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"Progress is Scary" Speech at Skidmore College's 2023 BIPOC/LGBTQ Stoles & Cords Ceremony

Our Founder, Danny Tejada, gives a speech entitled "Progress is Scary" at Skidmore College's 2023 Stoles & Cords Ceremony for BIPOC and LGBTQ graduates. This is a special ceremony where BIPOC and LGBTQ students are celebrated for graduating from Skidmore. They are given stoles and cords that represent their identity to wear at the larger graduation. Below are his prepared remarks.

Progress Can Be Scary

How many of you were scared coming to Skidmore?

How many of you experienced culture shock here?

How many of you were counting the days until graduation?

How many of you had meaningful experiences here?

All of us experienced Skidmore in different ways. This is what I say to my students about any college. I tell them that you have to take risks in life to achieve greatness. What I haven’t told them is that progress can be scary.

Growing up in “humble” beginnings can make progress scary. Racist experiences can make progress scary. I grew up in a bubble called New York City. It’s a bubble because you can see the same people on the train every day and never interact with them. It’s a bubble because you are racially segregated by neighborhood and school. It’s a bubble because everyone doesn’t have equal access to information.

College wasn’t talked about in my home. I didn’t know college existed until ninth grade when two people from Pace University’s Upward Bound program presented their program in my English class. That moment is when my life changed forever. I had the time of my life in the program. I learned a lot about college admissions from it. It was here where I could point to the first time I felt scared of progress.

I was excited about the idea of going away to college. But I was afraid of what would happen to my family. I was the oldest who protected my siblings and mother from my alcoholic father in our public housing unit, barely getting by on public assistance. I was afraid because my father’s side of the family didn’t support my decision to go away to college. They thought it was too expensive and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it socially. They weren’t interested in hearing about how financial aid worked or what HEOP was.

I was afraid when my college counselor asked me if I was applying Early Decision to Skidmore. But I pushed through all of that fear, even though I felt alone. I came to HEOP Summer alone. I mostly kept to myself the whole time. I didn’t call home. No one from home checked on me. I wish someone prepared me for the fact that progress can be lonely.

When the school year started, I still felt alone. I was on WSPN, a mixtape DJ, Hip Hop journalist, founded Hip Hop Alliance, and was in a relationship. Despite all of that, I was still lonely. Mentors such as Professor Grady-Willis helped give me some purpose in life. From there, I discovered that I wanted to be a college counselor. But I hit a roadblock. I wasn’t hired in the field for four years after I graduated.

While I had no debt, progress led me back to the projects with my father. The progress I made still made me scared of my father. That progress made his target on me bigger. That were parts of me that regretted the progress I made. This was a feeling I was going to have a few times in my life. Sometimes, I felt that life on public assistance in the projects was better than what I was experiencing.

Then, I got my first full-time job doing Medicaid enrollment. I finally had the chance to move out of my parents’ house. I was blessed to find a $750-a-month studio apartment near the L train. This was the first time that progress started to feel good. I was making some money that my parents couldn’t imagine, no matter how little it actually was. I was helping my community. I was happy with everything I had.

Things got even better when I became a college counselor. I was now just like the man I considered a hero. I even got to work alongside him in my first role. I got into another serious relationship that lasted a couple of years. I had a habit of fully investing myself in my woman’s progress. But just like the one from college, they were gone once they achieved a certain goal. The feeling of being underappreciated by partners made me want to dig deeper into my career.

The progress I made in my career has been fulfilling: from where students get into to the connections I was making. I was happy to be appreciated. This was progress I loved. But it came at a price. My personal life was nonexistent because I was answering student emails, reading about college admissions, and engaging with people online about it during my off time. Being a college counselor was my identity, and I wanted to be the best one by any means.

Then came along my fiancée. It was another situation where I was fully invested. But this time, I got the same energy back. I finally left NYC because of her. It was something I always talked about. I worked at a private high school because of her. I created my consulting business because of her. I started to focus on my personal life because of her. For the first time, I actually felt like I had a partner. I finally felt like I could have the family I always wanted.

But with all of those changes, progress became scary again. I was achieving much more quickly than I could sit and enjoy. I was also taking on more responsibilities at home. Society doesn’t prepare you for these things. Growing up, I was used to keeping my feelings inside. So I continued that old habit, which I’m still working on.

Moving back to NYC was something I didn’t think I would do. Trying to settle down was something I didn’t think I would do. Making six figures was never a thought in my mind. Progress is scary. These are the things people don’t prepare you for. They also don’t prepare you for when things don’t work out.

Traveling on three transit systems to get to work is tough. Being in meetings all day is tough. Having your partner start working full-time again after three years of graduate school is tough. Going home to do more work is tough. Progress is scary. At least this time, I wasn’t alone. She created a safe space for me to slow down and readjust. She made it okay for us to work things out.

Her encouragement of me to develop my private life was scary. It’s hard to hear constructive criticism when you have lived the life I had. But I know she means well. Progress can be scary. But it’s a great thing. It doesn’t have to be done alone. Slowing down and making time for the things and people you love is also okay. Enjoy your progress.

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