Commencement speaker Dr. Kristen Lee ’96 urges Class of 2023 to protect their mental health

May 13, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

At Worcester State University’s 147th commencement ceremony May 13, keynote speaker Dr. Kristen Lee, a licensed clinical social worker, accomplished writer, podcaster and a 1996 graduate of the University, did not give the standard graduation speech by saying things like, “Today’s the first day of the rest of your life. You can do anything. Live your best life. Make failure your friend.”  

Commencement speaker Dr. Kristen Lee ’96 receives an honorary doctorate from Worcester State President Barry Maloney and Board of Trustees Chair David Tuttle.

Instead, in recognition of the social-media and pandemic-fueled “Age of Anxiety” that the 1,026 members of the class of 2023 have grown up in, she chose a quote from celebrated artist Georgia O’Keefe: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, but I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I’ve wanted to do.”

“I love this quote because it’s honest and relatable. And it goes beyond the stereotypical commencement advice,” said Lee, who goes by ‘Dr. Kris.’. As a therapist and professor, Dr. Kris has studied the science of resilience and behavioral change. “I’ve wanted to understand what helps humans stay well, even in the throes of crisis and complexity, even when life is hard,” she said, before imparting a few highlights of what she has learned in the past 30 years about thriving in the complex, often confusing world through which the graduates will now be making their way.

Her commencement address earned numerous rounds of applause from the packed crowd at the DCU Center. As a society, she said, we need to get over the 1950’s concepts that stigmatized mental health conditions. “We all take turns suffering. Mental health issues are not just ‘those people over there that need help,’” she said. Modern brain science finds that we are all likely to vacillate in and out of mental health episodes across our lifetime and “we can’t fix them simply by slugging down power smoothies, making vision boards, binging in self-help books, or rubbing ourselves in lavender oil while we intermittently fast and deep breathe.” Instead, society needs to change, to create more humane conditions, she said.  

Resilience is a key to making it through those tough times, she said. But, “resilience is a process-it doesn’t happen with a flip of switch or in isolation. Resilience happens within community,” she said. Dr. Kris advised the graduates to seek people and spaces where they know they belong, where people hold each other in highest regard, celebrate our varied identities, and work diligently to change the conditions that lead us to need to be resilient in the first place.  

“Your mental health is everything,” she said. “It’s more important than letters after your name, likes on your feeds, money in the bank, than Teslas or red bottom shoes, or what people think about you. There’s no health, or success, without mental health. Protect it at all costs.” 

One form that protection must take is guarding against what Dr. Kris termed ‘underperformance dysmorphic disorder,’ which can occur when you hustle, grind, and strive to do your utmost but still think you’re not doing enough. “You are not a robot or machine,” she said. “Practice self-compassion and identify what nourishes and sustains you. “ 

Dr. Kris also advised the graduates to question everything, especially what comes through their social media feeds at breakneck speed. A recent study showed that over 86% of the most viral how-to TikTok videos were either erroneous or harmful, she said, and pitfalls of ChatGPT and AI are as yet little understood. These emerging technologies make it important to avoid groupthink, which too often fans fear, she said. “Just like fear, misinformation, hate, and germs can spread, so can wisdom, integrity, and loving kindness,” she said. “Be a superspreader of positive contribution in the world.”

Dr. Kris advised the graduates to accept that they will face so much anxiety that they won’t know what to do at times. “You will marinate in fear and be completely entangled in distress,” she said. In those moments, when they feel like they’re not resilient, they should rely on their own effervescence and indomitable spirit, and their capacity to maneuver even through the bramble of anxiety and complexity. “Lead with curiosity, candor, humility, and a relentless commitment to improve the human condition,” she said. “This is the great gift we offer ourselves and one another.” 

As a gift to the Class of 2023, Dr. Kris has donated 500 copies of her new book, “Worth the Risk: How to Microdose Bravery to Grow Resilience, Connect More, and Offer Yourself to the World,” available when graduates pick up their degree at the university.

In the senior class address, Gracia Kitenge, chair of the Class of 2023 Committee, praised her fellow graduates for their perseverance. “The fact that you are here shows that you have made it, no matter how long, how hard, and how overwhelming it has been,” she said.

Chair of the Class of 2023 Gracia Kitenge delivers the senior class address.

For Kitenge, that road to graduation was fraught. She came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018 speaking no English and knowing no one. “It was just me and my sister, facing a complete, new world and trying to find our way through it,” she said. “The struggle was real, and we didn’t have a choice but to face it and embrace this new journey. If I was told two or three years ago that I was going to stand up here and make a speech in front of thousands of people, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

From those shy beginnings, Kitenge moved on to many achievements on campus – being an orientation leader, a resident assistant, a Worcester State Health Ambassador, vice-president and then president of the French Club, and a Presidential Student Ambassador, among many other things.

“So, my message to you today is to believe in yourself and to go for what you love,” she said. “Be determined to work hard for that dream of yours and make it become a reality… Just remember, you have all the capabilities, capacities, and tools you need to become the person you want. Worcester State has prepared us for this next step.”

In his remarks, President Barry M. Maloney asked the graduates to deeply consider a few questions: Where are you from? What are your values? And who has been there for you and what have you learned from them?

“As one of the greatest novelists and poets of our time, Maya Angelou, has said, ‘If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going,’ he said.” 

Probably the most important of those is ‘What are your values?’ Maloney said, citing the recent acclaimed films “Belfast” and “The Banshees of Inisherin,” whose characters must decide whether to stay where they have always lived or leave violence and economic hardship behind. 

“You can leave where you were raised, you can leave this state or even the country,” Maloney said. “But those places, and I’ll add your alma mater, will always be with you. So, take pride in who you are: Worcesterite, Leominster kid, Bostonian, New Yorker, Congolese, Ghanaian, Puerto Rican, and of course, a Lancer.”

Honorary degrees were presented to three people, including Dr. Kris in recognition of her outstanding career achievements in the field of behavioral sciences, for serving as ambassador to those struggling with mental health, and for advocacy and policy changes at the corporate and government levels.

Ann Ash Zelesky ’73 receives an honorary degree at the 147th Worcester State University Commencement.

Also receiving an honorary degree was Ann Ash Zelesky ’73 in recognition of her outstanding career achievements and in helping student-athletes achieve their personal best as a coach, mentor, leader, volunteer, and friend throughout the city of Worcester and beyond.

A third honorary degree recipient, Boston Celtics basketball legend Bob Cousy, could not attend the ceremony. A video was shown of President Maloney and David H. Tuttle ’01, chair of the Worcester State Board of Trustees, as they presented Cousy with the honor earlier this month.

Beyond his storied athletic prowess, the award recognized Cousy as an advocate for civil rights and labor rights who supported his African American teammates at a time when they often faced harassment and racial discrimination. Later, he founded the Worcester Chapter of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. He continues to provide critical support for the agency, which today serves 87 communities throughout Central Massachusetts.

Photos by Matt Wright ’10. Click here to watch the livestream recording of the 147th Commencement.


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