This spring, Erica Bowe of Bolton shared her commencement address recounting lessons learned and an inspirational message of hope for the future.
Rather than delivering the speech at her own high school’s graduation ceremony, however, the 18-year-old senior was the keynote speaker for a different community of peers: the virtual Misfit University.
Founded by Karen Kiefer of Wayland in 2011, Misfit University is a free online resource that encourages young people to celebrate what makes them different using misfit (mismatched) socks as a muse for creative exploration and a catalyst for conversation.
“I was so taken aback and happy to be asked,” said Bowe, who started wearing mismatched socks even before she learned about Misfit University through Girl Scouts.
The program features a hands-on, anti-bullying curriculum that includes service projects and events promoting team-building, self-esteem, creativity, manners, and respect.
Kiefer, associate director of the Church in the 21st Century Center at Boston College, developed the curriculum as an off-shoot of her book “The Misfit Sock.” Self-published in 2010, the story tells how a sock that lost its match in the laundry cycle regained meaning and purpose through the magic of Christmas.
Ironically, Bowe began wearing mismatched socks when her mother, Candy, bought a pair from LittleMissMatched for her ninth birthday. As a result, she has long done what Kiefer’s Million Misfit Sock March advocates every Make a Difference Day in October: wearing mismatched socks in solidarity against bullying. (Bowe’s socks are usually hidden beneath pants.)
“I found that having mismatched socks, even though other people can’t see them, gave me my own individuality and helped me find my voice to speak up against bullying,” she said. “I can be me, which will make me happier than trying to mold to everyone else. It’s also an extra boost of confidence, knowing that I’m never alone.”
Candy Bowe said she is proud of her daughter for doing what she enjoys, rather than bowing to peer pressure in favor of more mainstream activities. Erica, who graduated in June from Minuteman High School, has been in the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls since age 11, and she earned her Gold Award in Girl Scouts.
After working at a camp this summer, Bowe plans to enter Middlesex Community College and study early childhood education to “better the lives of a lot of children.”
Evelyn Francis of Alton, Ill., delivered the inaugural commencement address for Misfit University in 2015 after becoming the first featured blogger for Misfit University.
“That made a big difference in my life,” Francis said. “The fact that people wanted to hear from me, and cared about what I had to say, was astonishing. It made me feel so good.”
Francis, who had dropped out of school because of bullying, said the support she received from the online community was integral in earning her GED, entering the workforce, applying to college, and now preparing to study to become a teacher.
Bowe says everyone can benefit by celebrating differences and practicing acts of kindness to others.
“You can’t change the past,” she said, “but you change your perspective and understand that everyone is different, and it’s the differences who make you who you are. Then you can make the future better.”
For more information about Misfit University, visit misfituniversity.com or facebook.com/millionmisfitsockmarch.
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at