Author Archives: Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations

Taking the Plunge

This posting is adapted from a speech given at an Upper School Honor Roll Assembly by Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations.

If I were a student here, what aspect of the SBS culture would captivate me?  What would my story be?  I fully appreciate the importance of finding one’s voice, and I hear stories from alumnae about their experiences of discovering their  own voices.  But in my case, you need to understand that I grew up one of seven children, so if I didn’t learn quickly to have a voice I would never have survived in my family, let alone the real world.

What I truly love about the culture here at SBS is that you are encouraged to take risks. That is my story. Taking risks and never failing.  Did you hear me right?  Did I just say never failing?  I did.  Let me tell you why I believe this to be true.

After 12 years of Catholic schooling, I guess you could say I had learned to play it safe. I was an A student, an accomplished athlete, and a friend to everyone. All of these things seemed to come easily, naturally for me. However, I can’t really say I was living on the edge or stretching myself.  I guess you could say I was the proverbial big fish in the small pond.

So one summer day before my senior year, while on vacation in New Hampshire, my father, four siblings and I were climbing out onto a jetty, a row of rocks that jutted into the surf.  At this point, I had an epiphany: I never take any risks.  So despite my fear of the ocean (rarely having gone in above my waist), I stripped down to my bathing suit, handed my clothes to a brother, and dove in.  My family was amazed.  But now that I was in the water, I had to swim to shore!  I started to simulate swim strokes, but it probably looked more like flailing.  I swam and swam and swam towards shore and eventually I got very tired.  But I was only half way there.  My dad shouted out to me, “Are you OK?” “Yeah. I’m tired though,” I breathlessly responded. He said that I should just stop and get out. “I can’t, it’s too deep and I’m scared,” I shouted back as I continued with my struggling strokes.” “Liz, just get out of the water!” he shouted again.  “I can’t, it’s too deep and I’m scared.”  Exhausted by his own attempts to reason with me, he finally yelled, “Liz stand up!”  I was confused, but I listened and I stopped haphazardly splashing at the water and I stood up.  The water, embarrassingly enough, was below my waist. My siblings were roaring with laughter, and I eventually joined the chorus.

So, I took the plunge, then I stood up.  And I was still here.

Clearly, this turned out to be a safe risk, but I didn’t know it when I took the plunge.  And life is kind of funny that way.  We need to realize that the risks we take don’t need to be life-threatening to be scary.  We might fall short, or shallow, of our goals, but that is when we can learn the most.

Taking a risk can involve knowing when to go towards something, but it can also mean knowing when to leave behind what might be perceived as the holy grail. After college, my first job was at the University of Notre Dame. I was 23, I didn’t even have a driver’s license and I had landed this incredible opportunity as an assistant coach.  This job was supposed to pave the way to a lucrative head coaching career in big time basketball.  However, after one year I risked losing that lucrative career and decided it was time for a change.  I never did make it to big time basketball, but I didn’t fail.  I found my niche in smaller colleges where I spent the next twenty years coaching college basketball at outstanding academic institutions.  I took the plunge, I stood up and I was still here.

One early morning, in the fall of 2006, I was out for a walk and passed by a house where they were building a beautifully structured addition.  I said, “That is what I want to do: build things.” Eight months later, I retired from coaching and opened my own business in home renovation and design.  I still had my beautiful home, but I sold my cool car and bought a truck, my fine clothes were traded in for jeans, and I learned a great deal along the way.  People hired me for some amazing projects over the next two and a half years. But then business slowed down as the economy tanked, and I needed to close the doors to my business.  I took the plunge, I stood up and I was still here.

Now what do I do?  I had given up a secure career for a short-lived business.  Lo and behold, less than two miles from my home, was another golden opportunity.  A small independent girls’ school was looking to fill a position in Development and Alumnae Relations.  Once again, I didn’t know a soul and it was going to be a great challenge to learn and adjust to an entirely new career path.  But I took the plunge, I stood up, and here I am at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. Would anyone dare say I failed?

I hope I didn’t make all of this sound easy. Because it certainly was not.

I believe there are key elements to taking risks and never failing:

  • You need to surround yourself with good people – I have been incredibly fortunate in that department.
  • The harder you work, the luckier you get.
  • Prepare yourself and do your homework. These were not blind risks I was taking. I was always learning from the incredible people around me.
  • It is OK to be uncomfortable. Learning is uncomfortable in an exciting and weird way.
  • There is a difference between being prepared, and being ready – I’d rather be prepared.
  • The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.
  • I learned this last one from Pete Carill, a legendary men’s basketball Coach I worked with at Princeton University – “Whatever you are doing is the most important thing that you’re doing while you’re doing it.”

So I encourage you; take lots of plunges, keep standing up and you will still find yourself here.

I need to leave you with a poem.  I had this poem on my wall in my office as a very young coach, and with every risk I take I continue to learn more and more about what it truly means.


To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.

To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.

He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.

Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.

The pessimist complains about the wind;

The optimist expects it to change;

And the realist adjusts the sails.

Congratulations to all of you who took risks this past trimester.  Whether you made honor roll or not, if you took risks, stood up and are still here, you did not fail.

– Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations

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A Voice that Resonates

“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”

“Still I Rise” from AND STILL I RISE © 1978 by Maya Angelou.

It is not too often that a housemeeting presentation draws a standing ovation.  Actually, last week may have been the first, at least in the two short years that I have been at Stoneleigh-Burnham School.  This particular performance started with a poem by Maya Angelou and one would suspect that Ms. Angelou’s words would be a difficult act to follow.  However, Obehi Janice’s ’05 excerpt of her one-woman play, fufu and oreos,” captivated me (and if the laughter and tears in the Capen Room were any indication, everyone else in attendance as well) from beginning to end.   Obehi wove a seamless transition from reciting a few stanzas of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise to what appeared to be an impromptu rendition of the “Circle of Life” (The Lion King) and on to a soliloquy seeded in an expression of self-doubt and depression.

With a voice that is deep, sultry, strong and clear Obehi quickly brought us back around to sunnier times during her childhood, chasing “all the boys” in the school playground.  Yet just as quickly she expressed frustration and confusion about why the boy she had a crush on, “Jimmy Dillon”, did not like her anymore and instead started to chase a red head girl.  A mantra that began as silly, even funny, became so powerful and painful.  “Doo-do, chocolate, Hershey bar, cucka.” Each time Obehi repeated those words they became increasingly hurtful to hear.   The incident on the playground turned out to be a defining moment in Obehi’s life, yet also the beginning of her journey in searching for her identity and coming to terms with the idea that she is unique unto herself.

She is clearly a powerful, charismatic, captivating and gifted writer/performer.  Her performance was all the more compelling in that I could appreciate Obehi’s personal message of clarifying her identity as an African-American woman, without being one myself.  She had a way of allowing her audience to insert identifying qualities into her words ; using her own voice and her own story, she peeled back the layers of a quest that all of us have faced at one time or another and certainly a message that the young girls in attendance could appreciate: defining our identity.

In what could be considered Part 2 of her play, as Obehi tugged at her hair and recited “Tough hair, brown eyes, dark skin, butt, big nose, big lips, tough hair – what am I to do with that?” It made me think of a Nina Simone song, Four Women.  In her song Nina sings about four “negro” women of different colors.  All four of Nina’s women have experienced different worlds and their identities vary as much as their skin tone, however her voice resonates with the message that examining self identity is what matters most and they/we are ultimately all the same in the quest.  Eventually, in her performance, Obehi confides in us that “It’s not about the hair.”

Obehi made us laugh without apology and she made us cry in reflection.  I could sense that everyone in the room had their eyes and ears glued to her, but that is only a guess — I was so riveted by her performance that I could not pause to assess the reactions of other people in the room.  Perhaps all of us could relate, in our own way, to the sometimes difficult journey of finding oneself.  What a powerful message for the young girls attending Stoneleigh-Burnham School; that it is OK to have some doubts but it is even more important to understand that searching for one’s identity is a universal challenge.  It could be fair to say that despite the color, faith, nationality or identifying differences of any of the students in the Capen Room that day (faculty or staff, for that matter) the message and how it was delivered broke down barriers and hopefully helped us move to better understanding of our own identity as well the diversity of our SBS community.

Throughout my travels for the Alumnae Office at Stoneleigh-Burnham School I am repeatedly reminded by the stories alumnae share with me of how Stoneleigh-Burnham School (or Mary A Burnham and Stoneleigh Prospect Hill) helped shape and reveal the identifying qualities of the individual student.  Obehi Janice ’05 may have played her most significant role of her acting career by influencing the young girls in attendance at that housemeeting during the spring of 2011 with the resonating message that it’s OK to be you, it’s OK to be different and it’s OK to struggle with the journey along the way.

Her play is self-admittedly incomplete ….one would imagine that it would be a ‘life-long’ production.

To view Obehi’s one-woman performance at SBS “fufu and oreos,” check out this Youtube video: fufu and oreos

– Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations

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The weekend of February 19th and 20th at Stoneleigh-Burnham School was filled with vibrant energy and warm sentiments for the School from alumnae and seniors alike.

Friday evening we celebrated 100 Nights in honor of the seniors’ last 100 days before entering the ranks of the Alumnae Association.  Following the special candlelight dinner, alumnae and alumnae board members relaxed at a special cocktail reception held at Coleman House.  The following morning the Alumnae Board reconvened for a day-long meeting to discuss how to best reach all of our alumnae.  Saturday was capped off with a wonderful reception and dinner in honor of the five alumnae being inducted into the Stoneleigh-Burnham Equestrian Wall of Fame.

Throughout the weekend I felt a resounding theme that appeared to be expressed with one voice.  At the 100 Nights dinner, Head of School Sally Mixsell asked each alumna to share her favorite memory from their time at school.  Even though the alumnae spanned many years and represented classes from the three schools, Mary A. Burnham, Stoneleigh-Prospect Hill and Stoneleigh-Burnham, I noticed a common thread weaving through their stories.  Each alumna remarked on her own unique experience at school and shared how she was able to find her voice and to develop the confidence to express that voice while here.  The appreciation for the open and accepting environment of SBS was palpable.

The seniors then took center stage so that each student could share her individual goals with the alumnae in attendance. Years after their own graduation days, the alumnae were able to closely relate to the seniors’ experiences of becoming one’s best, unique self.  The same theme resonated; girls expressed their desire to take full advantage of everything that our diverse, open and accepting community offers in order to become “her best self” and continue to pursue her own unique voice.

The next evening each inductee for the Equestrian Wall of Fame shared her story.  Diverse personalities took the stage one by one, yet they spoke of similar experiences of how the School and the Riding program helped them to find their passion and encouraged them to become their best in the equestrian world and beyond.  The heartfelt message in each acceptance speech possessed the familiar thread that had been shared by the seniors and alumnae earlier in the weekend – how the challenging, yet nurturing community of Stoneleigh-Burnham School helped each alumna find her passion, her voice and the courage to pursue her dreams.

It was as if one person had written each speech for the seniors, the Alumnae Board members and the Wall of Fame Inductees.  For forty eight hours this past weekend it became quite evident that we have one mission, one diversified voice, one shared experience, one School.

– Liz Feeley, Associate Director of Development and Alumnae Relations

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