Wow! Can you believe it? We made it. We have finally reached the day of our graduation. No matter what your journey was like getting to this point, you should be so proud of yourself. This is an accomplishment that not many people accomplish. No matter how long it took you, how bad you wanted to quit or give up, or even how enjoyable the experience was, you’ve came out on top and better than ever! Take pride in that. This is something no one can take from you. You did this.
I want everyone in this room to know one thing about me while I stand in front of you all: I am nervous. As I look at all of your faces, I’m worried about making a mistake in the eyes of so many people. I’m worried that I’m actually unqualified to even speak in front of you because I’m not the best public speaker at this university. I’m nervous, but that’s not stopping me from giving this speech. I’ve learned that if you’re nervous, you’re living. In moments when you think you can’t, you have to have courage and act upon your fears. Everything you want to achieve in life is on the opposite side of your fear. If fear is a dark road at night, courage is the light on your path. Being courageous through fear will create the unthinkable.
The unthinkable is limits limitations and creates endless possibilities. If you told me 4 years ago I would be standing here today, I would have told you that’s impossible. I’ve realized anything is possible. if you’re willing to share your story and experiences with other people. Your story holds so much more power than you’ll ever realize. Through overcoming so many hardships on your journey, your story can be the tool to inspire someone who is ready to give up to keep going.
Believe it or not, University of Kentucky was not my first choice. As someone who was born and raised in the outskirts of Boston, MA, my first choice school was Anywhere But Here University. I did not want to go to school anywhere in Massachusetts because I did not really like it there. Sure, I had family but I didn’t really have that many friends and I was ready to be somewhere else. I wanted to go as far as California but my mom was not having that. Because my mom was from Kentucky, this was the farthest I could go where she felt comfortable.
As I entered the University of Kentucky, I was so excited to be out here on my own. Looking back, I was scared out of my mind but I was faking the confidence. I dreamt that my college experience was going to be out of this world. I thought I was going to be killing it in the classroom, have all these friends, meet my future wife here, and everything else under the sun. However, I was so wrong. College wasn’t anything that I thought it would be. I began to not like the University of Kentucky at all. I remember coming home to Boston for Christmas break and looking up other schools to transfer to for my sophomore year.
One of the best decisions I made was not transferring schools. After having one of the roughest weeks ever the second semester of my freshman year, which included failing a few college exams and not scoring high on papers, I decided to pregame a little too hard with some people on a Friday night. Now, I’m not going to go into details about Friday night because I don’t remember anything from it, but I remember that Saturday morning. As I woke up, I saw that my room was absolutely destroyed. I had papers everywhere, chairs flipped over, and throw up on the carpet. I instantly grabbed my phone to see all these texts saying: “Nigel, are you okay?” “Are you dead?” “Bro…” and so many other messages. I instantly went to Blazer Dining Hall to meet up with people to fill in the blanks of my night. After hearing the stories of how I almost got everyone written up by the RAs, my venture to Downtown Lexington, and how someone had to lock me in my room, I went back to my room so I could clean it.
I IMMEDIATELY realized my laptop was no where in sight when I got back to my room. As I was looking through my room, I found my laptop on top of a pile of math notes where I threw up at. I couldn’t believe it. I brought my laptop to the study room and grabbed as many cleaning supplies as I could. I tried to clean my laptop and turn it on but NOTHING was working. I tried everything. As I kept trying to wipe the keys, I couldn’t help but look at the black screen and see the face of my dad. He looked at me with the upmost disappointment and disgust. I instantly ran to my room with my laptop so no one in the dorm would see me breakdown. As I was crying and looking at how my room was completely destroyed, I just continued cry. I didn’t know what to do at all. I was so disappointed in myself.
The next couple hours were rough. I felt stuck. I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t help but feel alone.
I get a text from my best friend, brother, future best man, and future godfather of my children, Mike Edwards. Mike asked me if I was okay and I just let it all out in text. He hit me back and said I’m on my way. When he got to my dorm, I didn’t know what to say to him. I didn’t know what I could say. I was at the lowest point of my life and I could tell he saw it. I opened up the door to my room and he looked in the room. I will never forget what he said to me. He said, “Dang bro, this is my fault. I should have been there.” Right at that moment I knew the University of Kentucky was the right place for me because for the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged. I never in my life EVER had someone feel responsible for the actions and bad choices I made. Not to mention, this man was on his knees helping me scrub the floor and every inch of my room. I never had anyone in my life help me in that way. Honestly, if the roles were reversed, I don’t even know if at the time I would have done the same. That one simple interaction gave me EVERY reason to stay at the University of Kentucky. It changed my whole mindset. It changed everything for me.
From that point on, I decided to stop waiting for the University of Kentucky to be this great place and make the University of Kentucky a great place for me. I recognized there was an opportunity on campus to create an organization for people who didn’t feel like they belonged in any other organization (or UK for that matter). With the help of friends, we founded Underground Perspective (UGP) to build a social community with diversity on campus. In other words, our mission is to build a culture of “we” on campus. This was easily my biggest accomplishment and what I’m most proud of about my college experience. At the time, I didn’t see it as this and UGP brought way more stress than success. It took awhile to get off the ground.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times Kymbur, one of the founders and someone who I consider my sister, and I have talked about walking away from UGP. No matter what we try to do, it just didn’t seem like we were making a difference. There was always one thing that stopped us from giving up: the people. The people who were apart of the organization became not only our support system, but our motivation. We started really small but gradually started to build. We were determined to give everyone who was part of our family the best experiences ever. Fast forward to senior year and UGP, with the help of the MLK Center and Students Activities Board, was able to bring the Underground Formal, which is pretty much a college prom, to the University of Kentucky. The event had 475. In addition, we’ve brought events like the Underground Showcase, a talent/karaoke show, Underground Field Day, Diversity Week, and so many other events to UK. An organization that started with just 10 people coming to our events expanded to 172 people coming to our events within 2 years.
So what was the secret to the success of Underground Perspective and my college experience? It was simple. Besides having the greatest team on the planet working day in and day out on the organization and keeping great people around me, it was sharing my story and experiences with anyone and everyone. The organization did not really take off until we had a really deep conversation in a meeting where people were opening up about who they were as an individual. The more people began to open up, the more I realized how much so many of us had in common. I recognized that when you feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable to someone, magical things can take place. You are able to connect with someone on a deeper level and really get a feel for who they are. From being someone who knew the feeling of being just a number, I made it my mission to make sure that anyone I came across didn’t feel like just another number. I wanted people to feel the same way I felt when Mike extended his help to me back in my freshman year. I wanted to make sure people knew they mattered to not only UGP and UK, but in my life.
From my own story and what I overcame, I was able to learn my purpose for being here at UK. See, a lot of times we are taught to runaway from the way we’re feeling or keep it locked in deep inside us, but why? There’s so many blessings and lessons from our own story that can not only guide us but other people. Looking back, that’s what college is about. Yes, our degree comes from the hard work we put in the classroom, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the people who touch our lives, the lives we touch, the highs and the lows, the nights we remember and don’t remember, the memories, and the story we gain from the whole experience. Hold your story close to your heart. Your story is the key that will pave the way for whoever is next in your position. As you open the door to your next chapter, write your story in a way that when you look back you will be proud of yourself.
Thank you and congratulations Class of 2016.