year ago today, I was walking home from another day as a stock associate for Ross, the clothing store. I was used to the hour walk and my thoughts were always the same: I don’t like my job. I feel oppressed for opportunities. How can I be great?

I would ask myself this question all the time. How can I be great? How can I be the best possible version of myself? How can I work to properly take care of my family instead of the small percentage I was able to contribute by being a stock associate? My opportunities in Moore, South Carolina were limited. I had become used to the feeling of being under appreciated, to feeling undervalued, and most of all, the feeling of having low expectations. Instead of hearing this voice asking, pleading with me to be great, to do my best throughout the day; it was slowly diminishing to only speak during these walks home.

I knew I had to get out. With no opportunity for exponential growth in this city, I packed my bags and moved to Philadelphia to stay with my grandmother with the promise of a better future. My story is far too similar to many of the young adults in this country and I’m proud to stand here and say that I’ve begun shaping my dream into a reality. I’ve started my journey on being great.

Moving from Moore to Philadelphia helped me realize the gap toward greatness that was growing in my life. Sure, moving 600 miles made me feel like I was closer to greatness, though in actuality, I was only at the beginning. In Philadelphia, there was no safety net. While scary, it was oddly exhilarating at the same time because for the first time the weight of my household responsibilities were gone. I could focus on myself for once.

Sahiyyah delivering the commencement speech at Year Up Greater Philadelphia’s Class 12’s graduation.

Year Up became an extension of myself. As I was struggling with figuring out this new found identity, I wasn’t speaking to my family as much as I should. From attending on-boarding, to the fourth day of our orientation, to the third week of learning and development, it went too quickly and I slowly felt myself growing distant from my family. I felt that the flow of my life through the program meant having to sacrifice seeing and speaking to my family and I soon found myself second guessing my choice to start this journey at all.

Having invested seven months into the program at this point, I had to shake this feeling and continue forward with the intent to finish. I learned more about myself in these months than at any other time in my life. I found a deep appreciation and fascination for. I didn’t have to go to work because I needed to get paid, or go to class because I needed the attendance points. I went to class because I wanted to. I put the work in because it was rewarding.

As things progressed and I thought I was coming up on a well-deserved break, the polar opposite happened. I suffered the biggest loss of my life, and the largest challenge thus far. During the second month of my internship, I received a truly horrible and devastating phone call from a close family member. My brother had passed away.

The loss of my brother holds me to the ideals I learned to carry with myself over the course of my yearlong transformation. In a way, his passing bundled all of the external conflict I’ve had to deal with throughout the program and I had to make a choice. I could either deal with losing him or I could let it break me. I chose to no longer feel hopeless like I once did when I was in Moore and I found strength in knowing he would watch over me every single day. When I began to feel weakness overcome me, I remembered how much he would want me to not only finish but to break through and exceed every expectation he or I had set for our family. It was no longer just about graduating, it was about holding myself accountable to the standards I set for my siblings and myself all in total. It’s in these moments of self-reflection that I can truly see the tremendous amount of growth I’ve had in this past year.

Sahiyyah delivering the commencement speech at Year Up Greater Philadelphia’s Class 12’s graduation.

Without this program there would be no lessons learned. I would have never become determined. I would have never mastered grit, perseverance, or character. With this program, instead of finding any excuse to quit I’ve found every excuse to keep going. I take myself seriously now. I take my time seriously and I can finally say, I’ve learned what it takes to touch greatness. The same elusive feeling I was chasing at the beginning of this journey feels unlike any other.

I’ve lost too much and spent far too long getting to this point in my life. I need young adults everywhere to know what it feels like to be great. Now that I’ve tasted this freedom, they must taste it too. Though, not just taste it. They need to know what it takes to be great. I vow to reach forward and as I step into further greatness, I will reach back and hand them the keys to success as well. This way we can all be great, together.

*Sahiyyah Stigall is currently a Help Desk Representative at MedRisk.

*This speech was originally delivered at Year Up Greater Philadelphia’s Class 12’s graduation on January 15, 2020 and posted on Medium.

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