S. L. Young’s 2015 Commencement Address Delivered to Fairfax County Public Schools High School Graduates

Good morning and congratulations graduates!  It is my extreme honor to be with you today as your commencement speaker.

Before I address you, a few words to your parents, educators, and administrators.

Parents … be proud of your child’s accomplishments to achieve this one of many milestones in their life.  You have successfully nurtured, directed, and inspired these graduates; although, if you’re like my mom, you sometimes begged, pleaded, dreamed, hoped, and prayed that this day would come.  Now is your time to honor your child’s commitment, perseverance, and resilience and celebrate the arrival of this day.  I salute and congratulate you, too!

Educators and Administrators … your contributions are sometimes overlooked, undervalued, questioned, and at times disrespected.  However, please understand that many of your past students appreciated your efforts more than you will ever know.  Those moments that you attempted to communicate thoughtful guidance, but didn’t think that your students were listening.  Alright, this might have been true some of the time, but those moments and comments weren’t always disregarded.  Sometimes, it takes time to process the information communicated and move beyond personal bravado to think through those moments that we – as students – knew that you were demonstrating your commitment, passion, and caring for your work and students.

Graduates … you should be very proud of your accomplishments.  This day should be celebrated, as this is one of many milestones that you will accomplish.  If you did well in school, the information learned will be a good foundation to build upon to achieve your future dreams and goals.  If you didn’t do so well, then learn from your mistakes to make yourself better tomorrow.  Your past doesn’t define you, but instead provides an opportunity to learn from past challenges to become a better individual in the future.  No matter which category you’ve been in the past, today is your moment to remember, reflect, and rejoice in your accomplishments.  Then, tomorrow, get ready to continue to excel.  You must always remember that…  “Life won’t wait for you to get ready; you’re the one who needs to catch-up”.

During your many years in school, you learned that life requires work — sometimes very hard work.  At times – okay many times – you did things that you didn’t understand or want to do.  You faced difficulties that made you question yourself, test your resolve, and determine ways to persevere.  You learned that your personal, internal strength is a lot more than you ever imagined; during difficult moments you demonstrated your resolve to complete the task at hand.  However, perhaps the biggest lesson that you might or might not have realized is that your dreams are so much greater than your fears.  This is the reason that you continue to move forward, determine paths to achieve your goals, and dare to dream bigger, bolder, and better images.

Understand and appreciate that life won’t always be easy.  Sometimes you will experience times that you feel like the world is about to collapse upon you.  There will be moments that you might feel that you don’t have the strength to go on, don’t know the right things to do, or question whether things will ever get any better.  Even with these challenges, know that difficult moments will come and go.  Failure is something that will happen; although, you must always remember that failure at a moment isn’t a reflection on you, who you are, or who you will be.

During my life, I have failed; I have failed so many times that I’ve asked aloud sometimes: Why do these things keep happening to me?  The easiest thing to do during difficult moments is to accept defeat, but this isn’t the thing that successful people do.  You must continue to get up, move forward, and do things better the next time.  Please remember this… “There’s always value in the pursuit of a positive journey, even if the outcome isn’t as wanted or expected”.

Let me share with you a story about a young man whom I know very well.  I’ve spent many years with this young man trying to help him turn his life around, learn his value, identify his passions, and discover his purpose.

In 10th grade, this young man made a decision – a choice – to associate with the wrong crowd.  Then, as the result of many bad choices — including his decision to use drugs, this young man failed 6 of 7 classes after missing approximately 1/3 of the school year.  After this horrible academic performance, his high school principal began a process to remove this troubled student from the school.

During a parent-teacher conference, the only option that the principal provided was to direct him to leave school — as he was told that getting a job would be a better option.  This young man had to make a difficult choice to remain in school or to leave without a high school diploma.  His mother could have made the decision for him, but instead she made him make his own choice as to whether he wanted to remain in school or leave — as this forced choice was one of the most important decisions of his life.  He didn’t know at the time, but this single choice and subsequent decision would have a lasting impact that would change the trajectory of his life.

This moment was significant and difficult for him, but without any hesitation he decided to remain in school.  Later in his life, he realized that the conversation in the principal’s office and his decision to remain in high school was a major defining moment in his life.  For the first time, he was forced to be accountable and responsible for his actions.

After deciding to remain in school, this young man would struggle but continue to make incremental changes to begin to be and do better.  Although, these changes weren’t nearly enough.  At the end of his senior year of high school, his family gathered at the school and was ready to watch him graduate; however, he didn’t know if he would be allowed to participate in commencement activities.  Fortunately for him, he was cleared to graduate.  He barely completed high school with a 1.52 grade point average and ranked 280 out of 303 students, which represented the bottom 8% of his graduating class.

This young man was also told by his senior-year high school counselor that he shouldn’t apply to college because he wouldn’t do well.  Despite this guidance, he enrolled in college and true to his counselor’s earlier remarks … he didn’t do well.  Within a year or so of leaving high school, he would withdraw from two colleges due to academic challenges.  At one of these schools, he managed to earn a 0.0 grade point average for two semesters and was placed on academic probation for both incidents.  Notwithstanding, these challenges he wouldn’t allow these setback to alter or deter his pursuits, aspirations, and dreams.

Slowly but surely, this young man determined a way and developed a plan to make learning significant for him.

After having professional success, he realized that he had the capability to excel.  Leveraging his record of corporate successes, he made a decision to return to college.  After a few semesters as a non-degree student and without being admitted to the university, he would finally turn things around and improve his academic performance.  After proving his mettle, he would earn his place as a full-time student at the American University.  This young man wouldn’t only graduate from this university, but he would go on to earn two masters degrees from The George Washington University.

This young man in 10th grade was directed to leave high school because he wasn’t capable of learning, didn’t want to do any better, and wouldn’t ever be able to do well.

Notwithstanding these false beliefs projected upon him, this gentleman would become an author, professor, inspirational speaker, blogger on The Huffington Post, host of his own show under the umbrella of a major radio network, create a non-profit to help at-risk communities — including teaching inmates about life, business, and soft skills, and also a Dream Catcher’s mentor to a special young man whom I’m very proud to say is graduating with your class today — Angelo R.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, this young man whom I’ve referred to – who isn’t so young anymore – is me.

The lessons from my journey is that you shouldn’t let anyone limit your options or opportunities because the measurement of your value isn’t apparent to them.  Don’t compromise your positive values to achieve your aspirational dreams.  If you have a dream, pursue it; if you have a desire, explore it; if you have a passion, capture it.

Life is about maximizing opportunities for yourself and others.  By making positive contributions, you can help to drive societal changes that make this world better for everyone.  Each of us has an opportunity to identify, explore, develop, redesign, build, and create ideas that focus on collective growth that drive future changes that make life better for everyone.  This is the circle of life and each of us has a responsibility to advance society.

Make plans, develop dreams, and drive better outcomes — for yourself and others.

Now, I’ll share with you a few of my inspirational and life quotes…

Limitations Shouldn’t Be Self-Imposed

Limitations might be imposed from others about your potential, but don’t limit your options by adding you own.

Life’s Value

Life shouldn’t be measured by money, success, failures, or lost opportunities; instead, life’s value should be measured by the time spent being with, caring for, and sharing with others.

Embrace Your Fear

Fear of the unknown can be paralyzing; however, courage and conviction to take a chance make fear an alliance instead of a threat.

Internal Roadblock

The longest part of the process for a new journey or discovery can be the first step, as the limitations in your mind are sometimes the most difficult to overcome.

Already Strong Enough

Don’t wait to do something until others provide approval, because you have the strength to move forward based on your own support.

Something That Matters

Don’t waste time making useless comparisons that don’t matter because these comparisons won’t help you to do something that does.

Don’t Fear The Journey

Don’t be hampered by a fear of the journey.  The challenge isn’t necessarily the journey, but choosing the right path.

Discover Your Passion

Find those things that make you forget; spend time on things that leave you without any regrets; discover those things that make you feel the best; explore many options to give you the best chance for success.

Your Special Key

Your key has the potential to open many doors, but the secret is to explore as many doors as possible to discover the ones that unlock your potential that resides inside of you.

Throughout this address, I’ve identified things that have helped me to overcome challenges during my life’s journey.  At this time, I will acknowledge some of today’s graduates who were identified by your teachers and administrators to have demonstrated these traits:

* Commitment – Ferdy C.;

* Dedication – Robin R.;

* Determination – Giselle M.;

* Perseverance – Erica T.;

* Positive Attitude – Tafari B.;

* Resilience – Diana C.

In closing, I’ll finish with these three messages…

Never Give-up

Never give up on your self, dreams, or destiny.  All of them belong to you and deserve to be developed.

Do It For You

* Do it for you, even though others may question it;

* Do it for you, while others don’t understand it;

* Do it for you, while others may challenge it;

* Do it for you, even if you don’t completely believe it’s possible;

* Do it for you, because positive change starts with you.

Pursue Unrestricted Sustained Happiness (PUSH)

* Push yourself to complete a task;

* Push yourself beyond your past;

* Push yourself to explore many doors;

* Push yourself to achieve even more;

* Push yourself to get a different view;

* Push yourself to become your best you.

Graduates of the class of 2015 — I wish each of you the best in your future pursuits!  Live a life that is fueled by passion, driven by joy, and one that leads you to a lifetime of happiness.

Congratulations graduates; the class of 2015 … I salute you!!!

Information on Mr. Young’s journey to overcome his educational journey are detailed in his book, “Above Expectations – My Story: an unlikely journey from almost failing high school to becoming a college professor“. This story is about the power of choice, a dream, desire, and determination to not quit, to overcome, to persevere, and to excel after struggling academically for many years.

The inspirational / life quotes are from Mr. Young’s series: “It’s a Crazy World…Learn From It”.

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