When I left high school, I swore I’d never find another place where I felt so at home. I can gladly admit that I was completely wrong. I’m now fairly convinced that I’ll never find another place like UVa-Wise. That is, after all, what makes UVa-Wise so special: it’s a place that just feels like home, and I’m not just saying that because I’m from Southwest Virginia. UVa-Wise is indeed a source of educational and economic hope for my native region in particular, but its mission and impact is much broader than that. UVa-Wise is a place where students from across Virginia, the Appalachian region, the United States, and the world can find a home. UVa-Wise dares to believe that education is not just for a select elite, but for all who are willing to put in the time and hard work it takes to be successful. Many of the students at UVa-Wise, myself included, went to high schools with limited resources and thus started a few steps behind others entering college. UVa-Wise levels the playing field and remains confident that students from any background can succeed if someone is willing to invest in them.

I am standing on this stage today, not because I’m extraordinary, but because I am living proof that UVa-Wise’s faith in its own mission is well-placed. I’m a first-generation college student from a low income family. Yet UVa-Wise has offered me every opportunity to succeed and explore my interests. In my time at the college, I’ve watched my horizons expand, both literally and figuratively. At every turn, my mentors have encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and pursue dreams I didn’t even know I had.

After my first German class, which also happened to be my first college class in general, I thought to myself: “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”. I pushed through the initial difficulty and slowly grew to love the class and the language, but I was quick to dismiss the prospect of studying abroad. I came up with 100 reasons why someone like me could never survive in a foreign country. I eventually developed the confidence to do a short two-week trip to Ireland, and even though I fought a battle with homesickness the entire time, I couldn’t help myself: I had caught the travel bug. I realized I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t do a long-term study abroad in Germany. But still I doubted myself.

My professors kept encouraging me until I was crazy enough to believe that I could actually do it. UVa-Wise took away any excuse I had by helping me cover the costs, so my friend Will and I set off for Dortmund, Germany. My professors stayed in touch with me the entire time to guide me through the arduous process of adjusting to life in another country, and while I was there, I did an independent study with a professor who invited me back to present at a conference a few months later. His offer sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I knew there was no way I could afford a plane ticket to Germany in the middle of the semester. As soon as I told the Provost and Dean’s Office at UVa-Wise I had the chance to present at a conference in Germany, they immediately let me know they’d be glad to cover the travel costs.

A few months after the conference, the German professor informed me that the conference papers, my essay included, were going to be published and turned into a book. I went from hating German and barely being able to stay away from home for two weeks to getting an essay published in Germany, and that is all thanks to UVa-Wise. My time in Europe, which I count among the very best chapters of my life thus far, would have undoubtedly never happened if not for the financial, academic, and emotional support I received from the college and from my mentors.

As I’ve already told you, there are many reasons I was not the most capable of pursuing something like study abroad, so if my story sounds like an arrogant account of personal success, I apologize, for nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the opposite is true: I would not have gotten anywhere without the people and institutional support around me. So if this is a celebration of anything or anyone, let it be of the faculty, administrators, and donors who sacrifice time, money, and effort to ensure that UVa-Wise’s promise to realize Thomas Jefferson’s ideal in Southwest Virginia is more than empty words.

I understand that my experience at UVa-Wise has been unique in some ways. However, I also understand that there are key elements of my story, perhaps the most important ones, that are common across disciplinary and socio-economic boundaries. Students at Wise receive one-on-one attention from mentors and have opportunities for funding that students from other colleges would give anything to have. Close relationships with professors and funding opportunities allow UVa-Wise students not just to study abroad, but to take independent study courses, to do undergraduate research, and to develop themselves as scholars and professionals in ways that other students simply cannot. Whether UVa-Wise alumni choose to attend graduate school or enter the job market immediately after graduation, they are more than prepared for the academic and professional challenges that await them. At a time when many colleges have forsaken broad academic training for the sake of “narrow specialization,” UVa-Wise has stayed true to its commitment to a well-rounded, liberal arts education, and the success of its graduates in the academy and on the job market attests to the merit of its ideals.

On a day when we’re supposed to be looking forward, I can’t help but look back on the past four years and reminisce. At the same time, my fellow graduates and I can look confidently to the future, knowing that our time at the college has prepared us for the journey ahead. My generation has inherited a plethora of unresolved economic, environmental, and social issues, issues that, at first glance, seem insurmountable. Even so, there remains cause for hope. An “educated citizenry” is the principle guarantor of democracy’s future, and through education, we can rise above the issues that beset our country. The Class of 2019 need not fret; we have received a world-class education here at Wise. I’m not saying we will be the pioneers of great social and scientific progress; I’m saying we are the pioneers of great social and scientific progress. Thank you.