She didn’t think college was for her. Years later, she spoke at her own commencement.

Danielle Malan

Online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, 2022

“I am a diamond among many here at Maryville, and I have the lingering smell of sulfur to prove it.”

When Danielle Malan made this proclamation during her commencement speech at Maryville University’s 2022 graduation ceremony, few in attendance understood the level of perseverance and commitment that led her to that moment.

As a first-generation college student, Danielle has spent much of her life trying to prove her worth among peers who had an easier path to success.

“I felt like I was on a playing field with people who already have the rule book and they’ve got somebody who’s coaching them,” she says. “And then you have people like me where all we know is that there’s a game being played, but we’re not exactly sure how to play it. That’s what being first-generation is like.”

Early on, a bachelor’s degree wasn’t even a serious consideration for Danielle.

“I always thought I was going to be this rebel,” she says. “And I thought, I don’t need a degree. I’ll get all these certifications and just do it a different way, because I’m not a college-minded person.”

Helping people by changing behaviors

Danielle began her career as an occupational therapy assistant, where she worked with patients who had suffered strokes or traumatic brain injuries. She found her job rewarding because she has a passion for helping people and she was getting to do so on a daily basis.

At the same time, she felt unfulfilled because she knew deep down that she could be making an even greater impact.

“A stroke is profoundly influential in how it affects people’s lives and the lives of their families,” she explains. “I wanted to not only help them recover, but teach them to change their behaviors so they could prevent a second stroke.”

She realized the best way to do this was by furthering her education.

“I felt like I really didn’t have all the tools because I needed a fuller understanding of how the brain works and how people make decisions,” she says.

Danielle recalled that while studying to become an occupational therapy assistant, she had taken an introduction to psychology course.

“I remember sitting in class and saying to myself, ‘This is what I should be doing. If I ever get a chance in life to go back to school, I’m going to be a psychologist,’” she says.

I felt like I really didn’t have all the tools because I needed a fuller understanding of how the brain works and how people make decisions.

Photo of Danielle and a scort smiling at camera
Photo of Danielle's grade

Taking the time to make the best decision

Once Danielle made the brave decision to earn her bachelor’s degree, the next question was where to go. She considered several schools that were within close proximity of her home in Kansas. She reached out to Maryville on the recommendation of a colleague and knew pretty quickly that it would be the best fit for her.

“I looked into a lot of places,” she says, “but Maryville was the only school that called me. Other schools asked me to fill out a form and said they’d have somebody call, but then they didn’t. So Maryville stood out from the beginning.”

The close bond she built with her enrollment advisor also played an important role. She says he took the time to get to know her and learn more about her goals.

Over the course of multiple conversations, she says she never felt pressured to enroll. In fact, the more they talked, the more she realized it wasn’t the right time for her to start. She had built deep relationships with the patients she was treating and didn’t want to leave them too abruptly.

“I needed time not only to decide if going back to school was the right thing, but also to put a closing to what I was doing with my clients because they weren’t just my clients. I was like part of their families,” she says.

Danielle took a few months to make these transitions and enrolled at Maryville for the next semester. Returning to complete her education was a big step, but knowing the Maryville community had her back made her journey easier.

“I leaned on everybody,” she says. “I leaned on my counselor. I leaned on the financial aid people. I leaned on my instructors. If I had a question or needed help, I’d reach out to them. They just supported me all the way through.”

A diamond among many at Maryville

Danielle’s hard work and determination paid off when she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in the spring of 2022. Her shining moment came when she delivered the commencement speech at her graduation ceremony.

She says her speech was inspired by advice she received from her aunt years ago: “When I was in middle school, I was getting bullied relentlessly, and she told me, ‘You’re a diamond in a world of cubic zirconia.’”

Just as diamonds are formed through years of pressure beneath the earth’s surface, Danielle spoke of the pressure she has felt to succeed and how her experiences have helped her emerge stronger and brighter.

“I thought to myself, ‘How can I take some of my pain and frustration and turn it into something positive?’” she says.

Like diamonds, which are distinguished by their “4 C’s” (cut, color, clarity, and carat weight), Danielle spoke about the 4 C’s that make a Maryville education unlike any other: culture, consistency, courage, and connection.

She closed her speech with these words of inspiration for her classmates: “Be ordinary, settle, and be among the rest like a gemstone. Or be extraordinary, embrace uniqueness, be courageous, and be who we are destined to be. A diamond.”

  • Read Danielle’s full speech below.


    My favorite quote is from Mother Teresa: “Yesterday is Gone… tomorrow has not yet come… we have only today… Let us begin.”

    Hello and welcome to the first day of the rest of your life! Greetings to Maryville staff, students, and guests. My name is Danielle Malan.

    On behalf of the online community, we want to thank our family, friends, instructors, peers, counselors, tutors, and other supporters for their contribution to our development and success.

    You helped us to be strong, resilient, and overcome the impossible. We will never forget.

    I am honored to stand among you today and talk (briefly) about diamonds. It is not a coincidence that diamonds are the April birthstone and today is my birthday.

    Pliny, a first-century Roman naturalist, once said, “A diamond is the most valuable, not only of precious stones, but of all things in the world.”

    Like our experiences at Maryville, real diamonds are unique, beautiful, and invincible.

    Our educational and personal lives collaborated to provide the perfect pressurized environment for growing diamonds. We’re here today because we remained committed and focused.


    Condoleezza Rice once said, “Education is of no value and talent is worthless — unless you have an unwavering aim. Never find yourself without a compass.”

    I am a diamond among many here at Maryville, and I have the lingering smell of sulfur to prove it.

    Four C’s determine a real diamond. Well, I have four C’s to express my experience of the diamond life at Maryville:

    Culture, consistency, courage, and connection.

    Diamonds are used to shape other diamonds.

    The culture of Maryville shapes diamonds by adhering to core values that guide individual and collective achievement and creates a sense of value and connection as it brings together people from 50 states and 56 countries.

    The quality of online coursework was relevant, engaging, and challenging. A highlight was the most creative ways to say, “I enjoyed your post.”

    Consistency requires that we aim for a goal, give a full effort, all the time, and in every situation.

    Maryville’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, service, education, and faith has shaped diamonds for one hundred and fifty years.

    Courage involves strength, boldness, and honesty.

    Courage demands that we confront fear, do the work, fail up, and seek the best for ourselves and others. It takes courage to be a diamond.

    Connection… is vital.

    Maryville made it easy to create, develop, and stay connected to a support system.

    The incredible strength of a diamond is made of billions of carbon atoms, anchored together.

    Similarly, the bonds I made with people at Maryville will stay with me forever. I will not forget.

    In closing, Ehsan Sehgal once said:

    “You are a diamond…unbreakable if it is so…AND broken… in any shape…remains still a diamond.”

    Uniqueness is the one thing that sets a diamond apart from all other gemstones.

    To the class of 2022: We have a choice.

    Be ordinary, settle, and be among the rest like a gemstone. Or be extraordinary. Embrace uniqueness. Be courageous. And be who we are destined to be.

    A diamond.

    Thank you.

After speaking at commencement, I can speak anywhere now. I have no fear.

Finding her voice as a leader

Serving as commencement speaker has been nothing short of life changing for Danielle.

“People were coming up to me and sharing their experiences, and telling me how it hit them in ways I hadn’t even anticipated. It really helped me see the value of a good speech.”

She says this has helped make her more confident in her ability to communicate and connect with diverse groups.

“After speaking at commencement, I can speak anywhere now,” she says. “I have no fear.”

Danielle is now pursuing more opportunities as a public speaker, and she even mustered the courage to submit a paper to present at an American Occupational Therapy Association conference in Kansas City. Her proposal was selected, and she delivered two speeches over the course of a weekend.

Danielle’s degree has also opened doors for her to teach courses in occupational therapy, which required her to hold a bachelor’s degree.

“A contact on LinkedIn reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I see you just graduated from Maryville, are you ready to get to work?’” she says. That conversation led to a role as an adjunct professor at her local community college.

Perhaps the area where Danielle feels she can make the greatest impact as a psychologist is helping to prevent teen suicide.

“Even though we have social media, kids still feel alone,” she says. “They’re spending all this time on the internet because they don’t have meaningful connections. So I’m trying to do what the research says needs to be done.”

Danielle says she’s applied the skills she learned at Maryville to create a curriculum based around teen suicide prevention, and she’s planning to start a youth group where she can work directly with teenagers.

I have so many good things to say about my education. Every dime of it was worth it. Every minute of it was worth it.

Encouraging others to pursue their dreams

Looking back on her brave decision to attend Maryville, Danielle says it was one of the best investments she could have made in herself: “I have so many good things to say about my education. Every dime of it was worth it. Every minute of it was worth it.”

She hopes that others who are in her situation can take the time to learn as much as they can about Maryville and what the school has to offer.

“My number one piece of advice is to talk to someone,” she says. “Go to the Maryville website and fill out your contact information. Somebody’s going to reach out to you and that somebody’s going to be awesome and that somebody’s going to help you.”

If you’re ready to see how Maryville Online can help you be brave and pursue your educational and professional goals, we’re here for you. Check out our online bachelor’s degreesmaster’s degrees, and doctorate degrees, or schedule a call with an advisor today.

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