A Letter to the Class of 2020

By MARTHA McSALLY

To the class of 2020: whether you are a preschool, middle school, high school, or college graduate, congratulations on your achievements.

This may not be the graduation you imagined. It is certainly not the graduation that your family, your teachers, or your friends wanted either. But the hardships of this year can never diminish what you have accomplished. I hope that you will look back on this time and realize that in many ways, you have accomplished more.

Those of you finishing high school and college have gone without the rites of passage that the rest of us took for granted—no extended family gatherings, large ceremonies, or memorable photos in your caps and gowns. Instead, many of you may be worried for your family members or friends on the frontlines of COVID-19 or have lost someone you love to the virus. A great many households are also reeling from the difficult hardships of lost jobs and shuttered businesses or trying to cope with future plans derailed and dreams on hold.

Yet across Arizona, despite these unprecedented challenges, I have seen so many of you rise to the occasion. You have chipped in at home, you have helped your parents and watched younger siblings. You have kept up your classwork while doing extra chores. You have volunteered to help those less fortunate. You have thanked health care workers and delivery drivers and grocery store employees. Some of you have taken on these jobs yourselves.

Whether or not you have the opportunity to walk across a stage or stand during a packed commencement ceremony, you have earned your degree and all of the accolades that accompany it. The success you have achieved may even be more rewarding because it was more difficult to achieve. Looking back, I have certainly found that to be true for myself.

When I graduated from high school, the only parent I had applauding me was my mom; my dad had passed away when I was 12. When I graduated from the Air Force Academy, I didn’t know if I would ever achieve my dream of becoming a fighter pilot because the Air Force did not allow women to fly fighter jets. For months, I wasn’t sure that I could even become a pilot because I was technically a half inch too short. I had to fight to earn a waiver to attend pilot training, then I had to overcome a broken finger (fully functional hands are fairly crucial for flying a plane!).

It didn’t get any easier during pilot training. Among other things, pilots are strapped into a harness and dragged by a boat across open water to learn how to survive after ejecting. It also wasn’t easy as to be the very first woman in my new A-10 squadron, and there were definitely times when I wondered if I should quit.

But when things around me appeared dark and difficult, I would think back to some of the last words my father ever spoke to me. He said, “Make me proud.” I would remind myself of his words, and I would find a way to persevere.

In these dark and difficult times, my hope for you is to be inspired by someone who cares about you and to know that people all across our state are rooting for you to succeed. We believe in you. We want your future to be bright.

For a pilot, few things are more beautiful than when we break free of storm clouds and soar into the bright sunlight above. I trust and pray and confidently believe that you too can soar. By reaching this milestone, you have already begun that journey. You have made your families and your communities proud.

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