UNCG Winter Commencement, Dec. 11, 2014

Welcome graduates!!

Congratulations!!!

Today, is a day of celebration. It is a day to look back on your years of hard work and to celebrate your accomplishments. It’s a day when you can rightly say “YES.” Yes, I have accomplished something difficult. Yes, I have achieved something important. “Yes, I have graduated!

Yes, it is true, you have accomplished something important. It is a great accomplishment to have graduated from college. Over the course of a lifetime you will earn about one million dollars more than someone without a college degree – – but I do not want to talk about financial rewards today. I want to talk about the personal growth, determination and fortitude that was necessary to bring you here today. I want to talk about how you said “Yes” to all the many challenges you faced.

Many of you are first generation college students, students who are the first in their families to seek a college degree. 40% of you have received Pell grants, a type of federal grant that is only available to low income students and that does not have to be repaid. 73% of you took on debt to attend UNCG, and the average amount of that debt is $25,000, and that at a state school that is one of the best values in the nation!

Nationwide, only 56% of students who enter college complete it in six years! . . . and only 46% of students complete it at all! That 46% includes you! More than 50% of the students who started college with you will never make it to today. But YOU did!
You made it because you were willing to say “Yes, I can do this” even when you were not sure you could. You have succeeded, and celebrations are in order!

I know that each of you has a story to tell about the adversity you have overcome in order to be here today. I wish we had time for you to tell your stories. In lieu of that, let me tell you a few of them that I know. The stories are short, and important. They are stories of how you have succeeded in the face of adversity. They are examples of how you have said “Yes.” The stories are real. The names are not.

First there is Alexander, who worked two jobs totaling close to 40 hours a week, and has had many reasons not to be able to succeed, yet he received all A’s or B’s in his classes. Not only is he a hard worker he also one of the most pleasant students I have had the pleasure to work with during my years at UNCG. Like many of you, Alexander says “it’s hard, yes, but its not impossible!”

There there is Reem. Reem worked as an Emergency Medical Technician providing first-line medical care on the night to dawn shift. She did this through the six plus years of her undergraduate and graduate training at UNCG. During these years she got at most five hours of sleep, and that sleep rarely occurred in one block. Reem would come to my 9:30 AM class after about an hour of sleep, with her cup of coffee in hand and would stay awake, and even participate. She was always present. She was always attentive. Every day Reem proved her “Yes.”

Alea was a homeless unaccompanied youth before enrolling in UNCG. In addition to the normal struggles on entering college, Alea had to get herself off the streets, find a reliable source of food, and establish the security she needed to pursue her academic calling. During her studies she lost her food stamps and struggled with food insecurity. At times she could not afford her textbooks. During her studies her grandmother passed away, a loss that I know many of you have shared. Throughout everything she carried a full time, strenuous course load, worked full time, and also held a leadership position on campus.

And finally there is Daniel, whose family dreamt of a better life and so immigrated to the United States when he was in high school. When Daniel arrived, he did not speak English and thought that coming to this country was the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He remembers all the times he came home disappointed in himself because he felt like he was not learning anything, but with dedication, hard work, and the support of this family he was able to graduate high school, enroll in a community college, and finally transfer to UNCG. No one in his family had ever been to college, so this was a big step.

His first year at UNCG, everything began well. He was finally seeing the possibility of his dreams coming true. In two more years he would have his BS and be on his way to a career in Dentistry. Then, that first October, .his father was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, and given 6 months to live. Devastated, Daniel wanted to give up. The first thing that came to his mind was to drop all of his classes and help his family, but his father would not let him abandon his dream. Up to that time Daniel had been working every weekend, but now he had to find full time employment.

Two years have passed since his father was diagnosed and he is still here fighting every day, and so is Daniel. They both have said “Yes,” not because it is easy. Not because this is what they wanted. Not because they are weak, but because they are strong, as you are strong. They know what you know, that when life is difficult, the only rational, the only possible answer is “Yes.”

I am SO PROUD of you!

I am SO PROUD of what you have accomplished!

I am SO PROUD to have been one of your teachers!

Congratulations graduates!!!

You have earned it.

— Dr. Bruce Kirchoff