Commencement speaker encourages graduates to remain resilient, learn from life experiences 

Keynote speaker Selena Cuffe presented two lessons for new graduates at Grambling State University to learn during Spring 2023 Commencement Exercises Friday morning at the Fredrick C. Hobdy Assembly Center.  

Nearly 440 degrees were presented during the ceremonies. 

The valedictorian was Cazembe Zumbari of Cincinnati, who graduated with a 4.00 grade point average, while former Miss Grambling Kelli Copes was presented with the President’s Leadership Award. 

Cuffe, chief growth officer for Blackstone Consulting Inc. and RJB Properties Inc, a $700 million, 7,000 person international services firm that she recently joined after serving as president of Sodexo Magic, told the graduates of the lessons she learned as a college sophomore who was driving a car on a California highway 29 years when she was cut off, causing to her to swerve in an attempt to avoid contract between vehicles. 


She said that as she swerved, Cuffe lost control of her vehicle, which ended up in a rollover crash that ejected two passengers, with one of those – Jessica Williams – dying instantly. 

“Devastation doesn’t even begin to explain my feelings when I recall that event 29 years ago,” Cuffe said. “However, that life-changing experience taught me two very important lessons, both of which I hope each graduate will take with them from this day forward.” 

Cuffe said the first lesson was the importance of resilience. 

“Life is not fair, good and bad is going to happen,’ Cuffe said. “But how you persevere, how you learn from the experience and build resilience is what truly matters. And if there’s a class that knows anything about resilience, it is this Class of 2023.

“You have managed to not only survive and succeed despite a global pandemic that is COVID, the outrage of George Floyd’s untimely passing, Hurricane Delta, Hurricane Zeta and Hurricane Ida. Given what you’ve been through, there’s nothing that you can’t do.” 

Cuffe said faith and prayer were what got her through her personal ordeals. 

“I found strength in becoming close to my girlfriend Jessica Williams’ mother Helen, who to me is a living angel,” Cuffe said. “She embraced me deeply despite this terrible tragedy. I also credit the women of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., Omicron Chi chapter, who wrapped me in love and reminded me of my power. 

“Everyone in this room has been tested, and your resilience has paid off. Thanks to your hard work, faith, prayers and the support of the village, here you are today.” 

Cuffe said her second lesson for the graduates was the importance of prioritizing happiness. 

“Life is short,” she said. “No one is guaranteed tomorrow, so  you need to make the most of what you’ve been given today. Personally, this has meant living my life not just for me, but also carrying the torch forward in honor of my brilliant friend Jessica, whose spirit still lives on. Doing that is what makes me happy. 

“And believe it or not, happy people are more successful in life. Happy people have a higher probability of doing well in job interviews and being promoted, which leads to more money, which means a better quality of life.”  

Cuffe said happy people have high productivity and performance, which makes people better managers of others. 

“It is also proven that happy people have less stress and live longer lives,” Cuffe said. “But what if people in here today are still trying to figure out what makes them happy? Please consider a piece of advice I was given by a professor named Joe Lassiter when I was in school. 

“Look around and pay attention to what makes you feel, emotionally feel, the things that either make your heart warm, the things that you love, or conversely, the things that anger you to the point of boiling your blood or stop you dead in your tracks to a screeching halt.” 

Cuffe said it is those intense moments that lead people to their calling.   

“As soon as you make a connection to what those are, the happier you’ll be in life,” Cuffe said. “That advice along with faith and prayer have led me to cherish my friends and family as well as identify my life’s calling, which is to close to racial wealth gap and grow wealth for Black people wherever we are on the planet.”

“Being a business entrepreneur for 16 years and as a senior leader of a large, Black-owned company that for over 30 years has provided quality of life services with excellence to thousands if not millions of people each day in the United States and abroad, I wake up happy and excited each morning to go to work knowing that I get to live my calling.”

Cuffe concluded her speech by telling GSU’s Class of 2023 they are learners with knowledge who strive for excellence in their pursuit of knowledge and who are seeking to contribute to their respective major academic disciplines.

“The university has prepared you to succeed in the programs you have studied, to contribute to the advancement of knowledge and to lead productive lives as informed citizens in a democratic society,” Cuffe said. “And now it’s time to go forth unafraid, and in a positive pursuit of happiness. Do what you enjoy. Spend time with the people who make you feel good, and most importantly, help you succeed. Because you deserve it.

“And lastly, live your life with conviction and confidence, and as if it could be your last moment. And always remember, you are strong, you are powerful, and Class of 2023, you are beautiful.”