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What Though the Odds

Sam Stryker | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When Haley Scott DeMaria received a call earlier this year from University President Fr. John Jenkins, she had some idea about what their conversation would entail.

But the last thing she expected was for Jenkins to ask her to give this year’s Commencement address.

“We had conversations in the past months about different things, so when I got the phone call there were 10 other items I thought the conversation would be about,” she said. “If I put commencement speaker on there, it would probably be about [number] 998.

“[I was] stunned, really. I was surprised. Once the shock wore off, I was very honored.”

DeMaria, a member of the Class of 1995, suffered a broken back and was paralyzed when the bus carrying her and the rest of the Irish women’s swim team slid off the Indiana Toll Road and rolled over 20 years ago. Doctors told DeMaria she might never walk again, but she beat the odds, regaining the ability to walk and returning to swim for the Irish the following year.

DeMaria said she hopes she can give a special speech to this year’s graduating class because, like them, she once walked the campus as a student.

“I think one of the unique things about having an [alumna] speak is I understand many of the things they are experiencing because I have been there,” she said. “The main thing I would like to get across is what it means to be a Notre Dame graduate – what it has meant in my life and what it will mean in their lives in ways they have no idea.”

One of the main concepts DeMaria said she wants to convey in her address is to be prepared for the unexpected in life.

“I think one of the main ideas, and really one of the main themes of how I live my life, is that understanding that you can plan, and you can be prepared, and you can know exactly what your life is going to be and chances are, that’s not what is going to happen,” she said. “And then that is okay. How do you go through life having a great game plan or life plan, but also knowing life doesn’t always turn out the way that you think it will.”

DeMaria said Notre Dame graduates are fortunate because the University prepares students well for life after college.

“Not in a doomsday way, but so many of the tools that we have here as a Notre Dame student will apply to ways in life that we don’t even know,” she said.

DeMaria, who gives talks up to five or six times a month, said this speech will be “different” and “bigger” than any she has ever given. However, she still plans to draw on her personal experiences to communicate the core message of her address.

“Many of the talks that I give are about my story and what we experienced as a university, as a swim team, my personal journey – certainly physically and the faith aspect of it,” she said. “There will be some of that. I know that’s certainly one of the reasons I was asked to speak.”

However, DeMaria said she recognizes this speech is different due to her audience.

“But graduation is not about me, it’s about the graduates,” she said. “So I’ll take what I’ve learned and certainly share some of that, but really use it to apply in a meaningful way to the graduates.”

In speaking to people during the past weeks leading up to her address, DeMaria said she has distinguished two types of commencement speakers – those who are remembered for their name, and those who are remembered for the speech they give. She said she hopes to fall into the latter category. 

“I’d rather leave the graduates with two or three or four key words or messages that they hear, they listen, they remember. They may not totally get it now, but at some point in their lives they will,” she said. “That’s my goal.”

Reflecting on this notion, DeMaria said her own class expected to have a “big-name” commencement speaker, as it was the 150th graduating class of the University. But students were initially disappointed with the selection of a relatively unknown speaker.

“We ended up with the first African-American female provost at a major research university,” she said. “It was an interesting choice at the time, but it was Condoleeza Rice. It’s been good for me to understand everybody’s different perspectives.”

Ultimately, DeMaria said she is excited to return to the University once again to serve in a new role.

“I truly look forward to addressing the class,” she said.