Challenged to the Core

Commencement speaker Marissa Nichols embraces the anxiety of public speaking as she accepts her doctoral degree.


BY CATE WEEKS • Read this article at the UNLV News Center

Marissa Nichols, a former UNLV softball star, now coaches student-athletes on reaching their goals. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

Marissa Nichols has the kind of persona you’d expect out of a Zig Zigler or Suze Orman: positive, energetic, and up for a challenge. But when she addresses her fellow UNLV graduates as a featured speaker at commencement Saturday, her goal is to motivate them to be quietly reflective.

The former UNLV All-American softball player is adding a Ph.D. in Higher Education to her 2008 bachelor’s and 2010 master’s degrees in education. Under professors Nancy Lough and Alice Corkill, her doctoral research focused on the intersection of student-athlete performance and personal development characteristics among high and low performers.

After commencement, this high performer is heading to Boston University’s athletics department to be its first director of leadership and career development. Here, she shares what drove her into the spotlight.


On the importance of public speaking: I’ve always been inspired by thought leaders who can move others to action, or a new perspective, through their words. I knew that to be as impactful as I could in my professional career, I would need to develop this skill.

From words to action: If we want something, dwelling in the possibility is an important step in making it a reality. That said, it must be coupled with taking actionable steps. Getting to the commencement stage at UNLV started a few years back, when I made a commitment to evolving my public speaking skills.

Becoming a better speaker: Like any other craft, I found out what I needed to do to build those skills. I joined UNLV Toastmasters in 2014, an amazing student organization and group of individuals devoted to developing communication and public speaking skills. I made my first large-scale speech in front of thousands at the inaugural UNLV Creates event, which required massive courage.

Commencement discomfort: Regardless of the comfort level I’ve gained by forcing myself in these situations, public speaking is still anxiety-provoking, and I always have room to grow. This will be my first commencement address, which is an entirely different experience!

The inspiration for her speech: Over the last few years, I’ve faced a series of health setbacks and personal adversities. I’ve been forced to grow in ways that challenged me at the core — from learning how to be patient in dealing with multiple concussions, to embracing every part of my identity and learning to live my life authentically.

The message to graduates: The growth that is experienced in higher education is profound. My call in this speech is for graduates from all walks of life to identify their “growth points.” The term originated from a mentor, Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, who is bringing his approach to student growth to the UNLV Medical School. Growth points can be large or small — from garnering the courage to engage in a new experience that led to developing an untapped passion, to applying for a position that you may be underqualified for but believe you can accomplish, to pursuing a path that may be different than what’s expected. I want everyone to stop and think about their time in higher education differently.

Look within: The magic of growth points is that they’re self-reliant and always in relation to ourselves. In a culture where external validation is emphasized, the focus shifts to within — and looking within requires vulnerability and awareness, two guiding values in my life.

Making growth a habit: I chart out my growth points each morning as a part of a daily ritual. This process creates awareness and helps me be accountable. It also inspires momentum forward and confidence to continue building on these moments in the days ahead.

A day of thanks: I’m grateful to have nearly 30 family members and many friends joining me to celebrate this momentous occasion. My immediate family knows about the commencement speech, but we thought it would be a fun surprise for the rest of the family on commencement day. I’m also thankful for the time I’ve had to develop the speech with speaking expert Daniel Coyle of the UNLV Honors College; he is fantastic at his craft, an asset to UNLV, and an all-around great person.

More about Marissa

Nichols’ doctoral research has been accepted for presentations at the national level, including an NCAA-sponsored convention this summer. She has served as a teaching assistant in education and spent six years developing, implementing, and assessing the REBS Life Skills program for 450 UNLV student-athletes. She is the president of UNLV Toastmasters, an organization devoted to developing public speaking and leadership skills.