“Make a difference everywhere you go,” Dr. Cerrissa Hugie told Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College’s graduates on Tuesday evening.
Hundreds of students received associate’s degrees, diplomas or certificates during the spring ceremony, held at Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center on the campus of South Carolina State University.
A graduate of OCtech’s practical nursing program, Hugie is a former adjunct PN instructor at the college and the founder of MyNDSpace Mental Health Education and Consulting, which seeks to promote mental health awareness, reduce mental health disparities in underserved communities and be a bridge between community and faith organizations and professional mental health services.
“It is my privilege and my honor to be your commencement speaker,” Hugie said, asking the students to take a moment to congratulate themselves and each other.
“I firmly believe that there are world changers among you. These are the next generation of leaders,” she said. “There are business owners among you. Some of you will go on to further your education by getting bachelor’s and master’s degrees and even your doctorate degrees. There are political leaders among you.
“So this is a huge accomplishment.”
Hugie said that even those from humble beginnings like herself can go on to greatness.
“I grew up in poverty, oftentimes without basic necessities like food or water or electricity,” she said. “But by the grace of God, I was given a gift.”
She said she was always a smart child, but after high school, she found herself in a job that was supposed to be temporary.
At the age of 30, she went to OCtech in what she called her “midlife crisis” as she tried to find her calling. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in social work from the University of South Carolina.
She later earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the Medical University of South Carolina and a master’s and doctorate in nursing practice from Vanderbilt University.
Hugie said it’s important to surround yourself with positive people, “people who will not only see greatness in you but will also push you to your destiny.”
“So it is with great pride that I look out at each of you and consider that I too, like you, started my educational journey at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. It is truly a special place,” she said.
Hugie stressed the importance of three areas: responsibility, compassion and self-care.
She urged everyone in the room to “take full responsibility for your destiny. You get to choose what you will become.”
The word “responsibility” means your ability to respond, she said.
“You always have a choice despite how the circumstances may present themselves,” she said.
“Now, I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it’s up to you to choose how you will respond. Your choices and your decisions will determine the course of your entire life.”
You’re not only responsible to others, you are also responsible to yourselves, she said.
“And the degree to which you can be responsible to yourself is the degree in which you will be responsible to others,” she said.
Hugie said that responsible people don’t seek to blame others or “worry about who did what or who wasn’t there.”
“Responsible people embrace all that comes with the path that they choose,” she said.
Realizing this changed the course of her whole life, she said.
Hugie said that one of the ways people can be responsible is by showing compassion.
Social media is great for keeping up with friends and family members who live far away, she said.
“But there seems to be a lost art in the human connection and having face-to-face, meaningful conversations,” she said.
“Humanity is the one thing that unites all of us. So often, we’re so focused on what divides us – what’s different about this person,” she said.
“So that’s why I believe compassion is one of the greatest gifts that we can offer other people.”
She quoted U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “Our diversity is our strength, and our unity is our power.”
Another important responsibility is to be proactive about our own mental health, she said.
Hugie said that mental illness cuts across ethnic and socioeconomic lines and that suicide is still a leading cause of death.
In the light of so many national, global and even local tragedies, “We can no longer afford to ignore the growing concern and the need to address our mental health,” she said.
“And I would argue that your mental health is equally as important as your physical health in that it affects every aspect of your life,” she said.
Self-care is not selfish, she said.
“It’s good stewardship of the only gift that you have to give the world. And that’s you,” she said. “You, graduates, are a gift to the world.
“So stop and smell the roses, spend time with your loved ones, go for walks, meditate. Do whatever it is that you enjoy.”
Hugie and her husband, Tracy, live in Hollywood. She has two stepchildren, Jordan and Savana.