Dani Fitzgerald '11 Delivers the 2023-24 Convocation Address
On September 14, Dani Fitzgerald ’11 returned to Friends Select to address the 9th grade class as their convocation speaker. A relatively new tradition to FSS, convocation is an assembly during which students and their families join together to celebrate being welcomed into the upper school community.
Dani is now a senior content producer for undergraduate admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her Master’s in Education, Culture, and Society in 2019. She recently had the opportunity to design a course for the university on the college application process called Applying to College 101–which is available on Coursera. With her perspective from her professional lens as well as reflections on her Friends Select experience, Dani shared invaluable insights with the 9th-grade class.
She fondly remembered the “rush” of being an artist in her classes with middle school art teacher Fred Kogan. “I learned that the term artist really means seer or a noticer. It’s not a title reserved for famous people, or people who have a huge portfolio of work they’ve done,” Dani said. “It’s simply acknowledging that you have the ability to create something that wasn’t there before. Your hands, your voice, your body can create, and the way you see the world matters and is worth sharing. We are all artists.”
After Dani’s speech, Friends Select head of school Michael Gary shared his own remarks and suggested every student find a copy of Dani’s speech and revisit it often. We encourage you to read Dani's entire speech below.
My name is Dani Fitzgerald, and I use she/her pronouns. I am a member of the class of 2011.
I was a commuter kid! My parents chose to commute all the way from South Jersey to be here. Do we have any other commuters here? Is anyone coming from really far away to get to your campus today? I feel for you if you’re struggling to get here on time! Don’t let those tardy slips keep you back!
Is anyone here a lifer so far? Been here since kindergarten or pre-K? How about folks who joined FSS in middle school? What about folks who are joining Friends for high school?
No matter when you’ve joined this community, you belong here and you deserve to be here. Even if you don’t feel that way right now, you still have all the opportunity to help shape this place and take advantage of all it has to offer.
I turned 30 this year, and while I was at my parents’ home, my mom gave me a big tub full of stuff that they’ve been saving over the years: report cards, transcripts, a missing yearbook from 9th grade, and lots and lots of art that I made at camp.
I always felt like life should be more like camp—a day of scheduled activities, intentional social time with friends, eating snacks, taking classes and workshops, making art and crafts, getting out into nature, and making lasting memories and experiencing new things.
I was always an artsy kid. My favorite classes were English, music, and art. I think my parents enrolled me in almost every art-related camp in a 10-mile radius: Fleisher, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Moore College of Art, Tyler, and even Tr. Fred’s summer art around the city class. (I’m forgetting the name of it, but he used to take a group of us around the city to draw.) Armed with our sketch pads, we took full advantage of our location downtown and went outside to draw. This was one of the first times I really felt the rush of being an artist.
There was something so pure about that moment. We would come back to the studio, sit around a long table, flip through our sketchbooks, and share our work with each other—asking, "What did you see? What did you notice? What caught your eye?”
I learned that the term artist really means seer or a noticer. It’s not a title reserved for famous people, or people who have a huge portfolio of work they’ve done. It’s simply acknowledging that you have the ability to create something that wasn’t there before. Your hands, your voice, your body can create—that the way you see the world matters and is worth sharing. We are all artists.
I had an after-school teacher named Camae. She now goes by Moor Mother and she’s one of the first people who I ever heard talk about Afrofuturism—and the power of your imagination to create new futures—especially for Black communities. She was way ahead of her time. I used to think she was so cool, so confident about herself, and embodied what it meant to be an artist.
But her favorite way to address all of her students was calling us scientists.
“Hey scientist, how are you feeling today?”
I used to think that was so strange.
And I would think, “I’m not a scientist, I’m an artist like you!”
What does it mean to be a scientist? It means to stay curious. To move through the world with curiosity, to keep asking questions, to interpret new information, to make sense of the world around you, and discover new things. Measure the new information against what you already think you know. And don’t be afraid to be seen trying, or to change your mind after learning something new.
Being an artist or a scientist is not just a career, but a way of life. The two are not mutually exclusive or opposites. Just like we all have inner artists, we are also all scientists. I encourage you to nurture your inner scientist and your inner artist. You never stop discovering new things about the world, or about yourself.
Sometimes you hear people talk about the importance of “finding yourself,” but I want to talk about returning to yourself.
As you’re entering high school, there’s a constant urge to compare yourself to your peers. But remember to be kind to yourself and each other. Remember that being different doesn’t mean wrong or weird.
The voice in your head, how you speak to yourself, informs how you think of yourself. When I was your age, my inner voice got too quiet, and I worried too much about what other people would think. I shrunk myself down, tried to fit in, tried to make myself smaller.
I think a lot about this quote from famous author Alice Walker: “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.”
You are your best thing, and you are an expert on yourself. You will grow bigger beyond these walls, beyond your friends, beyond who your parents thought you would be. And that’s a beautiful thing. You also can’t let others define who you are for you.
If you’re asking yourself—Who am I? Or if you’re worried about not knowing what you want to become when you’re older, I have a secret: I don’t know either!
But my advice is to do this: let your desires be a map. Be a “noticer” of yourself. Notice what gets your heart pumping, what do you enjoy, what feels effortless, what feels challenging, and where do you find yourself feeling fulfilled?
I work for a local university in their admissions office in their communications, marketing, and audience engagement department, and for the past two years, I’ve had the opportunity to design a whole course on applying to college. I’m sure for many of you college is on your mind, but I urge you to start with your interests. Start with that desire map. Leave room for yourself to grow.
You will become many things in your lifetime, and there are futures out there that only you can create.
Now that I’m grown, my life is all about returning to who I was when I was your age—because I was on to something! Most of the things that I thought were just a phase, the parts of myself that I judged most harshly, all the things that I tried to abandon for the sake of looking cool—I now have released the shame around them and remembered why I loved them in the first place.
I still don’t know where my journey will lead me next. I do know that the answers are inside me and that my desires create the perfect map.
Let your desires be your map—let them shape how you want to move through the world. I’m learning to access this wisdom more frequently and more authentically. I’m learning more about who I am, how to accommodate myself, how to take up more space, and shape worlds around me. I’m a DJ, I collect antiques, I have 2 cats, I paint…
Your journey isn’t linear, and “time”...sometimes time really feels like a circle when you realize how much of it you spend trying to return to yourself—remembering who you are.
My dad recently told me, “The universe is waiting for you.” And he is absolutely right.
I hope you all enjoy the beginning of an incredible journey. I can’t wait to see how you return to your 9th grade self in 20 years too!