2011 Commencement Address: Stepping Boldly into Greatness

May 22, 2011

Chairwoman McDermid, Trustees, Dr. Fox, parents, distinguished platform guests, friends, and the very reason for our presence today — the class of 2011. Thank you for giving me this great honor as well as the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful day as you take your next step — away from the security of your home for the last several years, from the school that has nurtured you and surrounded you with love and academic excellence, away from Mary Baldwin, away from the environment where you learned and became boldly Baldwin Women. I want to talk to you today about three significant periods in my life that were turning points for me:


I want to talk about dreams because I stand before you today because I dared to dream. I was the second oldest of five children and the first girl in the family, growing up on a cotton and tobacco farm in low country South Carolina where the main industry was farming. My grandparents were fortunate enough to own some land they had inherited from their ancestors, so they used that land to grow cotton, tobacco, corn and soybeans as well as to raise animals like chickens, hogs and cows. That was how I grew up, living and working on a farm.

To quote Langston Hughes, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair …” Life on the farm was no crystal stair. Working on the farm was extremely hard work done under grueling conditions and I hated every minute of it. But it taught me the meaning and value of hard work and how it will sustain you when all else seem hopeless as well as many of life survival skills. It taught me to dream — my dream was of my escape from the farm, a place where I never wanted to return. It allowed me to imagine an escape plan that would take me to college and getting an education that would equip me for a life other than on the farm. My dreams were my hope and I saw a college education as my escape key to freedom. I could hardly wait to graduate because it meant leaving the farm, going away to college, and becoming somebody. Little did I know then that what I was experiencing on the farm was my foundation and would determine my path and become my approach to life.

Growing up in the 60’s put me in the midst of the civil rights movement — an era in this country unlike any other — there were lots of changes going on, people rising up and protesting-marching in the streets, new laws coming into effect — laws that said the races no longer had to be separated based on the color of their skin — they could come together and associate with each other just because they wanted to and not break the law while doing something that seem so simple, that separate but equal was no longer the rule of the day, that I would be able to do things I had never done before, to go places I had never been before, that I would have new opportunities for education. It was during this time that my light bulb came on and I realized that college could become more than a dream. It was a time of hope and to dream big — to dream an impossible dream — like going to college.

So, boldly Baldwin Ladies, don’t ever forget that you can achieve so many of the things you can imagine. It’s not as hard as it seems. Don’t ever stop loving, don’t ever stop believing, don’t ever stop dreaming your dreams.


I graduated from high school in 1968 at the age of 16 in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. It had become clear to me was that I, Shirley Louise Fulton, could go to college because with the Civil Rights act came rights and opportunities. However, it was not a foregone conclusion that college would be the next step for me. The dots in my life did not connect to college. No one in my family had gone to college before, so it was a scary proposition to even think about. In spite of my dream of escape, I must admit that I was afraid … afraid of leaving the nest; of leaving that protected shelter; of leaving the farm that I loathed so much.

It was then that I realized that I could not connect the dots looking forward; I could only connect them looking backwards. So I had to trust that the dots from my past would somehow connect in my future. My significant and memorable dots included my life on the farm, the hard work that was a part of it and the lessons learned; my work with my mentor on voter’s registration drives that opened my eyes to laws and governance, my visit to the state capital for dinner with a congressman — my first formal dinner, my work in the community helping others who were less fortunate; my faith in God and my belief even to this day that through him, all things are possible. I had to trust in something. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

It was based on this foundation and the encouragement of my family and community that I dared to follow my dream. So as I headed off to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University to pursue my dream, I realized then and now that I had huge expectations to live up to — both as the first in my family to pursue a college education and as a product of one of the first generation of heirs to the Civil Rights Movement. I had a charge to keep which always reminded of the hymn I learned as a child growing up in the Baptist church and written by Charles Wesley in 1762 as a commentary to Leviticus 8:35, a hymn entitled “A Charge to Keep I Have.” It went like this:

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify!
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky;

From youth to hoary age,
My calling to fulfil;
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will.

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And, O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give.

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely;
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall forever die.

We have, every one of us, a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, a needful duty to be done; our generation to serve, and it must be our daily care to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to account about it, and it is our utmost peril if we neglect it.

As you know from your experience, seldom is the script for life written or followed. That was certainly the case for me. After three years at A & T, I became a college dropout. I was having a difficult time making ends meet even though I was working the entire time I was in school. This in turn was affecting my ability to study which in turn was affecting my grades. So I made a tough choice to take a break. I realized that I was deferring my dream and that a deferred dream is always hard to recapture. It appeared at the time that I was veering away from my charge and letting those who believed in me down, but not nearly as much as I was letting myself down. I was at a point in my life that I had to trust God and myself enough to know that I would not give up and that I would return. I just did not know when or what circumstances life would bring and how it would affect the path I would choose.

Upon leaving school, I went to work in the Register of Deeds Office where vital statistics and land records are maintained. It was through this work that I was first exposed to lawyers and realized that would become my calling. This was the inspiring realization that pushed me back on course to finish my education. So, five years later, with marriage and a son in the meantime, I went back to NC A&T to finish my undergraduate degree so that I could then pursue a law degree. By the time I started law school, I was a single parent with a 5-year-old child. But I was determined that this time, I was not to be deterred and my dream would no longer be deferred.

Fast forward, I finished law school, passed the North Carolina bar exam and was licensed to practice law. I started out practicing with a small firm in Durham, NC, but decided after two years that I needed to devote more time to being a mother. I was offered a job in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a prosecutor, the first African-American woman in that office. That job took me to the place that has been my home since — Charlotte, NC. It was there that I was first appointed by the governor of NC to a district court judge seat; two years later, I became the first African-American woman to sit on the North Carolina Superior Court where I presided as a trial judge and then as chief judge until my retirement in 2003.

So, dear graduates, dreams do come true if you stay the course, but they seldom come easy.


Sometimes things happen in life’s journey that make you stop and reassess life and your lifestyle. It is not a part of your life script, so it hits you as a total surprise. That time started for me in June 1993 when I first discovered a lump at the 11 o’clock position on my left breast. A biopsy confirmed my fears — it was breast cancer, and my life suddenly changed to a routine of chemotherapy and radiation for a 6-week period. At that time, I was at the height of my career, having practiced as a lawyer, now as a judge; it was in my mind, an inconvenience and an interruption and I thought “why me,” it just wasn’t fair.

You know, sometimes God speaks to us and we can’t hear because our eyes, our minds, our heart, our very soul is somewhere else. That was me then, in a hurry, let’s do what we need to do and get it over with. I know now that I was not listening to or hearing God; I simply was not paying attention; I was not getting the message. Throughout the treatment process, it was all about me and how unfair this was. I had not taken the time to stop to reflect on how I was living, how I was not eating properly — mostly on the run, how I was not getting proper and adequate exercise, how I was not getting adequate sleep — four hours per night at most, and most importantly, how all of those neglects combined with work and play created an enormous amount of stress, something I have come to believe, can be linked back to the source of many of our illnesses today. But that just was not my mindset at that time.

And then it happened again — a nodule in the 11 o’clock position on my left breast. June 1995. But, how could this be? Oh God, how could this be? This is so unfair! Why me? I asked between anger and pity for myself. I truly felt wronged. What I did know was that this time I was in a fight for my life. I knew that I had to be my own strongest advocate and that whatever else happened, God would give me the strength to do what I needed to do. I knew that God still had a plan for me and I knew that I had to trust him and listen and trust myself to follow his plan.

So I started on the journey that would change my life forever. I participated in a study at Duke Hospital which would require a stem cell transplant followed by high dose chemotherapy. What I had anticipated would be 6 weeks turned into a year where I was just trying to restore my body, my breathing and physical strength. So much of what seemed important when I first started my journey is not so important anymore. What is most important now is balance in life, in work, in fun and in worship, and having a healthy spirit, spending time with family, doing the things that make me smile, knowing when to let go, and having an outlet for letting go. It is not all about me now, but it is more about me.

This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, and you have the world at your feet, you have endless opportunities and you have the necessary tools to be the leaders and change-makers the world is waiting for.

So, Boldly Baldwin Women, hold your flames high and step boldly into your greatness with confidence, compassion and pride. Hold fast to your values and your traditions as you carry your dreams with you into the world and know that you can make the impossible dream come true.