05/23/2014 10:57 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2014

My Unconventional Path to Yale

Four years ago your friends congratulated you, your father bragged incessantly and your mother swore she wouldn't cry every time she dropped you off at school.

Four years ago you tread amid the gothic towers and weathered traditions that sew our community together and like any over achiever had questions: what's next, will I make friends, will I measure up?

And maybe you quietly wondered why a place like Yale, a place that sparked the drive of presidents and sharpened the wits of supreme court justices, a place that steeled the resolve of community leaders and nurtured the pursuits of world renowned scholars, a place that forged corporate pioneers, Pulitzer prize winners and exceptionally distinguished Secretaries of State would ever want you?

I hope you had these questions because otherwise I might have just embarrassed myself. I confess I asked all of this and more.

I took an unconventional path to Yale. Five years ago I was working the evening shift at a clothing store in the suburbs of Virginia. My family had moved every year for the past five and our finances were so depleted that retirement was not a possibility. Worse yet my son was a junior at an Ivy League college in New Jersey and hearing about his privileged friends often reminded me of all the things I wanted to give him but couldn't.

When I told him this he replied, "If you really want to spoil me, spoil yourself." Then he took my hands and told me I had a brilliant mind and deserved better than everything I had ever known.

That summer I started community college while working full time. Education was my second chance. It awoke in me a curiosity, vitality and dignity, I never knew I could feel. When I read Eliot, Miller and Morrison, it was as if I was the first person to have ever read them, as if they were secret insights to the human soul and condition. My soul was imbued with a redemptive and insatiable vigor and I knew I couldn't stop. When I wanted more I took a shot at the real deal.

Walking amid these gothic towers, amid these traditions and among this brilliant, vibrant and unapologetically eclectic Class of 2014 has been has been inspiring and humbling. Whether debating issues in class, chatting over coffee or just watching our bulldogs trounce Cambridge schools, which will remain nameless -- I have relished, learned and loved every moment I have shared with you. You have made me a better person and I only hope I have helped in some way to do the same for you.

And yet even now this is surreal. Four years ago I was convinced no one would want me, I wouldn't measure up and as far as knowing what was next -- I suppose I had resigned myself to more of the same.

But I've come to learn that nothing great can really be accomplished without a healthy dose of terror. No one ever wrote epic poems, built monuments or told bedtime stories about people who played it safe.

I was terrified when I came to Yale. A big part of me thought I wasn't good enough. But a big part of life is ignoring the naysayers especially the one inside you. Most people are stopped from doing great things by no one but themselves. I learned to tell myself to shut up. Sometimes in the mirror in the morning and other times in the dark before I went to bed. I came to know myself in a way I didn't think possible and I realized once I could conquer my own fears I could conquer just about anything. If you have not felt this yet I recommend it: it's the greatest joy you'll ever know.

You have likely all encountered your own fears and misgivings. I charge you to continue conquering them and telling that voice to shut up when necessary because in the end your greatness will not be about IQ; all of you have the right stuff, in the end it will be about the sincerity of your ambitions, the toughness of your character and your unwillingness to compromise in the face of difficulty, fear and uncertainty.

And should someone tell you that it can't be done, or you're not good enough or it's not worth the trouble. Should others beseech you to take the safe route, stick to the path of least resistance or quit while you're ahead. Should people say you don't belong, or it's too late or your dreams are impractical;

Look them in the eyes, grin a little and let them know "it's possible."