Virginia Avery graduated from Walla Walla University in 2022 with a Master's in Social Work. She is the current owner of Avery Counseling & Services, LLC and a proud mother of four. Below is an adaptation of her student commencement address for the Class of 2022.
My adult life has been a wandering path—California, New Hampshire, Washington, Oregon, Montana; sailor, mountain hippie, ski patroller, wildland firefighter, stay-at-home mama, and now, social worker. I’ve lost and found myself many times over.
The only constant is change.
Life happens when you make plans.
On March 14, 2020, when I first heard that the coronavirus had arrived in Montana, the news hit me like end times. Nothing in the volumes of young adult dystopian literature, sci-fi trilogies, and homesteading websites that I’ve devoured over the years had prepared me for the internal shift I would experience. Whatever problems existed on personal and societal levels became instantly amped up, demanding attention. The pandemic placed a blaring spotlight on the holes in our safety nets. I felt the collective grief and recognition that things would not, and should not, go back to the way they were before.
I spent every early spring day that year weeping in my garden, watching the seeds I planted sprout and grow while I felt as if I were dying inside. I was forced to look at what I already knew, but in my privilege, could afford to ignore. In May 2020, as the world erupted around me, I walked into my bathroom, shaved my head ala Britney Spears 2007, and sat down to fill out my grad school application. I was all done crying. I realized during that spring in my garden, as my dreams shifted and grew, that if this weird toilet paper and Tiger King-loving era was the start of the end, then I didn’t want to go down without a fight.
That September, when I logged into my first online class from my laundry room/office, I found my people—the ones crazy enough to sign up for graduate school not only in a pandemic, but during a time where we were witnessing historical unrest and shifting power paradigms. We were the ones brave enough to run towards disaster. We were the ones that couldn’t, and wouldn’t, do nothing.
This is my story but it’s also our story. In the hardest of times, you will find the best of humanity shining brightly.
My Walla Walla University cohort, my professors and mentors, are the brightest of lights. I was honored with an intimacy that I don’t think would have been possible if life hadn’t gotten in the way of our in-person plans. Week after week we logged into class with our weighted blankets and emotional support coffee, with animals, families, and laundry in the background. We logged in with newborn babies that grew into toddlers before our very eyes. We logged in during sickness and after loss.
This wasn’t the pre-pandemic plan I had imagined for myself, but I found I was part of something even better: a community of change makers and care takers. Now more than ever we are called to action. Each and every one of us has a vital role to play as we continue to navigate through fast-changing social landscapes.
I’m not the pre-pandemic person I was, but I am exactly who I am meant to be. Through my experience at Walla Walla University, I’ve been empowered to create safe places and hold hard things. I’ve been equipped with the tools to change and create change. I’ve learned that becoming a social worker is the closest thing to becoming a Jedi that a person can get: we are always trying to manipulate the force in favor of our clients, and we are called to push back against the dark side.
My WWU family, fellow hope dealers, and social work students, may the force be with you and the odds ever in your favor.