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Eleven years ago, Anthony Miller, Jr. inspired the graduating class of 2013 with his I Beat the Odds commencement speech at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Since then, Miller has continued to use his voice to make a positive difference, more recently for thousands of public school students in the same city as his college alma mater. 

 Miller, ’13, B.A. Communication Studies, minor in African American Studies; ‘15, M.S. Educational Leadership, became in June 2023 the first director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for the Oshkosh Area School District, which has about 9,100 students. His job is to ensure all students have access to high quality teaching and learning experiences. 

 Miller credits his time at UW Oshkosh, in and out of the classroom, for giving him the tools to succeed after graduation. As a student, he showcased his creativity and speaking skills at poetry slams in the Titan Underground. In his senior level “History of American Public Address” course, he wrote a speech that became the foundation of his memorable commencement address.  

 At the spring 2013 commencement, Miller told the audience, “I grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee. I attended one of the worst schools in the Milwaukee Public school system. Students from my neighborhood were not expected to finish high school, be accepted into a University, and certainly not expected to graduate from one. Great things are not really expected from young black men from my zip code. Expectations for young black men across America are not very high and after losing four childhood friends to gun violence in the last year; Marshall Johnikin, Chris Gillium, Lenier Johnson and Jordin Crawley, I understand that graduating and standing on this stage is truly a privilege. I beat the odds.” 


Communication studies professor Tony Palmeri remembers the first time he heard Miller’s speech in class. “I was profoundly moved by his ability to inspire the audience with his moving tale of overcoming personal adversity,” said Palmeri, who added that Miller had earned the first perfect score for that end-of the-semester assignment. “I was at the commencement at which Anthony delivered the speech. It moved me to tears, in part because I remembered how much more reserved Anthony was when he started the Communication Studies program a few years before. Watching and listening to the commencement filled me with joy not just because I was happy for Anthony and his family, but because his presentation was modeling in a powerful way the impact that a liberal arts education can have on a student.” 

 We visited with Miller recently at the OASD administration building to talk about the value of communicating and building relationships and why he is reluctant to rewatch his powerful and still-relevant commencement speech on YouTube. 

Milwaukee native Anthony Miller Jr., right, celebrates his graduation from UW Oshkosh with his parents, Anthony Miller Sr. and Sandra Miller.

When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

I had the same response that most kids had when it came to what they wanted to be when they grew up, a doctor or a lawyer, but when I took time to reflect, I wanted to be doing something similar to what my dad did. He’s a paraprofessional, a coach, an educator being involved in sports, coaching, mentoring and just giving back to our youth. From a very young age, my dad stressed the importance of going to college. The first time I was ever on a college campus was actually with my father when he was a student at Milwaukee Area Technical College. It was a situation where my sitter must have canceled on him. I had to be about 8 or 9 years old, so I went to class with him, sat in the back of the class, and the teacher started to invite me back to class whenever and I would sit in the hallway or sit in the classroom with my father. I thought the campus was big, it was cool, and it had a lot of books.  

What made you decide to come to UW Oshkosh and what made you decide to stay in the area after graduation? 

I chose UW Oshkosh because I felt like the city of Oshkosh, although it is not Milwaukee, it just gave me a city feel that I did not get to other campuses that I have visited in Wisconsin. I chose to stay in the Valley because of all of the valuable connections that I’ve made throughout the years. It’s affordable and is a wonderful place to raise a family and has a lot of opportunities when it comes to career opportunities.  

  What made you settle on communication studies as a major? 

When I enrolled in UW Oshkosh, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to major in. I was undecided. I tried out social studies to be a teacher, I tried the education route. Though I am interested in social studies and history, I wasn’t really good at remembering dates, so I changed that. I came across one of the program guides at UWO, and I found the communication program. I gravitated towards it because, at the time, I was doing a lot of different spoken word poetry events, a lot of public speaking events on campus, and it just aligned with what I was interested in and what others thought that I was good at. 

Anthony Miller, Jr., is director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Oshkosh Area School District.

 Think back to your freshman self, what advice would you give that first-year student and other young people starting their college career?  

The advice I will give my 18-year old self is it’s okay not to know right now. Make all the mistakes you need to make because they are all learning opportunities. Explore the campus, meet people, and build relationships with faculty members. And don’t feel as if you have to have it all figured out. 

 Tell us about your job with the Oshkosh Area School District. 

As the Director of Diversity Equity Inclusion for the Oshkosh Area School District, it is my responsibility to identify inequities, disproportionality and disparities that exist in our system, and then find opportunities for us to improve as a system to provide equity for all of our students. And our definition of equity in our district is providing access to high quality teaching and learning for all of our students. I work closely with our district level administration, as well as our building level administration, being our principals. I am here to be a thought partner for our entire system so there are times where I meet with counselors, teachers and grade-level teams. 

 As you know DEI in recent years has become a hot-button political issue in our state. How has that affected how you do your job? 

Although Diversity, Equity and Inclusion does incite a certain level of polarization, and it has become politicized, we do our best in our district to ensure that when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s all about providing access to high quality teaching and learning for all of our students. It’s about providing support to the students that need it. 

 How has your education at UW Oshkosh helped with what you do now? 

When it comes to the education that I received at UWO, my communication skills have propelled me in my career, being able to connect with people, being able to meet people where they are, having courageous conversations and getting down to the crux of issues. A lot of that stemmed from my time at UWO, whether formally in the classroom, or as the Black Student Union President. My education at UW Oshkosh is much more than my degree. It’s my experience in its totality.  

 Your 2013 commencement speech “I Beat the Odds” still resonates after more than 10 years. Why do you think that’s so? 

You know, that speech came out of an assignment from Dr. (Tony) Palmeri’s class “History of American Public Address.” One thing I’ll always remember is that I earned a 200 out of 200 on that assignment, and he told me that it was the first time he ever gave a student 100 percent on that assignment. I am still the same passionate individual that I was when I was younger. I had a different type of fire then, but the flame is still lit. I know for me when it came to that speech, the way I mentioned my friends in that speech, I’ve always told myself whenever I’m on stage, I take my friends with me, and that was a huge moment for me to be able to submit them into history the way that I did and commemorate them. I’ve always been fascinated by the varying responses I’ve gotten from it.  For some people, it’s sad. For some people, it’s motivational, they get that you-are-able-to-overcome message. I don’t know why it lands with people so well. I’m just happy that I was able to deliver a message that has essentially withstood the test of time.  

 Have you ever gone back to watch your younger self give that speech?  

I only watch it when someone wants to see it, and it gets very awkward. I critique it. There were some moments in there where I’m like…oh, if I could clean that up. 

 Learn more:

Communication Studies at UWO