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Author of "Wild" Selected as Commencement Keynote Speaker

On April 9th, CMC announced Cheryl Strayed as the keynote speaker for this year’s commencement ceremony. Strayed is best known for her 2012 New York Times bestseller, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. The book’s cultural impact ramped up quickly, landing a coveted spot in Oprah’s 2012 book club, but reached its zenith in 2014 when the film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon yielded Academy nominations and box office success. Ten years later, as CMC’s class of 2024 prepares to celebrate and commemorate college graduation, Strayed is poised to impart her wisdom on resilience and redemption to hundreds of listeners contemplating the next steps of their lives. 


Cheryl Strayed is an American writer and podcast host. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and earned a master of fine arts degree from Syracuse University. Her debut novel, Torch, chronicled a family’s response to sudden grief and caught critics’ attention, becoming a finalist for the Great Lakes Book Award and earning a spot on The Oregonian’s annual top ten book list. After the success of her 2012 memoir, Wild, Strayed’s career shifted toward nonfiction and autobiography. Later in 2012, she published Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of essays she had originally written for online magazines under a pseudonym. The collection, a combination of self-help, personal essays, and pop philosophy, was widely successful and became the basis of a 2023 Hulu series. In 2015, Strayed published Brave Enough, a collection of short quotes and quips, reflecting her newfound role as an inspirational figure and her growing personal fame. From 2017 to 2018, Strayed co-hosted “Dear Sugars,” an advice podcast based on “radical empathy.” In 2020, she hosted “Sugar Calling,” a New York Times podcast in which Strayed asked older writers to share their wisdom with her and her audience.


But Strayed is still best known for her book, Wild. What is Wild? Fans of Gilmore Girls might recognize the name from A Year in the Life and Lorelai’s decision to recreate Strayed’s trek. The memoir describes Strayed’s 1995 experience hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The PCT runs from Mexico to Canada, passing through the states of California, Oregon, and Washington and traversing 25 national forests and seven national parks. The hike is renowned for its difficulty, with 489,000 feet of elevation gain and conditions ranging from arid desert to snowy peaks. 


Strayed undertook the physical and emotional challenge of the PCT with no hiking experience. Strayed was reeling from the loss of her mother to lung cancer, a divorce precipitated by her own infidelity and drug use, and a feeling of disconnection with who she was and who her late mother had taught her to be. At age 26, she threw herself into the challenge of the PCT as a last ditch effort to work through what seemed like insurmountable barriers. 


“What if all those things I did were the things that got me here?” That’s how Reese Witherspoon, portraying Strayed, narrates the end of her journey as she emerges from the forest and reenters society. In many ways, that’s the message of Wild. We all make choices and face circumstances that make us feel lost, but feeling utterly lost prompts us to find ourselves. Not a particularly groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of human nature. Nonetheless, Strayed emphasizes the importance of being wild, which she describes as being one’s “most savage self.” Being wild was unsustainable, and her humbling path not away from wilderness but through it led Strayed to acceptance of the facts of her life. She accepted that parents die, that people suffer, that hearts break, that things are difficult. Far away from civilized society with nothing to do but keep walking, she realized that one always has to keep walking – whether in the forest, desert, city, or anywhere where hardship exists. 


What can Strayed offer to CMC graduates and their families? Graduating college is a critical juncture. It marks a shift in identity from student to something unknown. The process of discovering that unknown is sure to be a trying experience for many members of the class of 2024, many of whom may feel lost in a transitional state. Presumably, Strayed will remind us all to “keep walking.”

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