Commencement Preview: Student Speakers Inspire More Than Their Fellow Graduates

As UMUC Stateside Commencement on May 12-13 Approaches, Graduation-bound High-schooler Hannah Parker Reflects on Lessons Learned from the Motivational Words of Two Past UMUC Student Commencement Speakers

By Hannah Parker, special to the UMUC Global Media Center.

I believe that finding hope and motivation in failure is difficult but that it’s essential to address and work through failure to move forward and build upon past work toward success.

I learned this when I had the opportunity to attend both the morning and afternoon ceremonies of the first-ever University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Winter Commencement back in December and listen to student speakers Juan Perez and Antwon King who went through unique hardships but worked through their difficulties to graduate from UMUC.

Perez, who spoke at the morning ceremony, began with casual remarks about how different it is to speak to a crowd rather than the empty auditorium when he practiced his speech the day before. He was calm and collected, completely at home on the stage.

The self-described born-and-raised New Yorker and ghetto dweller said that in his youth he only saw three options in life, “drugs, jail, or death.” But against all odds, Perez earned his GED, passed the military aptitude test after four failed attempts and joined the Marines, enrolled in college classes—then chipped away at his degree for more than a decade while continuing to serve in the military. And through this experience, Perez said he learned to switch his focus from aspiring to be better than others to work toward being a better version of himself.

He seemed worlds away from me, a high school senior and UMUC intern watching from the bleachers, looking forward to my own upcoming graduation, tasked with writing an article about how Perez and King inspired me to think in new ways. As a point of reference, just days before I had stumbled my way through a four-minute science class presentation on the benefits of locally grown produce. But Perez was standing in front of more than 600 classmates minutes away from graduation and speaking openly with well-deserved confidence because, for nearly half his lifetime, he had struggled hard to overcome adversity to stand on that stage.

At the afternoon ceremony, King spoke about how his childhood love for police work was reignited in 2015 when he discovered the UMUC Cyber Security program, enrolled in classes and began to work toward a master’s degree in cyber/computer forensics and counterterrorism. But, like Perez, his journey was full of obstacles. King struggled to balance working two jobs while attending classes. He would leave home before sunrise and finally return long after dark. And, for a time, his “home” was a Nissan Altima with missing door handles.

I think of King sometimes when I am sitting in class, struggling to stay awake while watching a documentary about the English Reformation. I often think of school as a prison—as a place that I need to escape from. But then I remember people like King and Perez who worked through intense poverty to get their education. Seeing other perspectives and the lengths others will go to continue their education inspires me to value my time in high school more.

“Success is failure turned inside out,” said Perez. The idea that failure is just another form of success is a strange one. But in life, we must look back on our mistakes and failures and use lessons learned from them to move forward. This is how to achieve great things. King and Perez are proof of that. And as a student nearing graduation and facing the next stage of my life—being on my own, rooming with someone else for the first time, finding my way around a sprawling university campus—it’s comforting to know that failure is not the end but a beginning. It is encouraging. It is inspiring.

Editor’s note: Hannah Parker is a senior at Centennial High School and is serving as an intern in the Communication Department at University of Maryland University College as part of Centennial’s Gifted and Talented Education Program.

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UMUC 2018 STATESIDE COMMENCEMENT CEREMONIES AT A GLANCE:

Which Class of 2018 members will inspire their fellow graduates with words of motivation and encouragement at University of Maryland University College stateside commencement ceremonies in May? The names of this year’s student speakers will be announced soon.

Leaders from government and the community will provide keynote addresses.

Saturday, May 12, 9 a.m., Xfinity Center, College Park, MD

  • Keynote speaker: Mike Miller, president of the Maryland Senate

Saturday, May 13, 3:30 p.m., Xfinity Center, College Park, MD

  • Keynote speaker: Catherine Pugh, Mayor of Baltimore City

Sunday, May 14, 3:30 p.m., Xfinity Center, College Park, MD

  • Keynote speaker: Maureen Bunyan, award-winning broadcast journalist

In all, approximately 3,000 of the more than 11,000 Class of 2018 graduates worldwide will attend the stateside ceremonies.

View real-time live webcasts of the three stateside ceremonies at www.umuc.edu/commencement.

UMUC also holds commencement ceremonies for military personnel and their dependents at installations around the world (Tokyo, April 7; Okinawa, April 14; South Korea, April 21; Europe, April 28; and Guam, May 12).