Before looking ahead to an uncertain future, Cheshire Academy Class of 2022 Salutatorian Luke Parkerson decided to take a step back — more than four years back — to the day he became a student at his new school.
Parkerson, a Cheshire native, recalled how, as he was being driven to Convocation ceremonies to start his freshman year at the Academy, the nervous student sat in the back of his parents’ car, coming to the realization that much was about to change.
“I remember thinking, ‘I, right now, am a freshman in high school,’” he said, with a smile. “I think that nervous, naive kid in the back of that car would be shocked at how far (he has come).”
Under the tent on the campus of Cheshire Academy on Saturday, June 4, 85 seniors said their final goodbyes during the school’s 228th Commencement Ceremony. As an audience full of family and friends looked on, the graduates received their diplomas, accolades for academic achievements, and well-wishes from fellow classmates and invited speakers as they embark on the next chapter of their lives.
Parkerson, in opening his remarks, joked that he had “15 points” to make before admitting that he in fact intended to keep his comments brief. What he did was spend time reflecting on that first drive to Cheshire Academy, and how “freshman-me was right to pause and be mindful.” While admitting that he had failed to reflect back on his years at the Academy prior to preparing for graduation, he encouraged his classmates to be more committed to “taking a moment to reflect” as they continue on in life.
“You can’t control everything in life … we sure have learned that after the last (few) years,” he said, before stating that he had little interest in talking further about the pandemic. Instead, Parkerson stated that every circumstance should be evaluated for what it is, and that challenges should be met, not dwelled upon.
“What is the universe putting in front of you and how will you take these pieces and decide what to do with them?” he questioned.
Parkerson stated that, after watching his class grow over the years, he was sure they would all rise to answer those questions.
“Starting in the back seat of that car through (graduation), it has been a privilege to see the growth (in the graduating class),” he said.
This year’s keynote speaker was Nancy S. Daoud, a private wealth advisor for Ameriprise Financial and Chief Executive Officer of Opus: Advice First. Throughout her career, Daoud has continuously been honored as one of the top financial advisors in her field, being named to everything from Barron’s list of Top 100 Women Financial Advisors in 2019 to Forbes’ list of Best In-State Wealth Advisors for 2020, but Daoud focused much of her speech on her past.
Born in Egypt, Daoud immigrated to the United States with her family when she was just 11 years old, and found immediately that her new home offered challenges and opportunities.
Daoud spoke of how, though she arrived in America speaking fluent English, she did so with a British accent, and quickly learned that “saying ‘jolly good’ was not the thing to say in the seventh grade.”
Daoud was constantly asked why her family left Egypt and came to America, and her answer was always the same — that America was the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” While that might seem like simply a slogan to Americans, for her and her family it held real meaning.
“I am proud of my Egyptian heritage, but (Egypt) was a third-world country,” she explained. “We were constantly at war … there was discrimination against Christians.”
“I came from a world where women weren’t even people,” she continued. “They were more like possessions.”
Explaining that her father was 45 at the time the family made “this very brave decision” to move to America, despite him not knowing any English, the impact was immediate for her. “Coming to America provided me with this new frontier,” she admitted. She went to the University of Connecticut, where she initially believed a career in medicine was in her future but, led by a female mentor, ended up gravitating towards finance. She graduated from UConn at 20, and went on to join Prudential Securities, where she immediately made a name for herself.
“In looking back, I feel like I need to be in the Guiness Book of World Records for being the first woman to receive the Man of the Year Award,” she said, laughing, as she spoke about the first honor she received for her work.
Daoud found success in an industry that was and, she stated, still is dominated mostly by men, and she admitted that at first she had to overcome cultural barriers. “In my (Egyptian) culture, making eye contact with an elder is actually disrespectful,” she explained. “Imagine talking to someone about their money and not being able to maintain eye contact? It was a struggle.”
She had to train herself to act differently, to “really change myself,” in order to achieve what she was capable of.
However, what Daoud advised the graduates was that self-sacrifice is actually the most important ingredient to happiness, and that “life’s purpose is really to serve and help others.”
She also suggested that, in a world where “words are not very well used,” actions are becoming even more important.
Head of Schools Julie Anderson ended the proceedings with an apology: Not from herself or from the school, but for the state of the world. Anderson spoke of how graduates will take on challenges such as the remnants of a pandemic that isn’t quite done and a continuing war in Ukraine, racial tensions, gun violence, and the “very real, undeniable” threat of climate change. She acknowledged that it might be easy for students to feel as if this is “a burden … but I want you to see it as an opportunity,” she said.
“You have agency,” Anderson stated. “You can make a change.”
“Anxious is not how I want you to feel,” she said. “I want you to feel empowered … I want you to know I believe in you and that you really have the tools you need to make a difference.”