I pulled away from Greenville this morning with mixed emotions. With my two roommates in the front of the car, jamming out to music, I sat in the back and stole a few last glances around Greenville to keep them in my photographical memory as we drove out of town. Four years, it’s been, but it seems like yesterday.
We drove by campus one last time. I saw the auditorium where my School of Communication graduation was held Friday night. I saw the fountain ECU had worked so hardly to complete before the fall semester at the beginning of this year. I saw my old dorm building, the library, the classrooms where I spent majority of my time and then, lastly, the dining hall—the place where I met my friends, the place where we sat and talked and laughed and joked for four years, over sub-par food and unlimited trips to the buffet line.
We made the left to take us to Greenville Boulevard, and I saw the East Carolina University sign on the corner of campus for probably one of the last times. We continued up the street, and I turned my head and looked left, as I saw the football stadium come into view—the stadium where thousands of people crammed for every Pirate football game. The stadium where we tailgated for four years. The stadium that roared and cheered over clouds of purple haze as the football team ran out of the locker-room and onto the field. The stadium draped in purple and gold. The banners, the signs, the Pirate mascot. The stadium that I’d never experience as a student of ECU again. With one last glance back, my mind drifted off into Friday morning.
I sat front row with my friend Kylie in the big, university graduation early Friday morning at the Pirate stadium. The air was warm. The breeze was cool. The stands were packed with family and friends, and of course, the thousands of graduates. I watched as the purple and gold flags floated with the breeze. The banners moved in the wind too, as well as the faculty’s hats, while they sat on stage. We were cheering for our senior class representative who had just left the stage, after finishing his speech. The crowd fell silent again when another man got up to speak. Ray Mabus, the United States Secretary of the Navy, took the podium.
In a crowd of more than 40,000 people, Mabus’s voice was the only one even so much as echoing throughout the entire stadium. But it was not so much his voice, but his words that snagged the attention of the graduates and their families and friends, and his intention behind them.
He told East Carolina University’s graduating class to go out into the world and do something bigger than us. He said when luck and opportunity meet, it would be a good day for us, but not to rely on luck and opportunity completely. If you want it, do something about it. Go get it. Reach for your goals, and don’t let anybody take anything from you. He spoke with sincerity. He spoke with confidence in us. He knows with this time in our lives, we experience a crossroads. What comes next? Where do we go? What do we do? How do we make these choices? He told us to look ahead with pride. Look ahead with dignity. Look ahead with strength. But then, he gave another lasting piece of advice.
Look around, he said. Look around at the person beside you. Look around at the people above you. Look around at the people who came today to see you graduate. Every person in this stadium has helped you reach your goal somehow, even if you don’t know him or her, he said. He made friends and family stand, one by one, in separate categories. The parents were the last to rise.
As we all squirmed around to find our parents, I spotted mine to the left of me. I don’t know what came over me, but something inside me burst, and I stood up and waved and cheered, until I was almost in tears. I looked around at my fellow graduates, and they had tears in their eyes as well. It was a joyful day. One of celebration of the hard work and dedication I put into four years worth of studies in order to excel in my future endeavors. One I would not have reached if it weren’t for continuous, generous sacrifice and support from my parents and those around me. As I move forward into the future, I will never forget Mabus’s power-phrased words right before “Go Pirates” emanated from the stage:
It’s our time to fly. To have an impact on the world—to save it. Do something bigger than ourselves, and don’t do it for praise or satisfaction. Do it because it makes a difference. And don’t forget where you came from—don’t ever forget. Accept help, and give gratitude, and forever be grateful for all the people who got you to where you are today, receiving this diploma, as you embark on the next chapter of your lives to reach your dreams.
I leave Greenville this morning, not sad, but hopeful. It’s a time for change, a time for progress, and time to move forward. A big thank you to every person who has helped me reach this point.