Valedictorian Elizabeth Bonker, who has a non-speaking form of autism, delivered an inspiring message recently to the class of 2022 during the commencement speech at Rollins College in Florida.
Bonker used a text-to-speech computer program to share her address at the May 8 graduation ceremony, for which she urged her fellow classmates to "live a life of service."
"We are all called to serve, as an everyday act of humility, as a habit of mind," she said. "To see the worth in every person we serve. To strive to follow the example of those who chose to share their last crust of bread. For to whom much is given, much is expected. God gave you a voice. Use it," Bonker said.
The 24-year-old made an important reference to former Rollins graduate Fred Rogers of the famed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood who is known as "the king of kindness" at the university.
"During my freshman year, I remember hearing a story about our favorite alumnus, Mister Rogers. When he died, a handwritten note was found in his wallet. It said, 'Life is for service.' You have probably seen it on the plaque by Strong Hall. Life is for service. So simple, yet so profound," Bonkers pointed out.
In her speech, Bonkers emphasized that her dream is to help those who cannot speak, gain a voice.
"Yes, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream: communication for all. There are 31 million non-speakers with autism in the world who are locked in a silent cage," she stated. "My life will be dedicated to relieving them from suffering in silence and to giving them voices to choose their own way."
She even encouraged her graduating class to consider how they can be of service to others.
"My call to action today is simple," Bonkers said. "Tear off a small piece from your commencement program and write 'Life is for service' on it. Yes. We gave you the pens to really do it. Let's start a new tradition."
In her autobiography, told to another Rollins graduate Stephanie Rizzo '09 in an interview for the college website, Bonkers explains that she was born healthy and able to speak as a toddler. All of that changed when she was just a little over a year old.
"At 15 months old, my words were inexplicably taken from me. My parents took me to Yale Medical School, where I was diagnosed with autism. Despite what the doctors said, my parents never gave up on me. They recognized that I was a thinking person trapped in a silent cage."
She notes the challenges of learning to communicate through a keyboard, however, her determination has resulted in much success.
"Now, I communicate by typing on a keyboard. But when I first started, I spelled out words by pointing to letters on a letter board. People with non-speaking autism often have difficulty initiating movements, so learning to type is tedious. With months of practice, I made progress, and the world began to open up to me. I started writing poetry because it allowed me to say more in fewer words."
Bonker majored in social innovation with a minor in English. She is also an author, activist, lyricist, and founder of the nonprofit Communication 4 ALL.