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John Koker, dean of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s College of Letters and Science, presented the keynote speech at the Wind River Tribal College’s spring 2009 commencement on May 22.

UW Oshkosh has partnered with the Wind River Tribal College in central Wyoming to offer the college’s students the opportunity to earn credits toward an associate’s degree as well as credits that can be used toward a bachelor’s degree at UW Oshkosh.

The tribal college serves primarily nontraditional students from the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.

Koker delivered his speech via webcast from the UWO campus. The transcript of his speech follows:

“President Spoonhunter, board members, elders, administration, faculty, staff, parents, family and friends, and most importantly on this special day, graduates and honorees: I offer my highest congratulations.

“I wish I could be there to congratulate you personally. However, I am glad that I can be with you via 21st-century technology. I send greetings from all here at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. I look forward to seeing many of you next month when my colleagues and I travel to Wind River for the biology course on water quality testing.

“Last Saturday, I attended the graduation ceremony here at UW Oshkosh. Then on Sunday, May 17, I watched my daughter graduate with her master’s degree from the University of Illinois. It is a truly satisfying experience for me to celebrate the accomplishments of students. Graduates, be proud! You earned this and should, at least for today, let your family, friends and teachers make a big deal of your achievements.

“I grew up in the tiny township of Pleasant Prairie, Wis. The City of Kenosha was about five miles away. I am the youngest of four children and was the first one in my family, including my parents, that went on to school following high school. I am so thankful that my family made that opportunity available for me.

“I want to share a story with you that my dad, who was a member of the Pleasant Prairie Volunteer Fire Department, use to tell me a long time ago:

“Once there was a big fire in the city of Kenosha that the city fire department was having trouble containing. Every available fire truck in the city was called to help. The owners of several adjacent buildings were worried that the blaze would spread. It was decided to call the Pleasant Prairie Volunteer Fire Department for assistance and, at once, the Captain ordered their No. 1 truck (and their only truck) to speed to the scene.

“The Pleasant Prairie Volunteer Fire Engine No. 1 quickly responded and came racing down Main Street. The city firefighters watched with amazement when, without slowing down, the fire engine crashed into the burning building. Instantly the volunteer firefighters jumped on top of the truck and began to spray water all around from the inside of the blaze, and within minutes, the fire was extinguished.

“The owners of the neighboring buildings were so impressed with the efficiency of the Pleasant Prairie Volunteer Fire Department that they took up a collection and donated $1,000 to them. When a Kenosha Daily News reporter asked the town chairman how the money would be spent, he said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll get those brakes fixed.’

“When my dad first told me this story, I didn’t get it. Eventually I understood it and even laughed a little. As I was thinking about all the graduates I would see this past week, I realized that these firefighters who were able to do a great job despite their problematic equipment illustrates one of the greatest assets that a solid education can provide.

“A college education transcends preparation for specific careers. It prepares students to be responsible citizens who understand and contribute to the changing world in which they live. It exposes students to a broad spectrum of knowledge about the human experience and the natural world, from contemporary science to literature, music and art. It enhances the skills of communication, problem solving and critical thinking. It challenges students to appreciate their cultural heritage, to be sensitive to diverse traditions and opinions, and to value truth. It encourages students to develop a lifelong commitment to inquiry.

“It allows us to turn barriers into opportunities.

“I look forward to the continued success and partnership between Wind River Tribal College and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. It is our common mission to provide greater opportunities in higher education to all. I see our partnership as an opportunity to enrich and strengthen that mission.

“So, graduates, your brakes are fixed — they have been removed. Armed with the skills and knowledge provided by your education, you are now intellectually free to accomplish great things. In short, a good education makes you ‘unstoppable.’”

“I thank you, and I congratulate you.”

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