“Lifelong Learners,” delivered by Kyle Quinn Dreger on May 10, 2014, at the University of Mount Union. Video recording is also available.
Hello everyone, and thank you for coming today. Before we begin, I want to thank Dr. and Mrs. Giese, members of the Board of Trustees, and all those individuals who work day-in and day-out at Mount Union, who have helped us get here today.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Mr. Andrew Hawkins, my high school superintendent, who told made me promise that if I ever were to find myself on a stage giving a speech as president, to mention his influential life advice. I’m a man of my word. So thank you, Mr. Hawkins.
When I was a child, my mother loved to chop firewood. Now, I don’t know if you have ever chopped firewood before, but there aren’t a lot of things about it that could be categorized as “fun.” You get sweaty, dirty, and the occasional splinter. If you don’t like bugs, bees, or wood chips in awkward places, you may want to avoid this particular activity.
However, even in the madness of splitting firewood, wiping sweat, and swinging an axe, there is a sense of order. Every piece of wood, once split, fits onto the wood pile, as though it was meant to be there from the beginning. It doesn’t matter whether the log has knots in it or if it has a weird shape; we had faith that as long as we chopped it, that piece would fit, perfectly, somewhere in our pile.
As I look at our time here at Mount Union, I have met some of the most interesting pieces of wood in my life. However, at the end of these four years, and looking at you all today, I see that we’ve all found a place in the Mount Union pile, building a strong and connected family.
However, our educational journey didn’t start with Mount Union. For many of us, it started in pre-school and kindergarten, around 1995. At that time, we were less concerned with Tom Hanks winning an Oscar for his role in Forrest Gump, or that Art Modell almost moved the Browns to Baltimore. Instead, we focused on shapes, colors, and nap time.
Nap time was good.
It was here that we began the first of many years of learning. However, my childhood education was different from most. I was homeschooled by my mother up and through almost the entirety of high school. We decided to do homeschooling because my father worked afternoon shift for his job, and my parents wanted to make sure that us kids would have as much time together as a family as possible.
This homeschool setup did lead to a very interesting daily schedule. I would wake up around 9am and slowly greet the day. Do my chores on the farm. Eat some captain crunch, maybe a waffle, an apple or two, some toast, glass or three of orange juice, fry up some bacon. Then around 2:30, when Dad went to work, and most of you were getting off school, we would start. We finally would end around 11:30 when father would get home from work. We then proceeded to stay up until about 1:30 am, watching sitcoms like Frasier and The West Wing, before going to sleep to do it all over again.
Ironically, that schedule from homeschool left me well-prepared for the types of hours my fellow classmates and I tend to stick to.
But what I liked most about homeschooling was that it helped instill a drive for constant learning. My mother taught me to look at learning, not as a school year to school year type of endeavor, but as one that was day to day, 365 days a year. For her, learning never stopped.
I’ll give you a gross example: I mentioned I grew up on a farm, and on this farm we had the cutest array of animals: we had goats, which were funny; sheep, which were incredibly stupid; rabbits, chickens, pigeons and a small garden. Now, we ate not only the vegetables we grew, but also some of the animals – a normal farm thing to do. However, the less normal part involved me learning the reproductive system by looking at the one inside a chicken. My mother would make it a hands-on anatomy lab. That was my childhood.
But despite that slightly traumatic experience, and my fear of eggs afterwards, I think this story illustrates that learning can happen even in the most weird, unexpected places. As we get ready to leave today, we need to hold tight to the ideology of being a lifelong learner. The diplomas we receive today signify a milestone, not a finish line. I don’t know what the next step is for us, but I can promise you that the years of momentum we have, the years of learning how to learn, years of learning how to work with individuals who may frame their entire beliefs different than we do; this momentum, coupled with a passion for learning will help carry us through the difficult times that come.
And there will be difficult times ahead. Some of us have even gone through difficult times already. I went through a particularly difficult time, right before starting this past senior year.
It’s sad for me today, because as I stand here talking about the importance of being a lifelong learner, the woman who taught me this and made it such a wonderful thing, isn’t here. Last year, as some of you may know, my mother passed away suddenly. And it kills me that she isn’t here to see the actual completion of something we worked so hard for.
My mother passed away four days after I proposed to my fiancée. I went from the absolute highest moment of my life, to one of the darkest. It’s only now, almost a year later, that I’m able to look past some of that grief.
And you want to know the remarkable thing? Even in her death, the memory of my mother is still teaching me things.
Life is unpredictable. Today, we feel like we are just now beginning our lives as adults, and we are and that should be exciting. But, classmates, we have each already lived at least 20 years of life. Two decades, back-to-back. If we’re lucky, according to the World Bank, we have an average of 60 years left. But we’re not promised those. We are not even promised tomorrow.
I don’t tell you this to make today sad, or scary. I’m telling you this, because my mother would tell you that we need to “plan for tomorrow, but live for today.” Help the person in need today. Do the hard thing on your todo list today. Forgive people today. Hug your parents, today.
While we are on the topic of parents, I want to wish a very happy mother’s day to all the moms out there there tomorrow. And a special happy mother’s day to my future-mother-in, who, although she could never replace my mother, has been an absolute blessing in my life. And I look forward to when our families will become one, as my fiancée Emily and I get married this July.
Looking forward to July and future in general, the last thing I want to touch on is that; classmates, we are about to enter a world that is very populated with twenty-something year olds who act like children. And during our first year as fresh-graduates, we are the age-group most at risk for unintentionally becoming just that. We are going to be learning as we go what it means to be an adult out of college. But when you have questions, don’t get sucked in to letting the vocal minority of society be the ones who give you answers. Our “millennial” generation is often painted and praised as being careless, irresponsible, and self-centered. But we know that’s not the case.
I’m telling us this, because I want to reaffirm that being an adult, being men and women, doesn’t mean that we have to give up our childlike wonder, or our young at heart attitude towards life. I feasted on EGO waffles this morning in my underwear while listening to the Disney Frozen soundtrack, and here I am now giving the class president commencement address. What adulthood does mean is that we are entering a stage of life where we are now solely responsible for ourselves. Contrary to much of society’s ideology, this responsibility should be celebrated.
Remember how freeing it was to come to college from high school, and to have near complete control of the way you spent you time and schedule? Friends, the next stage of adulthood is equally as freeing, and we get to start today. Reinvent yourselves, pursue the things you love, and do not let this let this opportunity to pass quietly by.
So be loud, and as the doors here open up to the next four years of our lives, we should happily and joyfully welcome this new responsibility and freedom. Remember to never stop learning, you can be a student without being in school. And plan for tomorrow, but live for today. Be mindful of our future, but do not forget the things that shouldn’t wait even another single day to be done.
I miss my mother incredibly much. And with her memory on my mind, I want to leave you with this thought.
A small, dedicated group of individuals can literally change the world. And looking back through history, that’s all that ever has.
—Saturday, 10 May 2014