2014 Baccalaureate Service, Fountain Baptist Church

Before I begin, I would first like to thank Pastor Sanders for his leadership and support. Some years ago, moments before I got up to perform in front of the church, the pastor whispered to the congregation, “Is she any good?” To this day, that performance remains one of my toughest auditions. To those in the pulpit, deacons, deaconesses, and trustees, thank you for allowing me to share just a few thoughts with the graduates seated here this morning. And last, but certainly not least, my Fountain family. In the spring of 2007, I performed the Ginastera Harp Concerto with the Yale Symphony Orchestra. I was speechless when I found out that Fountain had sponsored a bus to take members all the way up to New Haven just to hear me play. It is an honor to be part of a truly special group of people, a family that continues to amaze me with their support, generosity, and love. Thank you.

When Reverend Davis asked me to offer a word to the graduates, I admit, I was reluctant at first. Having recently graduated, I am often asked, “So what will you do now?” And honestly, I don’t know – in fact, I have no idea. The world in which we live seems more challenging than ever to navigate. While technology connects us at ever-increasing speeds, the economy remains in flux, affected by shifts in global politics, and disillusionment with our own national leaders. These days, it appears that there are more questions than answers, and the answers themselves often seem irrelevant and insufficient. Based on my own experiences, however, I can humbly offer three simple steps: look in, look up, and look forward.

This past May, I received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Juilliard School in New York City. After two years of coursework, comprehensive exams, and four recitals, I was miraculously still on track. The only requirement left was the dreaded “D” – the dissertation.

I was writing about black female composer Margaret Bonds. A dynamic woman from Chicago, in 1939, she moved to New York where she formed a close relationship with Langston Hughes. With her music, she responded to the challenging times in which she lived, holding on to her unique compositional voice that was influenced by her own African American culture. Never in a million years would I have imagined working on such a culturally relevant and personally-inspiring subject at Juilliard.

As the revision process got underway, it was becoming clear to me that my advisor and I had different agendas. The conflict escalated to a point such that by February, I was ready to quit. I wanted to give up. By March, things were looking grim. My final draft was due at the end of the month, my defense was scheduled for the first week in April, and I had spent all of February watching the Olympics and working out in the gym.

Finally, I said to myself, “only you know the story you want tell.” There must have been a reason greater than my own ego as to why I pursued this particular area of research. Struggling to see beyond my own dwindling confidence, I looked within. But I didn’t get this far only by my own merit, and I wasn’t about to completely revise a 150-page thesis in twenty-eight days alone.

So I looked up, and I kept looking up, thanking Him and praying to Him for inner strength and clarity of thought. And I looked forward. Not knowing what the doctoral committee thought about my drastic revisions, I entered my defense, prepared to answer the tough questions that my advisor dished out. And in the end, I don’t think he was completely satisfied, but I had stood by my own convictions, and I passed.

I share this with you because we all have doubts and anxieties. The higher you climb and the more you achieve, the more treacherous the journey seems. If you look within, and I mean really look, I promise you that you will discover gifts and talents that will carry you beyond your dreams and aspirations. But you have to look up, and thank God for these blessings, and trust that He will guide you along the way. Don’t lose sight of your goals. Look forward and keep looking forward. Take action.

There’s a song by Israel Houghton called “Moving Forward,” that I’ve kept returning to throughout my five years at Juilliard. The first verse continues:

I’m not going back

Moving ahead

Here to declare to You the past is over, in You

Things you made new

Surrendered my life to Christ

I’m moving, moving forward

I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and I extend a heartfelt congratulations for your accomplishments that we are celebrating this morning.  Thank you.

© 2018 Dr. Ashley Jackson