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'Speak Your Mind'

DATE: Tuesday, June 4, 2019

"HCC gave me the sense of community I’ve longed for."

Commencement speaker Tiffany Cavanaugh

For the past three years, Tiffany Cavanaugh has served as president of HCC's Students on the Autism Spectrum Club. The West Springfield resident graduated June 1 with honors and her associate degree in liberal arts. She was one of two graduating students selected to give speeches June 1 at Commencement 2019. Below is the full text of her remarks:

Hello everyone. I hope everyone is enjoying their day so far. I know I am. It is such an honor to be speaking in front of all of you today.

Before I came to Holyoke Community College, I didn't know many people like me. All I'd ever learned were negative stereotypes. I felt like I didn't have anyone to relate to. Although I had many friends, they didn't face the situations I face regularly, like having to cover my ears when a blaring loud fire alarm comes on, not understanding if someone is genuine or sarcastic, or having sensory processing differences from most people.

At HCC I learned about neurodiversity, a concept that has replaced autism as an unfortunate condition. HCC gave me the sense of community I've longed for, and I joined the SAS Club, which stands for Students on the Autism Spectrum. By researching and learning from others, I was able to openly address what autism really is and learned to advocate for myself. I was diagnosed when I was 5 and became open about it when I was 14. However, at HCC, I became more accepting of it on a deeper level. I learned that we don't need awareness, we need acceptance. Therefore, I became an activist.

As the president of the club for three years, I learned how to use my voice, and by that, I have shown others that their voices are just as important. While at HCC, my vision of myself has changed, and I've become a better writer and public speaker. Without learning those skills from classes and the extracurriculars I was involved with, I wouldn't be speaking on this stage right now. Here is what I have learned at HCC about what it takes to succeed:

One, have confidence in yourself. Don't overthink things and don't define yourself by what people think about you.

Two, take advantage of each opportunity you have, whether it may help you academically, socially, or personally, you may develop skills that you never thought you would be good at.

Three, be yourself. That is most important. I know this world is a tough place to be, but don't be afraid to speak your mind and advocate for your rights.

I still receive comments that I do not "look" or "act" autistic and that I am not the same as other people on the spectrum, when really every autistic person is different. I learned that it is okay to be myself and that I do not have to act a certain way to be accepted. I mean, honestly, what is normal anyways?

When I found a community at HCC that got me, I felt that I was not alone. That is why I am so grateful to the people who helped me along this journey: all my family and friends, but especially my mom. She made many sacrifices for me and I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for her. Also, thank you to SAS, SHOUTS, NSO, Green Key, and Phi Theta Kappa for giving me the opportunity to learn and grow from others. Thank you to all of my professors for challenging me and for supporting me when I was struggling, and to the Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services, thank you for always being there for me when I needed to rant, to advocate for my rights, or if I just need a break and needed a stim toy to calm myself down.

To the Class of 2019, I wish that whatever you choose to do after your time here, whether you are transferring to a four-year college, entering the workforce, taking more classes here after graduation, or still have no idea what your plans are, that it makes you happy.

Be proud of what you accomplished today.

Whether you received an associate degree or certificate, that is a huge accomplishment. I know that whatever you choose to do in life after today, you will take the skills that you learned, and you will be amazing advocates for not just yourselves but for the community.

From the words of Haley Moss, "Being different isn't less. It isn't bad. It's just different, and different can be extraordinary."

Congratulations to the Class of 2019.

We did it! Thank you!

PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: Student orator Tiffany Cavanaugh speaks to the Class of 2019 at Commencement June 1