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2016 Commencement Address by Lisa Rogali -- How We “Go On”: Living Through Our Art

Today, I stand in awe of the immense talent that sits amongst the College of Arts and Architecture’s Class of 2016. These diverse and innate talents have influenced our journeys from our preparations to become Penn Staters to the countless hours we spent in solitude trying to master our crafts. We tend to ask: “Why do we do this to ourselves?” Each and every one of us has a unique answer to that question. Regardless of that answer, we have all made it here today—despite any adversities we’ve had to overcome. If you’re anything like me, you’ve thought about giving up before. We all have a story… a story that may have held us back in one way or another. But, for some reason, we never gave up on that one thing we were most passionate about: our art. In a way, living through our art has kept us going… it gave us a reason to “go on.”

My name is Lisa Rogali and today I’m graduating with my bachelor’s degree in Music Education. My journey to this podium was not an easy one—as I know each and every one of you has experienced, in different ways. In the past few years, my father was diagnosed with cancer, my house was foreclosed, my financial struggles increased, my self-harm tendencies grew, and my strength dwindled. These experiences made it difficult to understand what a normal life might have been like. When my mother passed away this summer from a long battle of psychological and physical issues, I wanted to give up. But, instead, I transferred that energy into my passion, the one constant in my life—my music. Although I discovered my love for singing later than some, it has become a reliable source of strength for me. I’ve used it to channel my grief, anger, excitement, and pain in a positive way. Throughout my four years at Penn State, I’ve explored this passion on a deeper level. This exploration has led to new discoveries—ideas that I want to share with you today. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I hope that what I have to say will resonate with you on some level. To be concise, I’ve drawn three conclusions from my experiences that I’d like for you to carry in your hearts.

Here lies my first conclusion… our art heals and people need us—remember that. We are creators, educators, and imaginative thinkers. Whether we’re building a set, drafting a design, or performing on the stage, we are giving people an escape from their own personal challenges—just like music was for me. As artists, we embrace the vulnerability that comes with constantly confronting, improving upon, and learning to accept ourselves on a daily basis—embodied in a different way than the average person does. This sincere vulnerability is what intrigues and attracts the rest of the world to us. How compelling it is that we can inspire empathy in a person just by doing what we love. We put ourselves in the shoes of other people to understand who we are and the world responds positively to that. People need healing. This is proof that what we do matters. It’s the work that we put into our art that makes this all possible.

Even though art heals and people need us, remember: our crafts will never be “easy” and our work never ends. This is my second conclusion. Even though, at this moment, we can celebrate our survival of the years of obstacles that have been thrown our way—this is just the beginning. I don’t say this to scare you in any way; it’s just a reminder of what lies ahead. Through my time here, I’ve found that when things get hard and we experience the inevitable failures, we must always go back to the work. Often, in the midst of the chaos, our work, our practice, and our effort are the only things that make sense. This has always been a constant in my life. People may hurt you or leave unexpectedly. Sometimes, they are not the constant thing. Consider this as you continue down the windy path that is life. Think about how subjective everything is in our fields. Don’t dwell. Go back to the drawing board, learn from your failures, and refocus your energy.

This takes me to my final conclusion: As our work continues, we can never abandon the FUN in our art. So often, we get wrapped up in the little things and forget why we started in the first place. We’ve all been guilty of complaining about an assignment or feeling like we were overwhelmed with responsibilities. This has happened to us all. I challenge you from here on out to stop and recall how you first discovered that vibrant joy for what you do. Bring that childlike fascination back to your work and never lose it. Keep it fresh. Do whatever you need to do to find this again and be true to yourself.  My hope is that you will let this truth guide you in every moment of your journey.

With all of that said, I want to bring us back three years in time to the visceral experience that was Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: The 50th Anniversary Collaboration of the College of Arts and Architecture. I vividly remember performing on this very stage for the first time as a freshman, overwhelmed by more than 400 people working together to create a masterpiece. The production included Penn State's Philharmonic Orchestra, Concert Choir, Essence of Joy, singers and dancers from the Schools of Music and Theatre, and even members of the community. Mass explored the universal human longing for the meaning of life. As a community of artists, this is something we encounter on a daily basis. We ask ourselves, “Is this good enough? Do I have what it takes? Should I give up?” Recalling this experience made me realize this. Mass showed us that regardless of these questions, regardless of the many troubling things that surround us every day (death, stress, deception, fear, doubt, war, love, heartbreak,) we can still “go on.” These words, sung by the story’s protagonist, have always stuck with me. He sings hauntingly of persevering through times of trouble and doubt with these inspiring lines: “When my courage crumbles, when I feel confused and frail… When my spirit falters on decaying alters and my illusions fail…. I go on right then, I go on again. I go on to say I will celebrate another day. If tomorrow tumbles and everything I love is gone, I will face regret of my days and yet I will still go on.”

So, let’s celebrate and cherish this day! Look how far we’ve all come! Continue striving for, improving upon, and living through your art. We need to remind ourselves why we do what we do and embrace this for the rest of our lives. Remember, our art heals, our work will never end, but the fun should never be abandoned. Most of all, know that whatever happens in the years ahead, we can still “go on.” Thank you.