We are running this powerful graduation keynote address, first, as an expression of our permanent gratitude for the life and service of retiring school counselor and legendary educator, Tricia Shemwell, and second, as an expression of her educational legacy and what it will mean for leadership in the future.
Gratitude for Tricia Shemwell, Retiring Grauer School Counselor
Graduation Address by Dr. Stuart Grauer – June 9, 2017
Our Honorand for the Graduation Ceremonies for the class of 2017, is the great counselor and teacher, Tricia Shemwell, retiring this month at the end of a remarkable career from work that will continue on for generations.
Tricia, when I think back on my long association with you and try to characterize it, my mind always jumps back to a day high up on the hill of University of San Diego, overlooking San Diego Bay, where I first met you. You had answered an ad for a school counselor and it was a midpoint for me, Dana, and you to meet on that beautiful Sunday morning. Wonderfully and coincidentally, because coincidences are often the most wonderful things, USD was the alma mater of all three of us.
One thing I remember about it is that we entered the Peace and Justice Center there and wandered around till we found a free room, which looked straight across to the new School of Education there. So, the meeting always has a slight tinge of sneaking in. And I like things that way, because there is always a bit of the mischief maker that is a part of the way I see you. I know what you will say to that: “It takes one to know one.” True it is.
Enjoy retirement, and congratulations, Tricia. “There are no happy endings, kid. Just these moments” (Coover).
I am preparing to visit Florence this summer for the first time, the home of many greats in both art and Leadership, two of my life passions. It was Machiavelli of Florence who noted: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in it’s success, than to take the lead in a new order of things.”
We at Grauer have always been attempting no less of a challenge in education and, interviewing for a counselor for a new order of things, we knew we needed kindred spirits and shared convictions. We were going to turn college placement on its head. You seniors, you’ve rarely been ranked or categorized like the rest of them, and so you came out as incredible individuals.
Anyway, that was a little over 10 years ago. Dana wrote, “Stuart and I knew immediately that she would be the perfect person, but I could have never imagined that Tricia could advance our school’s reputation among colleges and universities to the place where we are today…”
One of Tricia’s first college placements at Grauer was Alex Levine, Grauer School Class of 2007, Gonzaga University 2011, UNC-Chapel Hill MBA Class of ’18. Alex wrote a toast for this occasion that could be given by the vast majority of grads from the past 10 years:
“To the woman who helped me make the best decision of my life, we were sitting together looking over the culmination of years of work and months of preparation and it all came down to a choice that only I could make. Up until this point, most of the large decisions ‘I’ made were not my own, but were predetermined by my parents. But deciding where to go to college was a choice left entirely up to me.”
“We sat there for what must have been a few hours talking through what the options were, you acted like you had all the time in the world and that we weren’t going to leave this office until not only had I reached a decision, but I was happy with it. I’ll never forget the moment… They don’t realize it now, but the seniors on stage today, whether they’re going to college or not, if they talked to Tricia Shemwell about it, can be confident in the fact that they’re making the right decision for themselves. I wouldn’t change the friendships, experiences or education as a Gonzaga undergrad for anything in the world, and I owe that ‘best decision I ever made,’ to her.”
Nathan Warburton from the same class writes, “Tricia helped me get into every single college I applied to. I got into my top 3: University of Southern California, USC, NYU, and Cal Berkeley. She made sure I had the best package possible. Thank you Tricia!”
The next year she counseled 2008 Grauer School Resourcefulness Award Winner, Bryce Carr, and he writes: “So much of who I am today can be traced back to Tricia Shemwell. She came into our lives at just the right time and we were all so blessed to have her there. I look back at what Tricia did for me and realize it’s so much more than just getting me into the “right” school. It was a matter of shaping me into being the “right” person for me. I learned how to be the person I am today because of Tricia. And this isn’t just me. It’s all of my fellow alums, all of today’s graduates, and all of those who will come down the road. Thank you, Tricia.”
Jeremy Pearl, class of 2009 wrote: “There aren’t enough words that I could use to describe this wonderfully special person. Tricia is such an incredibly warm and loving person and without her support I truly don’t think I’d be where I am today.”
Lucas Worthen from 2010 says, “She is a wonderful woman who cares deeply about her students and goes above and beyond to facilitate their success… It was refreshing to have her positive outlook on situations …There are very few places like that and very few people like Tricia who genuinely care.”
My own daughter Audrey was in the class of 2011, and wrote: “Just thinking about Tricia brings a smile to my face. Not only did she share the various paths that I could take for college, but she provided me with the courage to go with my heart. Her source of support still resides in me today and I don’t think will ever leave.”
Matt Higgins, class of 2012 writes, “I can say with confidence that Tricia lives her life with true kindness and care for others.”
Forrest Gitlin, class of 2013 writes, “I find myself bragging quite often about Tricia’s counseling. I know for a fact that I would not be where I am if it were not for Tricia.”
Personally, I find that line to be a perfect refrain: “If it were not for Tricia.”
Rayna Shah from that same year wrote: “She was the one to encourage me to run for an officer position in ASB even when I was not confident enough in myself to do so on my own. As many students know, junior and senior year can be a very stressful time…Tricia was a mentor and a confidant. She would spend hours with me … even when I kept changing my mind …She always believed in me!”
“She always believed in me.”
Claya El Moussa from the class of 2014: “I loved walking into her office whether it was to talk about life, travels or college. She was ceaselessly warm and welcoming, and you could tell she very much cared. She has vast knowledge of applications and the university system. She is always patient and willing to help. Her kindness and gentleness will always be part of Grauer. Tricia, We love you.”
Echo Zhang from class of 2015 writes, “I used to say that I want to bring Tricia with me to college and put her in my pocket because she is so funny and understanding! I loved going to her office and just talking to her about anything in my life. I love Tricia, and I miss her so much.”
From the class of 2016, Sophia Drewelew writes a letter echoed in many others: “Tricia is a kind, meaningful, intelligent, bright and inspiring women. We pretty much lived in Tricia and Shelley’s office. They made their office an open, safe, and positive room for us to come in whenever we needed! Tricia could not have been a larger support for me during senior year. I am forever thankful to have had the opportunity to meet, work with, and get know Tricia at Grauer.”
From the class of 2017, the ever-thoughtful Spencer Wirick has pretty much the same mischievous grin as Tricia. He writes: “Despite her recent semi-retirement from school, Tricia has been more committed than ever to her students. Through a set of wild and extraordinary circumstances, Tricia managed to get me in to my top school months after I was initially declined. Her dedication to the admissions process and Grauer students allowed me admission into the school of my dreams.”
These are all great student remembrances, but at Grauer, we often define leadership as “making leaders of those around you.” Probably her closest working partner of all has been Shelley Boniwell, a master in her own right. Shelley, dressed today in Tricia’s academic robes, may have been Tricia’s best student ever, and she writes, “Tricia has been my rock during my time at Grauer, like my second Mom. She has shared my joys and pains and everything in between. I have grown so much as a person and professional because of her guidance and wisdom. Never did I think that I would become so knowledgeable about colleges and universities and passionate about post secondary planning.”
Shelley added, “I’ll be forever grateful to Tricia for taking me under her wing and sharing with me the ins and outs of our crazy yet ever so rewarding profession. Thank you, Tricia, for your mentorship and guidance but most of all your friendship, I love you!”
Shelley has been trained by the best there is.
I have drawn number of conclusions from all these testimonials. So many others wrote in in an outpouring of appreciation and love, but there is no need to read them all because there are common themes. They all sound strikingly like this one, written by principal Dana Abplanalp-Diggs: “Tricia is one of the kindest and most generous people I know–she is always one of the first people I bounce ideas off of and she is truly one of my dearest friends. Her love and commitment to students and her family inspires me daily to be a better teacher and person.”
Carlos Mejia, class of 2015, managed to sum up what we are all saying in a magic 4 words: “She believed in me.”
That was the thing. I have always known from my first meeting sneaking into the Peace and Justice Center up on the hill that day, that Tricia believed in me, too. She’d sneak into a building for me any day. Looking out from our alma mater, out across the expanse of San Diego Bay, I knew Tricia saw the big picture, which was the goodness and clarity of our mission. We were creating a school that honored the individual, creativity, and the biggest values we could find.
And with this class, class of 2017, we got what we bargained for in individuality and creativity. To quote Dana again, “You are deejays, entrepreneurs, filmmakers, athletes, musicians, actors, naturalists, and artists. Not only have you been leaders on campus; you have excelled on expeditions, as ambassadors, in humanitarian service, and in your extra-curricular activities—surfers, campers, writers, photographers, chefs, social activists, outdoorspeople, engineers, scientists, meditators, performers, global citizens, and leaders.”
Class of 2017, through all your changes growing up, and my own, Tricia kept her vision pure and far, she took students all over the country, up and down both coasts looking at colleges and cultures, and across the country, and she brought college representatives from all over the world here every year.
Our senior graduation candidates have traveled far and wide:
- Panama Surf & Service
- Costa Rica Rainforest Ecology
- Singer-Songwriter Performance Expedition
- Discovering the land and hunting in the California central valley
- Portraits of California up and down the coast
- Film Making
- Paddling with Orcas in the Pacific NW
- Mammoth Mountain
- New Orleans
- New York Colleges
- Service in Seattle
- Swimming with whales far down the Baja
- Santa Fe & the Grand Canyon
- Wild at Heart in LA
- Pacific NW college visits
- The mysterious Zion Canyons
- Chicago city and colleges
- Lake Powell
- Rustic France
- California Farms
- Orange County
- Boston Area Colleges with Tricia
- San Diego Life Aquatic, Animals, nature, cultures, arts, and History
- Big Bear Mountain
- Big Sur-discovery of Self & Wilderness
- Bay Area Marin Headlands
- Catalina Island
- Washington, DC
And Tricia Shemwell has been there with you or waiting with that warm smile for your return.
When we first met, we told Tricia our primary growth area was to establish the best college placement in the area. But in doing this, here were some of our guidelines. Tricia was told,
- We never prepare our students for standardized tests,
- We will not ever rank our students,
- We will not focus on the ranking or status of colleges,
- We will give no advanced placement courses,
- We will never have a valedictorian,
- We will grade student character and values, not just academics, whether colleges want it or not,
And, perhaps most important,
- If the surf is good, we might not be back to class on time.
In other words, it was my complete expectation that Tricia was to sail directly upwind and still pass every other ship. She never batted an eye. In fact, it only put a gleam in her eye, and you know the gleam I’m talking about. Over the course of a decade, she consistently placed students in their top choices of colleges at unheard of percentages, over 90%, and got them an unbelievably consistent steam of merit scholarship offers far beyond their actual level of financial need. She created bidding wars among some colleges for some of our students.
From the first, Tricia has believed in our school’s amazing mission to connect in a real way with students and with one another, to give them the latitude to pursue their true passions. To never let systems or regulations or expectations or fears get in the way of finding our own voices and passions, and the more time you spend with Tricia the more clarity and courage you gain in your own life’s purposes.
One of my teachers, Meg Wheatley noted, “Sane leadership is the unshakeable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind.” Tricia is the ultimate sane leader who personifies that unshakeable faith, and she has exercised a vast repertoire of skills to implement that faith.
My time is almost up. Let me be honest about something: I don’t always go in a straight line. I have not been easy to follow on a predictable or established path. I put friendship to the real test. I can avoid harm, but never disruption; I can resist temptation, but never mischief.
But the only reason I’ve been able to get out there on the limb and see out across the wilderness is because there are people like Tricia Shemwell, those rare ones who have the loyalty, courage, and belief to get right out there with you when you need them most. Almost every photo you ever see of Tricia could have the same caption: “In support.”
True: She has staunchly if not stubbornly resisted what she sees as excess technology we have sometimes thrust at her. She has utterly forsaken instant access to a world where 20 million monkey-minds are compulsively viewing a viral video of a guy juggling cats in his underwear. Let us all read Tricia’s memo and salve to an ascending age of anxiety:
Our world does not need more technology breakthroughs.
Real and resourceful leaders in our distracted, techno-crazed, and increasingly chaotic world are those who search for—and sometimes even create—pockets of democracy and sanity. They live on islands of human presence. The Grauer School is such an island, and our counseling center has become the heart. If we turn our attentions away from issues beyond our control, turn away from big systems that claim our freedom, and if we just focus on the people around us, then we can be of real service.
This is what Tricia has always taught us.
I honor and love Tricia Shemwell along with all of you today, just like every graduating senior who has ever sat on the graduation podium for the past decade. Tricia is a scholar. She’s a blues traveller, a bottomless gratitude jar, a kindred warrior for the human spirit, and a radical believer in her students, colleagues, and family,
There is a simpler way to say all this: “She believed in me.”
And I apologize for summing up a professional life in 4 words, but its already been done by one of her students, so now I’m saying it and I know a lot of you are too:
She believed in me.
Thank you for who you are, Tricia Shemwell, and congratulations, Class of 2017!
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