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Graduating class speaker Jessica Kamrath, of Oshkosh, spoke of her decision to return to college for a second bachelor’s degree, the support of her friends and family, and the importance of following one’s heart during the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s afternoon commencement ceremony May 17 at Kolf Sports Center.

Here is a transcript of her speech:

Good afternoon, Chancellor Wells, faculty and staff, parents, friends, family, special guests and, of course, my fellow graduates, the graduating class of 2008. I am honored to be a part of this graduation and what may very well be the most important day in many of our lives thus far.

As I stand in front of you, I am reflecting on a difficult choice I was faced with three years ago. Today will be my second time walking across this stage, as I first graduated in June of 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. I was confronting the many post-college choices — those that many of you are thinking about as you sit here today.

For me, I was engaged to be married, my fiancé and I were searching for our starter home, we had even bought our first dog together and, of course, there was the job hunting.

Two jobs and a graduate class later, I knew I needed to make a change. The choice I needed to make seemed simple and clear: “Just follow your heart,” I told myself.

This undemanding yet powerful statement might work in the novels we read and the movies we watch, but in real life we had a few things to pay for…a brand-new house, a wedding in six months and something all too familiar — student loans.

This choice, which meant returning to school for another three years, no longer seemed so simple. But nothing was as scary as convincing my family. Parents can sometimes have a way of saying one thing while their face clearly depicts a contradictory emotion. I was scared. But in reality, that family I speak of has supported me every step of the way.
There is no question my husband is eagerly awaiting my first paycheck, but the sacrifice was made without complaint…that unconditional support…support that surrounds this room.

Whether your support system consists of one or 100, none of us in here could have accomplished any of this without the people in this room. Our gratitude is endless for helping us get through those difficult choices.

Choices…so many choices — how do we decide?

“Just follow your heart.”

It seems like easy enough advice to follow, but as our choices get more complex, as we add house payments, significant others, new jobs, coworkers, graduate school, children and — we cannot forget — the new dog, that simple advice has never been so difficult. As you leave here today with a new set of responsibilities, will you continue to “just follow your heart” or will those words become a distant cliché, one that only works in fiction?

The choices we have all made leading up to today have shaped who we are and who we will become in the future. Those choices do not define us but become a small part that makes up the diverse and intricate people we are. Some of the choices we have made are good, some bad, some we regretfully wish we could forget, some we have learned from and some…well, sometimes we will just never learn.

One choice we have all made is the decision to get our education, whether it was our own or the persuasive voices of our family and friends. We all sit here today with the commonality of one choice: I chose education, you chose education, we chose education.

As we reflect on our experiences at UW Oshkosh, we recall that along with that choice came many demands, responsibilities, insights, tears and happiness. Although we share that common thread of one choice, what followed was very different for each of us.

Given the diversity that exists among us as we face our next choices, can we really all follow the same piece of advice: “Just follow your heart”?

As stated by Henry David Thoreau, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

“Meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

Today’s graduation is an obvious mark of success, but I have had the experience of those successes “unexpected in common hours,” as I hope many of you have and will continue to have. The moments that confirm our choices.

For me, first period speech class: A student with a learning disability told me that this was the only class he was learning anything from. A little harsh, yes, but a student that has major anxiety even involving himself in a class discussion was able to get up and give a speech, and I helped him do that.

“Success unexpected in common hours.”

And the family I spoke of earlier, my brother, graduating from high school this June, looked at me and said, “Jess, you are really going to be a great teacher.” “Unexpected?” Yes…my 18-year-old brother. “Success?” Yes, in more ways than I could ever express.

This list could go on, as these successes are ever ingrained in my memory. These simple events entangled in our ever busy days may seem insignificant at times, but these unexpected successes get us through the tough choices we have to make every day.

As the world we are living in today is ever more demanding, I hope you have such a list. Those successes unexpected in common hours can guide us to make choices that we are passionate about, regardless of fear — fear of emotion, fear of the unknown and the fear of being great.

I felt those fears when I decided to return to school three years ago. That decision was one of the most difficult yet rewarding in my life. Those moments are the successes that remind me everyday why I made the choice I did and will continue to live a life of passion, purpose and integrity, all because I followed four simple words of advice: “Just follow your heart.”

As we think about all of the incredible opportunities that lie ahead and the many more afforded to us by attaining a college degree, do not let life get in your way of living and making the choices that exude your passions, govern your convictions and, most of all, lie deep within your soul and, of course, are encompassed in your heart.

Today you have attained success. Continue to “advance confidently in the direction of your dreams.” Congratulations, Class of 2008. Thank You.

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