Honorary Degree Recipient and Commencement Speaker - Sara Byers

Sara Byers - Commencement Speaker

Watch the video of Sara's remarks here.

Thank you to the Champlain College Board of Trustees, President Laackman, Distinguished guests, friends, families and the Class of 2015. It is a great honor to be involved with this ceremony. Growing up as a neighbor to Champlain College, I don't think I could ever have anticipated this moment. Watching Champlain evolve over the years to meet the needs of our society, watching Champlain educate a group of remarkable students each year, watching Champlain's leadership in the city, state and nation, it is a privilege beyond words to be standing before you.

I have had the pleasure of spending time at Champlain on multiple occasions over the last year. Each time, I feel more enamored of the work being done here. As a business owner, I am thankful for Champlain's ability to connect students with employers. As Board Chair of the Lund (a local social service agency), I am grateful for Champlain's single parent program which has helped Lund clients reach their dream of a college education. But do you know what inspires me most each and every time I step foot on this campus? The students....the graduates who sit before me today....the very people who have helped shape this incredible institution. You, the Champlain College Class of 2015, are the reason I, and all of us here today, are completely inspired.

You've been through the rigor of college, prepared for hundreds of exams (while consuming pizza, thank you very much), you've done the internship, the community work, the capstone and you have arrived here. Well done. So, what can I say that will prepare you for the next steps? This question implies that I have answers and I'm not sure I do. But I have learned many lessons along the way, derived from both success and failure, and I thought I'd share three of those lessons with you today.

First, I've learned to trust my intuition...even when my head is begging me to ignore it. As I mentioned, I grew up in Burlington and my first real job was with Gap, Inc. I was in my 11th year with the Gap, happy as can be in Charlotte, NC, living with my boyfriend who would soon be my husband, and I was kind of at the top of my game at the Gap. I had just received my second leadership excellence award and rumor had it I would soon be offered a position in Houston, TX to oversee more stores there. So, I was visiting Burlington that summer, as I did every summer, and was at the airport ready to head back to Charlotte... when I was completely overcome with emotion, overcome with a feeling that I did not want to leave. Now, I never as much as missed home, so I figured it was just a fleeting emotion, albeit a powerful one, and it would be gone in no time. Well, when I got back to Charlotte, I continued to have the nagging feeling that I wanted to move back to Vermont. It made no sense intellectually to move home. There were no Gap jobs at my level in VT. If I left the Gap, I would forego 11 years of stock options and lose all that I had worked so hard to build. But my heart kept telling me I had to go. I agonized over this, I struggled, my husband struggled listening to me debate it but finally, after a month or so, we decided to move to VT. I left the Gap, took a massive pay cut and accepted an entry level position with my family's business, Leonardo's Pizza.

So, one week into my new job, I completely began to panic. What was I thinking? What did I give up? I was certain I had made the wrong decision. Who chooses their heart over their head when it is so apparent that the head made more sense? It was a really ugly first year. I was uncomfortable with the newness of the job, mourning the loss of a company I'd grown up with, trying to find my place in the family business. But as time went on, those feelings began to dissipate, and as it turns out, I consider that decision, the decision to leave the Gap and move back to VT, one of the best decisions of my life. Furthering a business that my Dad created, raising my daughter here, being involved in a community that I love.... has brought me more joy than I could ever have imagined.

So, when you get that nagging feeling, when your heart is desperately trying to tell you something, listen to it. It might appear to make no sense at all, might contradict everything you know intellectually, but your heart is sometimes aware of things your head is not. Looking back, I realize that staying at the Gap might have stifled the person that I've become...I certainly would not have been up here speaking with all of you. So, as you take your next steps, listen to your intuition, trust your instincts....they will help guide you.

Sara Byers receives her honorary degree at Champlain College.The next lesson I've learned is to live with courage. Courage was not my strong point for many years. In fact, I was the kid in class who didn't dare raise my hand even when I knew the answer due to the remote possibility that I didn't. I was afraid of failure, afraid I wasn't good enough and afraid of sounding foolish and these fears far outweighed any potential success. Although I still have those fears on occasion (and even felt some of them when I walked up here today), I've forced myself to override those fears and when I do, I often experience my greatest successes.

One of these moments happened a few years ago. I had been given a seat on the local Chamber of Commerce Board for one year. It was toward the end of that year and the board was discussing what the future of the Chamber should look like. I had an idea, but as I mentioned there was no way I was going to raise my hand. I had been involved in a young professional group in Portland, Maine where we have one of our stores and I thought that that kind of group could be great for the Chamber. To me, supporting and engaging young people was not only critical to the future of business, but critical to the future of our community. So, after the meeting, I crafted an email with the idea to the president of the Chamber....and then I stopped. I couldn't send the email. I had managed to skate through this entire board experience without being perceived as a complete idiot. It wasn't worth ruining all of that with this idea...right? So I grappled with whether to send it. I would pull up the email and then save it, and later I'd pull up the email again and then, save it again. And finally, after hours, I pulled up the email, closed my eyes and quickly hit send. I am so glad I hit the send button. Today, the Burlington Young Professionals is an arm of the Chamber and has been replicated around the state. It has expanded with an entrepreneurial business pitch competition called Launch VT, which provides resources and mentorship to start up entrepreneurs. It is so hard for me to believe that all of this began with the fear of hitting send. Of course, there were many steps afterward and amazing people who made the program a success, but the initial step was overriding my fear.

How many ideas have we all had that we've been afraid to share? How many times have our dreams been held back by fear? We aren't willing to take the risk, because success can't be guaranteed. But, when you think about it, what in life is guaranteed? What is the worst thing that can come out of taking that risk? You've got to trust that you can handle the good or the bad that occurs on the other side. Don't let your mind put up barriers to your success. My greatest moments have arisen out of the things I feared most: moving to Charlotte, NC alone where I met my husband, chairing a board, launching a wholesale sauce line, becoming a mom. We must find it within ourselves to overcome our fears and pursue our dreams. It truly is worth it in the end.

My last lesson came to light after an opportunity I had in February to speak here at Champlain College. My speech was followed by questions from the attendees and there were two questions that really stuck with me. One of the students asked for the one most significant piece of advice to help him in his life and another attendee asked me for the one life lesson I was trying to teach my 10 year old daughter. They were both very profound questions. As I thought about these questions a bit more, I thought I'd take this opportunity to respond even more thoughtfully, as I think my answer to both questions is actually the same. So, to my daughter, Ella, who is sitting in the crowd today, and to you, graduates, I urge you to find your happiness. Life is way too short to spend it without happiness. When I first started in my career, I was waiting for the happiness train to come barreling into my life. I thought when I attained the next step at the Gap, or when I made enough money to feel comfortable, or when I found the person I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with, I would finally be content. But the promotion came, I made more money, I met my partner and contentment did not automatically follow. So I would raise the bar, I'd elevate my standards, I'd come up with a whole host of other things to achieve. Those things would come, but I still wouldn't be happy. What I've come to realize over the years is that happiness was always there....waiting...just waiting for me to recognize it. I now know that joy can be found in each day. Of course, we all have good days and bad days. We have all have pleasant and unpleasant components of our lives. But, there is a tremendous amount of happiness in the journey itself and the journey never ends. My life today is incredibly fulfilling, but that isn't because I own my own business, or because I have a wonderful family, or because I have great friends. I had to find true happiness within myself and those are the great things that have followed. I had to understand the power of awareness, gratitude and kindness before I found my happiness. Everyone's path to finding happiness is different, but I believe it exists in each of us. So, as you take your next steps, know that happiness is beside you waiting for you to acknowledge it.

I can't tell you how excited I am for each of you to embark on your journey. This is such an incredible time, take a moment to absorb all of it. You have already achieved so much and have a great deal to be proud of. I ask that, as you take on your next chapter, you remember to trust your instincts, have the courage to pursue your dreams and find your happiness. Doing these things will not only contribute to your life, but will also contribute to those around you. The more you embrace yourself, the greater your contribution, and each of us has a part to play in the world.

Looking at you, the Champlain College Class of 2015, I see people who are more daring and creative than I could ever dream of being. I see people who have overcome tremendous obstacles to be here today. You are an inspiration to us all. You have the ability to move mountains with your creativity, energy and leadership. Thank you to those of you who have helped guide these graduates to this place. Thank you, graduates, for all you have done to get here. In closing, I would like to bring to life once again words from the late, great Maya Angelou, "You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated".


Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 382 Colleges: 2018 Edition. For the third year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2018 "America's Best Colleges," and an "A+ School for B Students" and is ranked in the top 100 Regional Universities of the North. Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2018 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2018 College of Distinction. For more information, visit  www.champlain.edu.