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They let me speak at my college graduation

Published: May 11, 2017

It’s May which means it’s college graduation time. Before the current wave of diplomas can be conferred though, the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, cash poor, but “college experience” rich recipients need to endure the time-honored tradition of getting talked at by a successful member of society that inspires them to be cool like they are cool.

After all, if we don’t pay celebrities to tell new graduates to “follow their passions” and “stay true to themselves” how will they ever know to want to do those things?

Yes, spring is here, and commencement speeches are in the air.

I’m poking fun, but I actually do enjoy a good commencement speech.

Much of the advice given is obvious. Sometimes even cliche. The messier bits of a speaker’s journey often get rewritten or left out, and hindsight makes it easy for the best of us to mistake opportunity for passion and lucky breaks for calculation.

They talk about hardship sure, but when half a lifetime of hard-fought wisdom gets condensed down to a 15-minute speech, the rough edges are bound to get buffed out. The rough edges are never as sharp when they come secondhand.

Commencement speeches are simple and shiny things, but that’s part of their charm. In 15 minutes they paint a road map that feels like everything we need to know to live the lives we’ve always dreamed about. Of course, real life is way messier than a single speech could ever convey. Knowing that though, I still find these things incredibly inspiring.

Steve Jobs: There is no reason not to follow your heart. David Foster Wallace: Stay conscious and alive in the adult world. J.K. Rowling: It’s impossible to live without failing at something. Lin-Manuel Miranda: The stories we tell.

I’m also a huge fan of Randy Pausch’s last lecture: Really achieving your childhood dreams. It’s not technically a commencement speech, but the message is too powerful to not include in my list of all-time favorites.

I actually gave a speech at my own college graduation four years ago. Not at the big university-wide ceremony but at my college’s smaller ceremony. They wanted a student speaker in addition to the commencement speaker, so I auditioned.

The speeches I linked to above are all great. Indisputably so I think. After rereading my own speech to prepare this post, I’m pretty sure mine isn’t. Great I mean. But ’tis the season, so I decided to share it anyway. Who knows? Maybe this relic of my past will resonate with someone today.

From one college kid to another

Hello and welcome.

Classic start.

First of all, on behalf of the graduating class, I would like to extend a thanks to everyone in attendance today for making the time to come out and help us celebrate.

That “thanks” looks so weird here, but I tried to write my speech exactly as I was going to say it on stage, and every time I practiced my speech out loud, I said “thanks” instead of “thank you,” so I changed the text to match my actual words.

Next, I would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the faculty and staff at UNO, and especially to the faculty and staff at the College of IS&T for consistently guiding its students with sure hands, and for gently, and sometimes not-so-gently, pushing its students when that more direct approach was called for.

IS&T stands for Information Science and Technology. At my school this encompassed things like computer science, computer security, bioinformatics, and management information systems. These students (and their families) were my audience

Also, this is the closest I get to a joke my entire speech. Buckle up. This is gonna be a fun trip down memory lane.

And to my fellow graduates, I’m sure each and every one of you has heard this a dozen or more times in the weeks leading up to today, but congratulations. Truly and sincerely, congratulations on all that you have accomplished.

The requisite congratulations.

Some of you sitting here today may not feel like you have accomplished very much. I understand these feelings. Maybe graduating college has always been a foregone conclusion in your family. Maybe you still have not yet decided on the career path you’d like to take, so today, your graduation day, makes you feel more nervous than joyous. Nervous because as a college graduate, you will be expected to make some major life decisions that you probably wish you could put off for a few more months. Maybe the realization that you have just graduated college has yet to fully sink in. I’m right there with you.

I feel bad for implying that some people don’t think graduating college is worthy of huge celebration. College may be easy for some, but for others, making it all the way to graduation day is a miracle. Miracles on miracles even. I hope my words didn’t diminish anyone’s achievement.

Regardless of what your reasons may be for not feeling accomplished, I am here to tell you today that you are wrong. You have accomplished something. You have accomplished something very big. In fact, you have accomplished many, many things in the weeks, months, and years leading up to this point.

I think I was speaking to myself here more than to anyone else. Graduating wasn’t the thrilling, relief-ridden experience I thought it’d be. Maybe I wasn’t ready to celebrate yet because I knew I still had a couple years of grad school ahead of me.

Graduating college is extremely difficult. Most people don’t do it. Many never get the chance to attend. Many who do attend college fail to seize a college education as the amazing opportunity it is. But not you. You recognized the opportunity that lay before you, and you embraced it.

So, whether you FEEL accomplished or not, your presence here today is demonstrative of your many achievements, and more importantly, your presence here is telling of all the GREAT things you are capable of doing.

Capital letters for emphasis, and big words to prove I went to college. I hate myself a little because I probably rearranged that last sentence specifically so I could fit a word like “demonstrative” in it.

While at UNO, you have demonstrated a remarkable ability, willingness, and passion for learning. You have also demonstrated a remarkable ability to understand and manipulate technologies in ways to better serve yourself and your communities.

Finally, above all else, you have demonstrated that you place a very high value on yourself and on your future. I say this because by successfully completing college, you have taken a major step to living a more fulfilling and more productive life filled with an unbelievable number of opportunities. And these opportunities will have a major impact on not only your life, but on the lives of your loved ones as well.

Speeches like this are meant to be inspiring, and the most inspiring speakers do so by telling stories. As a brand new graduate, I didn’t feel like I had any stories worth sharing yet, so I tried to inspire my audience through generalizations instead. Broad, idyllic statements mostly. I thought it worked at the time, but today these statements ring kind of hollow to me.

The traits just mentioned are obvious to everyone in attendance today, and it should come as no surprise that as a graduate, these traits will be expected of you from every single person you meet from this point forward. As a college student, you have been held to a high standard, and as a college graduate, you will be held to an even higher one. Just as you embraced your college education, embrace these high standards.

While I still think this is true, what other people think doesn’t matter to me much anymore. What matters more than anything else are the expectations we set for ourselves. Like it or not, you are the only person who can add meaning, contentment, fulfillment, satisfaction, or happiness to your life. No other person, regardless of their perceived power or influence, can do that for you. It’s a huge responsibility.

If there is only one thing you remember from the few minutes I spend at this podium, it’s this – the job opportunities that you have made available to yourself by graduating from the College of IS&T are near limitless, so DO NOT settle for any work that you do not enjoy. Your time is too valuable to be spending any of it doing something you do not truly love.

My use of “limitless” here is a bit hyperbolic, but I still believe that a technical degree (computer science, engineering, etc.) opens so many doors that at least a few of them are bound to make you happy. Studying computer science has given me the freedom to find work in virtually any city in any industry. I work in animation now, but my next job could easily be at a tech startup, a hospital, or a car manufacturer. I could work on Wall Street making rich people richer or at a nonprofit making games that help parents communicate with their autistic children. Assuming you enjoy the subject matter, degrees like these can give you wings.

I know you’ve heard this before, but there are jobs everywhere in every industry that require the skills you excel at. In fact, currently in this country, there are more roles to be filled in the information science and technology sectors than there are talented individuals to fill them. You are one of these talented individuals. Your time is valuable. Please recognize it as such, and always be picky about the jobs you take.

I think what I feared the most for myself and my classmates was that we’d unconsciously slip into living our lives on autopilot. A life with a job and friends and hobbies and routines that made us happy enough but never truly happy. A small depression so quiet as to go perpetually unnoticed.

As a new graduate with demonstrated proficiencies in technology, the opportunities that exist for you outside these walls are nothing short of magical. I want to reiterate that not only are you capable of succeeding at anything you put your heart into, you are capable of innovating and of personally advancing the collective knowledge of any subject you CHOOSE to devote your time to. “Choose” being the key word. Please, never settle for anything you don’t go to bed at night feeling passionate about. Through all of your hard work these last few years, you have put yourself in a position where you will never have to settle. Take advantage of this position.

It truly is a magical world out there. A world full of possibilities. Don’t forget to explore them.

Ugh, that last sentence feels so random. I remember exactly why I put it in there though:

©Bill Watterson

Yup, I really wanted to include a Calvin and Hobbes reference for some reason. I love this strip, but what a dumb thing for me to include. And my use of “magical” in the previous paragraph to try and tie the rest of my speech into this forced Calvin and Hobbes reference? Dumb. Just dumb.

Thank you for your time. Mom, dad, grandma, thank you for your ongoing love and support. And once again, congratulations to the College of IS&T class of 2013!

It’s already been 4 years since I gave this speech. That’s crazy. Life really starts to move after you finish school. Live consciously class of 2017. It’s crazy, I know, but that’s not the default state for most people. Don’t be like most people.

Good luck out there!


Image credit: Kane Reinholdtsen