Former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis has known failure, and Saturday evening she urged the Class of 2022 to embrace failure as well.
Davis, a Harvard-educated lawyer and politician, spoke to first-years in the Chapel as the closing speaker for orientation week. Although the event was scheduled to run from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., the speech lasted for less than half an hour. Despite the length of her remarks, Davis had a lot to say about failure and perspective.
“The losses that I’ve endured have taught me that I am more powerful than the limitation of failed efforts,” she said. “So my advice to you is when you fail, fail big.”
Davis shared with first-years the obstacles that she has overcome in her life. She wanted to be the first person in her family to attend and graduate college. However, at 18 years old, Davis found out that she was pregnant. Feeling obligated to do so, she married the baby’s father and had her daughter. She worked two jobs and divorced not long thereafter.
“Those years of living on my own and trying to dig out of the well of poverty were the toughest I’ve ever known,” Davis said.
She eventually was able to go to community college and gain a scholarship to a four-year university. However, the scholarship was not the only thing that helped her out of poverty, she explained.
“Yes, affordable education made my climb possible,” she said. “But I know in my heart too that access to affordable reproductive health care was needed so that I could avoid a second unplanned pregnancy at a time when when my trajectory was very tenuous.”
Her trajectory led her from community college to Texas Christian University to Harvard Law School and, eventually, the Texas State Senate. There, she made headlines for her fight against abortion regulations, a stance driven partially by personal experience.
Davis recalled her 13-hour filibuster on the Texas Senate floor of a bill restricting what she called “safe, legal access to abortion care.” She explained that her filibuster was not a spur-of-the-moment decision.
“I didn’t decide, ‘Hey, it’ll be a great idea to be fitted for a catheter so that I can stand for thirteen hours without food, water or a bathroom break. That sounds cool,’” she said. “No, instead it was my values that motivated this decision to do that.”
Davis explained that when she stood before the Texas Senate during that filibuster, she was standing for herself—for the day she decided to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy because of a fatal fetal abnormality—but also for thousands of others who shared their stories with her.
She urged first-years to listen to others’ stories as well, and to learn from the experiences of those around them.
Students may be different from others in their community, Davis noted, but there is something poignant about fighting on behalf of someone despite this distinction. She explained that this is true of many groups, such as white people who march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement or men standing beside women fighting against assaults on reproductive autonomy.
“Fail doing something that matters to you deep in your gut,” Davis said. “Either because of your own personal experiences or because you joined a community with someone whose experiences now matter to you as much as your own.”
She said that students may have already fought alongside others, or may have the chance to fight in solidarity with dissimilar people right now, given recent racially charged events.
“Perhaps you have already done something similar to that. Perhaps you’re destined to do so in the future, even right now, given the racial slur recently scribbled on the side of the black student center here,” she said.
But overall, Davis stressed that students will grow through learning about the different lived experiences of others.
“If you allow your mind and heart to be open to learning from those differing perspectives, you will leave here four years from now—or your parents hope you’ll leave here four years from now—you’ll leave having grown beyond your wildest dreams,” she said.
First-year Ryan Rogers said that he enjoyed the speech and thought that Davis touched on relevant topics.
“It resonated with me in terms of failure and failing at things you like,” Rogers said. “I thought it was also really brave of her to come here and speak so clearly about political issues, especially in today’s climate.”
First-year Daisy Lane also enjoyed the speech, and praised Davis for her candor.
“I thought it was really admirable that she came and she talked so openly about her personal experiences. She put so much emotion into the speech that she gave, and was so open with us about what she thought and her political views,” Lane said. “She also did it in a way that was really respectful and wasn’t dismissive of other people, which was really nice.”
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