The Commencement Speech I Never Got to Give
It's graduation season! Throughout the month, we'll be providing plenty of downloads and posts as we gear up for AACC's commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 26. To kick us off, we wanted to share this blog post from John Englehart over in AACC's Human Resources department.
“Daddy,” my seven year-old son said, “can you come outside and play basketball with me?”
I looked up from behind my laptop and said, “Go ahead buddy, I’ll meet you out there in a few minutes.”
“Ugh,” he said. “That’s what you said yesterday!”
“I promise buddy,” I said. “I will be there. Just give me a few minutes.”
As Brooks went out to the driveway to start shooting hoops without me, I looked back to my laptop. I then submitted my final assignment of my final semester of graduate school. Then, I let out a sigh of relief. I sat back in my chair and smiled. I finally did it. I was going to get my master’s degree from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). I told my wife the good news and she hugged me. Then she started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “are you going to audition again?”
I thought about it for a second, and I realized what she was referring to. You see, when I graduated high school in 1998 I auditioned for student commencement speaker. I came in second place and didn’t get the gig. When I got my associate’s degree, I auditioned for student commencement speaker. Again, I was a finalist but again came up just short. When I got my bachelor’s degree, I auditioned again. I thought for sure I got the gig that time. However, for a third time, I was a finalist but wasn’t selected. When my wife jokingly asked if I was going to audition for a fourth time at my next commencement this spring, I thought about my three previous failures. I then said to her in the most loving way I possibly could:
Why in the world would I subject myself to failure for a fourth time? Then I said to myself, “what the heck. Maybe fourth time’s a charm.” Although UMGC was having an in-person commencement, I still hadn’t seen any emails for commencement speaker auditions that I was told to look for. I quickly called the commencement office at my school. Although there was some back-and-forth about whether they were going to have auditions, in the end they told me there would be no student commencement speaker, and therefore no auditions. I told my wife about this and at first, I was disappointed. I would never get that final chance to get the gig I had tried for so many times.
My wife told me I should just write down what I might have said if I got the chance to audition and share my story. So, I took her advice…
My story begins in June 1996. I was 15 years old and had just finished my sophomore year of high school. It was a tough year for me. I didn’t take school seriously at all. I only cared about playing baseball and being a bit of a class clown. Unfortunately, this approach had a detrimental effect on my grades. This was especially true for my spring semester Spanish class. My Spanish teacher, in a good-will effort, made the terrible choice to let us all pick our Spanish names for the semester. I chose “Burrito” as my name. My Spanish teacher walked up to me and challenged me on this request.
“Ok, funny guy. Tell you what. If you can tell me what the word ‘burrito’ means in Spanish, then that will be your name this semester.”
I panicked. Then I looked across the room and I saw my friend mouthing “little donkey.”
“It means little donkey?” I hesitantly said.
My Spanish teacher never expected me to know the answer and was shocked. Still, she kept her word. “Well, congrats little donkey. ‘Burrito’ you shall be called!”
Although the class laughed every time the teacher called me Burrito that semester, I wasn’t laughing when I saw that my final grade was an F. My report card came in the mail and I remember when my dad opened it at the dinner table. He saw the F in Spanish. He had been riding me all year to take school more seriously and stop joking around. He didn’t go to college and had always hoped that I would go to college and do great things. However, when he looked up from my report card that day I could see the disappointed look on his face.
He looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, Son. After this year, and this report card, I believe you are NOT college material.”
I’m not sure if my dad was using a reverse psychology approach or he was just disappointed. Either way, I believed he was right. I had always dreamed one day of going to the University of Maryland. But those words “not college material” stayed in my head the next few years as I finished high school. I made no plans to go to college, and instead after high school graduation I went into the workforce. I watched as many friends went on to four-year institutions and had the time of their lives. Instead, at the age of 18 years old I joined the U.S. Postal Service as a mail carrier.
Mrs. J and a New Path
It was May 2001, and I had been a mail carrier for about three years. It was a hot, humid, stormy day. I had a delivery route that was seven miles of walking in Baltimore City, and it was one of the most miserable days of my life. One minute I was drenched in rain. The next I could feel the heat coming off the city concrete melting me. On my way home from work, I stopped at my local grocery store to get some dinner. I remember I could still hear my rain-soaked shoes making that “swoosh, swoosh” sound. As I was walking down the bread aisle, I bumped into my old high school guidance counselor, Mrs. J.
Mrs. J was always kind and nice to me. She remembered me and we got to talking, and I mentioned how miserable I was delivering mail and how I was thinking about getting into management at the Post Office. She mentioned she had retired from being a high school guidance counselor and was now an academic advisor at my local community college. She began to encourage me to consider taking business management classes at community college, which could help me with career advancement. She gave me her card to set up an advising appointment if I was interested.
The next day we had several sick calls at the post office. My supervisor, who knew I was the fastest deliverer he had, challenged me to deliver one and a half routes in one day. I accepted the challenge and busted my butt that day. I finished both mail routes by 6pm, but I was hot and exhausted. All I wanted to do was get back and get into some air conditioning. Before I returned to the post office after my deliveries, I pulled my mail truck into the gas station to fill up. After filling up, I started driving down the road. I then heard a “clinging” sound and sparks behind my mail truck. Then I looked behind me and realized what happened…
I forgot to take the gas nozzle and hose out of my mail truck, and it was flailing in the air behind me as I drove down the road.
I quickly drove back to the gas station and tried to put the nozzle and its hose attachment back into the pump to no avail. There was no one around, so I panicked and dropped it on the ground and drove away like a bat out of hell.
My supervisor later asked me, “I heard a rumor a mail truck was driving down the road with a gas hose still attached to it. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
I looked at him and said:
Later, when I got off work I just sat in my car defeated. I said to myself, “there’s no way I can do this for another 30 years.” I decided this was my sign to make a change and go back to school to see if I was “college material.”
A few days later I met Mrs. J. at her office and we began discussing what I wanted to do. She encouraged me to start out taking one course doing something in an area that really interested me. If I liked it, I could decide to take more courses next semester and keep going. If I didn’t like it, at least I tried. I figured, why not? So, I signed up for one night course for the Summer 2001 semester: Speech Communication.
I remember the first few Speech Communication classes I had to go directly from work while still wearing my postal uniform which was embarrassing. I was nervous at first. But then I looked around. Most of the students were young adults also coming straight from work. Some were younger students trying to make up a class and were really focused. I had to really grow up that Summer semester. I busted my butt and learned a lot about academic self-reliance. You know what? I loved it. I loved the challenge, I loved the college campus atmosphere, and I loved what I was learning. At the end of the semester, I met with Mrs. J and chose the major of Business Administration and signed up for more courses. Three years of night classes later, I graduated with my associate’s degree and was shortly thereafter promoted into management at the Postal Service.
The Class of the Overcomer
I share these stories from my past because they ignited my journey to get here today. A wise person once said:
“When you want to stop, remember why you started.”
Fellow graduates, think for a moment about why you started this journey. Also think about the last two to three years and how much the class of 2022 has had to overcome just to graduate this year. We overcame a global pandemic to be here. Some of us have gotten very sick or seen friends and loved ones get sick. Some of us have had to change careers or know friends and loved ones who lost jobs during the pandemic.
I’m sure each one of us can think back over the last few years to a challenge moment where it would’ve been easy to just say, “you know what, this is too hard. There’s just too much going on. I’ll finish my degree later.” However, you didn’t give up. You overcame. Never, ever forget why you started this journey and what you had to overcome to get here.
Are You Ready?
Talking with fellow graduates I detect a sense of anxiety and hesitation about the future and what is next for us. Some are wondering what crazy historical event is coming next that we will have to overcome that will affect our professional or personal lives. I totally get it and I feel it too. If you remember nothing else from this article (besides my hilarious memes), I hope you will remember this: instead of being anxious, “be ready.” What I mean by being ready is take what you have learned, go out into the world and be ready to change it and make it a better place to live. We didn’t go through all of this just to hang a piece of paper on a wall to collect dust, did we?
You may say, “that sounds great. But what if we fail?” The truth is yes, you very well may fail from time to time. Just look at me. Let me tell you one more story.
A few weeks ago, I was going through some old documents, and I found my graduation card that my grandmother had given to me at some point. She had given it to me after one of my failed student commencement speaker auditions, and knew that I felt a bit like a failure because I didn’t get the gig at that time. I want to read to you what she wrote in her card to me many years ago:
“You say you feel like a failure right now. But I believe you are an overcomer — born to change the world. If overcomers quit just because they fail, this world would never change for the better. So never, ever give up!”
Sadly, my grandmother passed away a few years ago.
Even though she won’t be at my commencement this time, I know she will be watching. I pass on her challenge to my fellow class of 2022. Yes, you may fail. But that’s ok. What’s not ok is giving up. Even if you fail one, two or three times (like me). What I learned from my grandmother is that we often don’t get to choose our “moments.” Usually, the “moments” choose us. If we simply give up after each failure, we might miss our moment. Therefore, when the moment chooses us, we must put our failures behind us and “be ready” to seize that moment and serve others by changing the world and making it a better place.
The Speech I Was Really Supposed to Give Was No Speech at All
As I reflect on all of this, what I truly believe now is that I wasn’t meant to give a commencement speech to those who have already graduated college. Think about it, can anyone really remember what the commencement speaker said when they graduated college?
Instead, I believe my real purpose has always been to continuously share my story and encourage individuals that struggled like I did 20 years ago; those who are currently trying to figure out what to do with their life. If I can figure it out, you can too. I hope my story encourages you to always remember this:
Nobody else determines your worth. You determine what you’re capable of accomplishing based on how hard you are willing to work and how much you are willing to overcome to achieve your dreams.
Maybe you were like me, a high school senior who didn’t feel like college material and wasn’t sure what was next. Maybe you’re a recent high school graduate deciding between the workforce and college. Maybe you started college but never finished for some reason. Maybe you’re a working adult stuck at an unfulfilling job who needs a career change. Or maybe you served our country honorably in the military and are now embarking on the next chapter of your life.
Whatever your situation, a small piece of advice: please consider your local community college. Community college is a great value and provides a great first step towards achieving greatness in your professional and personal life. Even if you aren’t looking for a degree, you can obtain certifications and marketable skills that can improve your career and quality of life. This is personal for me, because I would never have gotten my master’s degree without the critical first step of enrolling at my local community college. I will always be grateful that community college helped me realize I was capable of so much more than I ever thought I could accomplish. And I’ll always be thankful for the community college academic advisor who saw potential in me when I couldn’t see it for myself. Thank you, Mrs. J.
A few years ago, I retired from the Postal Service and have now found a job I love working in human resources in higher education. As I reflect on completing my academic journey, I’m thankful for taking the “long, scenic route.”
Whether you just graduated college, or you are still trying to figure out your journey, consider the following as you stand ready for your “moment”: focus on the ones closest to you, the ones you love, and change their world for the better. That moment has already chosen us and will guide our journey. In fact, that’s where you will find me.
As I finish writing this, I look out the window and see my son Brooks waiting for me, basketball in hand. I logged out of my UMGC student portal for the last time and closed my laptop. A “moment” has just chosen me…