Twenty-seven years after his graduation, Steve Pemberton, BC ’89, the chief diversity officer of Walgreens and the author of A Chance in the World, returned to his alma mater and spoke at Boston College’s 2016 Convocation address on Thursday.
At Orientation this past summer, each freshman was given a copy of Pemberton’s book, which tells his story of growing up in the foster care system. From a young age, Pemberton was abused and without a family or home. But through the help of both his teachers and strangers, he managed to escape the foster care system and attend BC.
Pemberton began his Convocation address with a forewarning: he was not there to be a memorable or profound speaker. He did not want to preach or act like he had wisdom to give, he said.
Pemberton realizes that students have their own struggles in life. After his rocky childhood in an abusive foster family, he realized that he did not need adults to give advice because each individual’s experience was different. Rather, Pemberton was speaking at Convocation to start a conversation and share his personal experience, he said.
When Pemberton first started writing his book at 4:30 a.m. in 2011, he did not realize the impact it would have. Throughout the speech, he referred to several people who reached out to him, sharing their stories or personal connections to his memoir.
He shared the story of a 73-year-old man from Ireland who sent him an email. The man said that after reading Pemberton’s book, he felt that his struggles in life would not go with him to the grave, but rather, that he would die in peace.
Years after writing his book, a 5-year-old boy also sent Pemberton a letter. In response, Pemberton reached out to the boy’s elementary school, asking if he could come and visit. The principal was at first apprehensive about allowing Pemberton to speak at the school, until she read the back cover of his memoir and realized that she was Pemberton’s second-grade teacher.
From these experiences with people, Pemberton came to realize that everybody has a story to share. He posed students with the challenge of asking their peers about their own individual narratives, and trying to see how they connect to their own.
“You are to reflect on where you are and where you are going.”
-Steve Pemberton, Chief Diversity Officer of Walgreens
In his speech, Pemberton also identified some of the heroes in his life. After working on the custodial staff at BC during the summer after his freshman year, Pemberton made mentors and lifetime friends in his co-workers. He admired their attention to detail and their dedication to their jobs. When one day he told them that he would like to follow in their footsteps, his co-workers instead pushed him away, claiming that they had higher expectations for him despite his difficult background.
Pemberton identified three qualities in his heroes: the ability to pause and reflect, the willingness to compromise, and the courage to take big leaps in life.
When asked where he attended college, he will always respond, “I went to school in Boston.” According to Pemberton, people will normally be prompted to say “where in Boston?” and in response, Pemberton will often take a hefty pause before saying “Boston College.”
He finds this pause necessary for his own personal reflection. BC, to Pemberton, was his home. He considers Duchesne West on the Newton Campus, where he lived freshman year, the place where he grew up, matured, and found his faith. He finds it necessary, when asked about his college experience, to pause and remember his roots at BC.
“I have heard Father Leahy say many times, that you are to reflect on where you are and where you are going,” Pemberton said. “It doesn’t mean that they stop moving, but they take a moment in every single day to reflect.”
Pemberton also referred to the current divided state of the nation, in which people and politicians are unable to compromise. He claimed that he is afraid of the future state of the nation if moderates continue to disappear. Pemberton believes people must be able to compromise if they choose to follow in the footsteps of heroes.
And finally, Pemberton brought up his 14-year old-son, Vaughn, when talking about taking leaps. As a kid, Vaughn was known for jumping off household objects, no matter the height. Pemberton asked him what he expected to change after falling so many times. Vaughn responded “something.”
“Sometimes in life, you just have to jump knowing something is going to happen,” Pemberton said. “You don’t know exactly what is going to happen, but sometimes you have to leap when the landing doesn’t immediately appear.”
To close out his speech, Pemberton told the students that he does not wish them success in the future. As students of BC, he knows that the class of 2020 is already on the right track to finding a career and excelling. Rather, Pemberton hoped that students would find fulfillment in life by asking people their stories and creating new relationships.
“The people that you meet here at BC—the faculty, the staff, the groundskeepers, the people who serve you food in the cafeteria—ask them their stories,” Pemberton said. “They have a chapter for you.”
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor