston’s Teenline – a crisis hotline for teens to call anonymously 24/7 for support, guidance, or mental health resources. I am so appreciative to Sr. Karam for supporting us in that endeavor which undoubtedly led both my best friend and I to careers in medicine, specifically serving children and teens. She is now a Pediatric Neurologist, and I am a community pediatrician.

I cannot, however, talk about my choice to go into pediatrics without mentioning my mom. Surely, as you have gathered here tonight, both of my parents have served as strong inspirations for me. I am confident that you feel the same way about yours. Growing up, my mom was always working. And I don’t mean that to sound like I was upset about it. She is still, in fact, always working! After 47 years in practice, she is still working full time, and I cannot get her to slow down! Trust me, I have tried!  She runs circles around me!  But in all seriousness, she enjoys what she does. She is passionate about it, in fact. She loves caring for children and families. She loves connecting with her patients in meaningful ways. And she is an extraordinarily talented clinician as well as an astute businesswoman who I am honored to work with and learn from daily. But given her history as an alum of the Sacred Heart, I am sure that our third goal undoubtedly influenced her to pursue a career helping the children of our community from every income level, ethnicity, religious affiliation and social circumstance you can imagine. And I can assure you, as a future alum of the Sacred Heart, that when you carry this goal forward into your adult life - either by your career choice or how you choose to spend your time outside of work - you will never regret it. Because the greatest gift, in fact, is giving back.

Now most of you realize that going to an all-girls school places you into a relatively small community of people! But in all honesty, the Sacred Heart community is so much deeper and larger than its perceived size. The fourth goal of the Sacred Heart is 'Building of a community as a Christian value.'  I must admit, this is my favorite goal – as it encourages me to think about the amazing friendships and relationships I have cultivated both by time here as a student and now also as a parent of two young girls in the Lower School. The friendships I have formed through Duchesne have been some of the longest lasting and most meaningful of my entire life. These were the girls that came to visit me when I was feeling homesick in college, the girls that supported me when I lost my father, the girls that were the bridesmaids in my wedding, and the girls that rejoiced when I had my daughters. They are the life-long friends I call when I’m excited to share really great news, and the friends I lean onto for support when I’ve had a really challenging day. They are the friends that pitch in and help make arrangements for my daughters when conflicts arise - because their mom is also always working! They are the friends that woke up at 5am to help me edit my commencement speech, and took time to allow me to rehearse with them over the phone because I was feeling really nervous about it all! They are even the friends that found their way into getting an invite to tonight’s event, because they knew how happy it would make me to have some familiar faces in the audience!

I know that many of you have formed amazing friendships during your time here at Duchesne – whether that be if you have just been here a couple years, or you have been here your whole life. And I know many of you may worry that as you move on to the next phase of your lives that things might feel different. I assure you, though, that the bond you have with these girls seated to your right, left, front, and back is lifelong. Similarly, the unwavering support you will continue to have from your teachers, coaches, and school administrators will follow you into your future endeavors. The people on this campus - in these classrooms, on this sports field, in these art studios and in this White House - have shaped us all into the women we are, and the women we will become. You will always have a home here, and if you choose to circle back to the Duchesne community - whether it be next year or 20 years from now - the shared experience of this place will stay with you. It will bond you to these girls, to this faculty, to these families, for decades to come. 

Whether your time here at Duchesne has been short or long, your time at the school has fostered growth – academically, spiritually, and personally. Our fifth goal of the Sacred Heart is “Personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom.’ For me, this goal embodies how during my 8 years here I was able to build self-confidence to find direction and passion to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a physician. I now know that it has done the same for the girls that sat in those very same seats with me 24 years ago.

When I reflect on my graduating class of 1998, I am so incredibly proud of what our class of just 40 women has accomplished. We have women pursuing passions and careers in every industry you can imagine.

We have women in education - a preschool teacher with a masters degree, and an attorney who works in higher education policy.

We have women in business - a marketing executive for a technology company, and an Energy Transition Executive at a Fortune 500 company.

We have women in healthcare – a child psychiatrist with a degree from Harvard, an orthodontist, an eye-surgeon, a veterinarian, and a pediatric neurologist.

We have women in science – a chemical engineer who is working to patent inventions that take carbon dioxide emissions directly from the air, and a research scientist for talent acquisition at a Fortune 5 company.

We have women in the real estate industry – a lawyer who is a vice president at a mortgage company.

We have women in the arts – an Emmy award winning documentary film producer, an art curator for the National Museum of Qatar, and an internationally acclaimed artist with over 800K followers on social media.

We even have a professional horse trainer and competitive show jumper!

And these are just 16 examples! Surely, if I listed the accomplishments of all of the girls in my class, we would be here all night!

Amazing right? I am so incredibly grateful to be included in their company! Now, many of you may not yet know the path that will bring your life joy and meaning. Your talents and strengths are just beginning to blossom. You may feel unsure about what the future holds for you beyond our campus here on Memorial Drive. I am here tonight to tell you that your future is so bright. You are destined for astounding, wonderful, and fulfilling opportunities. This moment represents a shift, a turning point. You are about to embark on a new journey that will come with even more freedom, more choices to be made – big and small. For some of you, this will feel exhilarating. For some, terrifying. But know that you are well-equipped. You are prepared. Whether you realize it or not, these five goals that we have discussed tonight are now a part of you. They will give you the faith, the academic strength, the kind heart, the support, and the maturity to be able to tackle any challenge that comes your way.

Now, I began this speech by reminiscing about how I felt when I was in your seat - at this very same turning point in my life in 1998. I want to end this speech by switching the perspective a bit. I want to ask you to place yourself in my shoes. In 20 years, when the future head of school approaches one of you about giving a commencement speech to a group of graduates – what will you say about Duchesne and what it has done for you? At what times in your life will the five goals have come into play? What astounding things will you have accomplished because of the foundation you have received here? And what jaw-dropping things will you be boasting about from these girls seated next to you? This Sacred Heart community will be cheering you on as you begin this new chapter and all the chapters you have to look forward to after that! We can’t wait to hear about all you are destined to achieve. Congratulations Class of 2022!