Click HERE for a video of the speech, taken from the audience.
Good evening class of 2014, family, friends, faculty and staff, members of the board of trustees and President Warren. Each of my fellow students has a story to tell but tonight I will share with all of you about the life I left behind, my days at Lincoln Land, and the road ahead. For me there is a bright future because Lincoln Land gave me a new life.
I was raised like many of you in this room in a good country home out on a farm near Champaign Illinois. I joined the army at 18 in hopes of sorting out my life. After serving in the military, I found myself trying to navigate the job market and found many temporary successes, but never found gratification or joy. As time went on life started to falter farther and farther from a successful plan. Without an education, it was extremely difficult to secure a lifelong career, and this caused me to ramble aimlessly from job to job until finding myself in Louisiana.
My life was shaken up drastically on August 25, 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit shore, 8 miles from my front yard. Not only were personal and material possessions lost, but it was impossible to work for almost 4 months.
This forced me to move to Jacksonville, Illinois in hopes that I could put my life back together. Instead my marriage ended, and my family was separated. After so much loss, I found myself going down a very dark path, until one morning I woke up, and didn’t recognize the man staring back at me in the mirror. I was an alcoholic, a drug addict, and had hit rock bottom. Choosing sobriety, I checked myself into a treatment center and attacked my addictions aggressively and with determined seriousness. During this time I was evicted from my home, let go from my job, and was struggling to just live day to day.
Leaving the treatment center to start my life living in a homeless shelter with no job and no future, was a scary day. However, one day I walked down the street to the Lincoln Land Jacksonville campus, and met Jan Terry. I asked her if she thought a 45-year-old man could be successful in college.
She helped calm my insecurities and reassured me that I was capable of being successful in school and enrolled me in classes. I was determined to get on a different path than the one from my past, and finished my first semester with a perfect 4.0. I had found a place to challenge and excite me in a healthy way.
The incredibly skilled teachers at Lincoln Land, had given me new hope and left me amazed at the level of teaching ability that they possessed. I found myself announcing to all that would listen, that Lincoln Land was an amazing school. Lincoln Land gave me a new life.
Realizing the level of success that the faculty at Lincoln Land was willing to help me achieve, I found new hope and joy in life. At 45 years old, I finally felt at home. Teachers like Kelsey Lomelino, helped me hone my computer skills enough, that I left her course with the confidence to handle any tasks given in upcoming classes. Shannon Littleton Bicknell, who teaches English, still takes time to check on my progress, with the level of personal concern unseen in today’s fast-paced life.
I was blessed to have Tony Rothering, a Pearson Master Teacher, who not only taught with amazing passion, but his door was always open to his biology students. He was never too busy to help me. Beth Wiediger kept me and my classmates so engaged, that we couldn’t wait to get to her class. My speech teacher Beth Hoffmann started her class with a talk about self-respect, and respect for all classmates. She taught her students that inclusion and fair treatment of one another, was just as important as good grades. She not only taught me, but she took the time to get to know me. She had several motivating talks with me when things got tough.
Speaking of tough, I had a love/hate relationship with Terry Logsdon, but ended the semester with a great deal of respect for a talented, yet hard-nosed philosophy professor. I took online courses with an amazing teacher, Tara Walk, never dreaming that she would possess the skills teaching an online course to reward me with the same amazing instruction as a face-to-face course.
They asked me to work hard and in return they would work hard with me, and they delivered on their promise. This was the first time in my life I felt real accomplishment and acceptance. Lincoln Land made me a part of something bigger than myself, and left me loving that feeling. I came to this campus knowing no one, and it had been 30 years since I sat in a classroom. Tonight I leave with amazing friendships, and knowledge that a person can do anything, with a little effort and belief in themselves. Lincoln Land gave me a new life.
It wouldn’t be fair tonight not to mention my biggest supporters. Like most of my classmates here tonight, I also owe a great deal to my parents. They eagerly jumped into this endeavor with me. They helped me financially, they helped me emotionally, and most of all they just listened. My 14-year-old son Jerraud was also a driving reason to do this, and one of my biggest supporters.
Today I am far from where I was when I left that treatment center. I am proud to share with you tonight, that by the grace of God, I have been clean and sober for two years.
I no longer reside in a homeless shelter, no longer worry about where my next meal is coming from, no longer worry about my future, no longer suffer from sleepless nights due to the lack of hope. Instead, I have renewed hope and a bright future, but most of all an education because Lincoln Land gave me a new life.
I am not unique to Lincoln Land. I attended classes with many of you that had stories of struggle, yet you are also graduating with me tonight. Some of you lived in homeless shelters while you worked hard to get your degree, in hopes of improving your situation.
While others could have gone to any college, they chose Lincoln Land because of its great reputation. These experiences left me amazed by the strength and resolve from those of you graduating with me tonight. My fellow graduates are determined, focused and hopeful for their future.
So here we are. We are leaving Lincoln Land. Where to from here? The answer is as varied as the students who make up this year’s graduating class. You may have come here to gain knowledge from books and professors, but are leaving this institution learning more about yourselves.
Because of this self-enlightenment, many of you now know the next step to take, whether that step is an internship, a full-time job, or even backpacking through Europe.
Like me, some of you are planning to transfer to other universities, and continue the path of higher education. While others of you, will leave here with a solid plan for a career you’d like to begin, or a business you would like to start, but either way we leave on our own paths. A path that will be easier to locate, easier to recognize, and easier to follow because of the education that we received at Lincoln Land.
As I stand here tonight professing that Lincoln Land gave me a new life, may you walk your path with pride and know that as of tonight, you control your destiny. Our future stands in front of us like a bright beacon lighting the way down our path. May your path lead you to happiness and success.