It was almost exactly seven years ago that I stood in front of my peers, their families and the hardworking faculty to deliver my class’ commencement speech. I framed the speech around our class motto, which was a quote from Henry Haskins, who said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
I talked about our journey through school and the different paths that each of us would take, of course, not leaving out jokes about how we were going to be the last ever graduating class with the world ending when the Mayan calendar ran out that December. With the portion of my speech covering what lies behind us and the impending apocalypse in front of us out of the way, it was time to look at what lies within us.
My speech took on a more serious tone as I talked about our class being filled with bright and talented overachievers. I explained that with our knowledge and experiences, we would now have the opportunity to take on the world. I hoped for my peers to make the next breakthroughs in technology and medicine, to assume leadership roles in big challenges like combating climate change, with the long-term goals needed to ensure a more sustainable, safer and peaceful world.
I overlooked it at the time, but at some point I realized my peers and I need more than just knowledge (“book smarts”) to change the world. What I would discover is that we also needed courage to accompany knowledge to make our mark on the world.
My grandpa always taught me life lessons through stories, so I’d like to share a story with you. In 2015, I had turned 21 and finished my sophomore year at Iowa State. Due to mysterious medical issues, I was forced to make a decision that I hope none of you will have to make. I decided to not return to Iowa State that fall.
For those who don’t know me, I like to fully engross myself in subjects that present themselves in my life so I may make well-informed decisions. My plan of attack was to begin with putting all of my focus on my health, with the hope of soon getting my life back on track.
Over the next year my headaches and migraines grew to be completely debilitating. It wasn’t long after this that I took my first trip, a trip down the stairs that I had just walked up. That was the first of many falls I would continue to take. I had lost nearly all strength in my legs and had to use a walker to remain mobile at the age of 22.
I would come to know my enemy by the name of pseudotumor cerebri, which, for those of us that didn’t attend medical school, translates to false tumor in the skull - a condition where spinal fluid was not draining properly caused increased cranial pressure. It wreaked havoc on my nervous system and impaired my cognitive functions.
Try as my enemy might to push me to lose the battle, I pushed back just as hard to show it takes more than a bad hand of cards to take me out of a fight. Having a great team of medical staff at Crawford County Memorial Hospital & City Center, Vision Care Clinic and the University of Nebraska in my corner certainly helped tip the scales in my favor.
When I began being treated for my condition, virtually every appointment started identically. A nurse would ask me on a scale from one to 10 to rate my pain. With a smile on my face, I would often answer either a six or seven. There came a time where I felt that even putting a smile on my face was a lie. Depression had taken over, making me question my own sincerity. However, I thought if I could keep my smile for just one more day and hold onto my sometimes hopeless optimism, I could win this fight.
The moral of this story is that challenges will come your way. They will flip your world upside down and you can never plan for them. These challenges will test you mentally, physically and emotionally. They will challenge your ethics, morals and faith, but you can and should find the courage within yourself to overcome these challenges. Fight for yourself to succeed so you may help others and make a lasting impact. Fight for love, for justice and for what is right. Inform yourself of the facts and information. It is with that knowledge and the courage to fight that you will produce results.
I am still battling a few health issues but have come a long way from where I was just five short years ago. I recognize that I still have a ways to go to regain optimal health, but that’s all right because I’m informed and fighting. At the age of 22, I used a walker to get across the room. At the age of 23, I became your mayor. At the age of 25, I was able to ride my bike to Manilla and back completing Manilla Madness for the first time.
Life will beat you down if you let it. I implore you to be informed and to fight back. You can and will conquer anything you face.
Congratulations, class of 2019. You made it! Now go out there and make Denison proud. Lastly, unlike at my graduation where I was asked to not say it, I will leave you with a few of my favorite words. May the Force be with you always.