Ben Lepak, a human resources management major, spoke to his peers during the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s 2 p.m. Commencement ceremony.
Here is a transcript of his speech:
“Thank you to the Chancellor, Provost distinguished faculty, fellow graduates, family and friends.
“When most of the graduates seated here today walked on to campus 4… or 5… or more years ago we may have felt like we didn’t belong. But from those humble beginnings walking to class as college freshmen to walking up on this stage today to receive our degrees we all have a triumphant story to tell. I’d like to take you back to my first day on campus, a day I’ll never forget.
“As a 24 year old nontraditional student I had blown off taking a campus visit, in fact, I had never stepped into an academic building before my first day of class. As I confidently pedaled to campus on my bike, on a warm summer morning, class schedule tucked in my pocket, it occurred to me I had no idea how classrooms were numbered. As panic rose and sweat seeped from my pores I locked up my bike and leaped up the stairs in Swart with only a few minutes to spare before my first college class. I ran through the halls on first floor reeling, feeling exactly like one of those nightmares people have before realizing I needed to get up to the 3rd floor. I flew up three more flights of stairs and after running the halls like Usain Bolt I arrived at my Algebra class. As I walked into class, sweating profusely and out of breath a fellow classmate turned to me and she asked,
““Are you a freshman?”
““Yes” I replied.
““You’re a BIG freshman”
“Thus, I began college as a hot, sweaty mess. A lot has changed since that first day for me and for each of us. No longer are we confused and directionless, Wisconsin-Oshkosh has put us on the road to success. We learned a lot: job skills, group work, professionalism and of course preparation for those important first days.
“Still other things remain the same. I’m still sweating profusely. I may not be a BIG freshman, but now I’m a BIG college graduate.
“To get here today we all endured challenges:
“Some classmates have lost loved ones, others endured the challenges of post-traumatic stress disorder returning home after serving in the military overseas, or juggled being a single parent with a full credit load, or overcome an illness, or one we ALL can relate to: when had to eat Ramen noodles for a week straight because we were scraping the plate to get by.
“An event that tested me and my family came in the winter of 2010,during finals week and less than three weeks before Christmas, when my mom called me to tell me that she and my dad were losing their jobs due to their paper mill closing. After working in the mill for over 60 years combined they had two months left to work, after which they and 360 of their coworkers would hit the unemployment line.
“More recently I endured another hardship: Getting blindsided by a minivan while biking to school on the second day of class my senior year. Again, I was humbled by how quickly life can alter your plans.
“The difference between the graduates gathered before you today and those who couldn’t cut it is sheer determination.
“The hunger to power through all-night study sessions, pumping out papers by ourselves because that one team member never shows up on weekends, juggling 3 or 4 exams in the same day and balancing a part-time job while holding down 17 credits is what got us here today. When life knocked us down our friends and family were there to pick us up, to encourage us to go on, so we dusted ourselves off and asked for more.
“Looking back our degrees are the culmination of not just our hard work but the pooling of resources that include our families and families gathered with us today, our professors, our coworkers and of course of our fellow classmates. Without all of you supporting us there would be no commencement celebration.
“As we turn the page and write the next chapter in our lives I have a message to take with you:
“Stay humble. Stay hungry.
“In the era of self-promotion and gloating created by social media sites like Facebook and Twitter it is difficult to remain humble. Our class can start to practice humility by measuring ourselves free of pride and not by our GPA or class standing but by our ability to uplift those less fortunate around us.
“As college graduates we have a better understanding of the social and economic stratification that exists in this country. Because that inequality exists it is our responsibility to be agents of change. Whether it is through volunteering, activism or simply making a donation to a worthy cause we have the ability as graduates to become leaders who positively impact our society.
“Another action we can take to become more gracious is showing respect to the generations who came before of us by simply doing what is expected of us and not because we require recognition but rather because it is the right thing to do. By placing our focus on humility we can lead by example for future generations.
“The second part of that message is to stay hungry.
“Today is a day for celebration but it will hardly quench our collective ambitions. There is much we have to learn as we continue to grow. Some of us may go on to pursue master’s degrees and PhDs but even then we should realize that life is always offering up lessons, sometimes when we least expect it. Let us heed those lessons and remain steadfast in our pursuit of becoming the best human beings we can be, not just for ourselves but for the betterment of all.
“As we, the humble and hungry class of 2013, embark on the next phase of our lives we are not limited in what we can achieve. Our potential is boundless and together we will create a better tomorrow.
“I believe Ernest Hemingway captured the sentiment best in his book The Wild Years, (a title that could adequately describe many of our experiences here at Wisconsin-Oshkosh) when he wrote:
““We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.””