Good evening Interim President Nolte, Chair Becker, trustees, faculty, staff, parents, bored siblings, and members of the Class of 2016. I am so honored to be with you.
In fact, there’s no place I’d rather be today.
I wanted to open with a couple of lines from a poem called “The Invitation,” that speaks to why we’re here: the gifted, brilliant, cool Class of 2016. Grads, though your heads are full of historical dates, math equations, and new languages, likely one of the most important things you did while at Umpqua Community College was build relationships with others while learning about yourself.
This poem gets to the core of what many of us crave: authentic human connections, where people can be their true selves, and where “vulnerability” isn’t a dirty word. Money, fancy job titles, or social status are just the shiny distractions that keep us from focusing on what life is really about.
The author, Oriah, writes, “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
“It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.”
Class of 2016, are you ready for your dream?
Now, it goes without saying that today, we celebrate an important milestone, one you’ve worked incredibly hard to achieve. You’ve worked several jobs to pay for school. You’ve helped your children with their homework before burning the midnight oil to finish your own. Perhaps you’ve even taken course after course before deciding a particular career path wasn’t for you – and then changed directions.
Charting a new path is perfectly OK, by the way. Just ask Heather Gilbert.
Heather served in the U.S. Army for seven years and was deployed to Iraq five times before returning to Roseburg, where she grew up. Though she wanted to attend college, she was hesitant about enrolling in school because she knew life for returning veterans could be jarring.
“You are different when you come back from Iraq,” Heather says. “You don’t know where to go.”
That feeling of hopelessness got worse before it got better. While adjusting to college, Heather discovered it took her longer to take tests. She felt ashamed and embarrassed. That’s when she found UCC’s Office of Accessibility Services, which provided guidance and support as she learned to make adjustments in how she learned.
And somewhere along the way, Heather found her footing and a new calling. As she worked toward a paralegal studies degree she began navigating the services available to her as a veteran. She realized she could share the lessons she learned with other veterans transitioning or struggling with their return to civilian life.
Now, Heather connects fellow veterans to services, including financial aid, and educates them about their health benefits, letting them know they aren’t alone. In many ways, she pays forward the kindness she’s found at UCC.
“To be kind is to be free,” Heather says. “Doesn’t take much to care, and say, ‘Let’s get you to someone.’”
UCC, your spirit of helping one another is something that has deeply touched my heart this year. Your compassion and kindness to each other have reverberated throughout Oregon, our nation, and the world.
In my remarks for today, I was asked to touch on your community’s resilience, which is something I’ve seen you exemplify with grace.
There are some storms in life we can see coming. We are blindsided by others. Debra Jensen grew up in cycles of abuse and addiction. She struggled with addiction for 38 years and spent 22 years in and out of the prison system. Debra had four children and lost each one of them to the state. She believed that she could never change, and that she was doomed to die as an addict.
One day, she met someone who expressed interest in her and told her she could change. In 2007, she began her path to sobriety. It took her until 2012 to be relapse free, and she is going on four years of sobriety.
Since she’s been sober, Debra has re-established relationships with three of her children. She also works locally for Battered Persons Advocacy sharing her knowledge, skills, and strength.
Her record has been expunged, and today, she will graduate with honors from UCC. Debra plans to transfer to Eastern Oregon University where she will earn a bachelor’s degree and spend her life working in human services to help others find hope and change their lives.
Debra, thank you for being the uplifting voice and encouraging spirit who helps those in despair.
As you have demonstrated in this community, we know we are greater and stronger when we’re in it together. Over the last year, I’ve watched this community of neighbors – and sometimes strangers – mobilize as a collective unit rather than as divergent parts.
You have made metal signs of in the shape of Oregon to fundraise; donated endless trays of food; provided art supplies so people could express themselves; opened up your homes; and provided therapy animals to cuddle up to.
These acts clearly come from the heart. You showed compassion to one another in the name of love.
Joshua Friedlein, Vice President of the Associated Students of UCC and a member of the Class of 2016, says that even when this community was broken hearted, it activated.
He says: “My community is a resilient one, is a strong one, is a gracious one, and is a community full of love. I’ve never been more proud to say that I’m from Roseburg than I am now.”
It was this show of love, and connection to elected leaders, that has shaped Joshua’s career goals. But more on that in a minute.
When Joshua first arrived at UCC, he was apprehensive. He had spent his entire childhood homeschooled, so this was his first time he had to wake up early for class and do homework.
He vividly remembers his third class on the first day of school. It was Professor Charles Young’s U.S. History class, and Joshua said he could tell this guy loved what he was doing. Professor Young reviewed the syllabus and then he closed his eyes. “It was like he went back into time,” Joshua says. “He traveled back to Jamestown, and I was hooked.”
Joshua took every single history class at UCC in his first year. Then, this year he decided to take courses on government. Growing up, he says he didn’t have the best view of government. But after Oct. 1, he got to see firsthand how it actually works.
In December, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited Joshua to travel to Washington, D.C. to share his experience at UCC. He went to Capitol Hill, met with Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and members of Vice President Biden’s staff.
After meeting with people who were sincere in wanting to serve others, he said he now sees government for what it can be.
In a few months, Joshua will move with his soon-to-be-wife, Chloe, to Portland where they will both attend Portland State University. Joshua will study his first passion – history – before pursuing a master’s degree in public policy. One day he hopes to work for the federal government where he can apply both of his interests and help make a difference in people’s lives.
“There’s no way you can accurately make decisions for the future without knowing the past,” Joshua says.
Class of 2016, today is proof of your resilience, leadership, and dedication. You are the light emerging from behind dark clouds, and your light is shining brightly for all to see. You are the future of this community and our state. Your achievements – and the example you set in accomplishing them -–ß banishes despair and rekindles hope within our hearts.
I am so very proud of each and every one of you.
In closing, I wanted to return to the last line of “The Invitation.”
“It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”
UCC Class of 2016, thank you for sharing with us your individual character, your collective heart, and what UCC Strong really means.
My sincere congratulations and best wishes for every future success.