HOUSTON, TX – This year, American colleges and universities will award over 2 million undergraduate and graduate degrees. However uncertain their job prospects, however high their debt, as they walk down the aisle to Pomp and Circumstance, these graduates are optimistic about their futures. And they should be. They have worked hard to get to this place.
For most, the line from high school through college was straight. For many others, the detours and road blocks seemed insurmountable. Family responsibilities, military service, finances, births, deaths, marriages, divorces. Perhaps every university sweatshirt should read, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”
This aphorism is probably nowhere more true than for the student commencement speaker at the University of St. Thomas. Kechi Okwuchi graduated with a degree in economics from UST on 16 May 2015. I never taught Kechi, but she distinguished herself in my Center as our economics tutor. She first approached me for a job during the fall 2013 semester. I already had an economics tutor, so I suggested she return in the spring, and we could talk then about the following academic year. Sure enough, right after spring break, there she was. And I hired her. She came with impeccable recommendations from her professors, but what struck me was her tenacity and optimism.
Kechi grew up in Aba, a city near Port Harcourt in Nigeria, and attended Loyola Jesuit College, a respected boarding school and college preparatory in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. On her way home for Christmas break with her classmates – a 90-minute flight – something went terribly wrong. All that Kechi remembers from that day are the sounds of her friends’ screams and the prayers she uttered as the plane crashed. She is one of two survivors from among 107 passengers. She was 16 years old.
Kechi suffered 3rd degree burns over 65% of her body. After a year of treatments in South Africa, Kechi was transferred to the Shriners Hospital in Galveston in 2007. Though her treatment was completed, during almost every school break, when other students are vegging, Kechi undergoes yet another reconstructive surgery. But to hear her tell it, it’s business as usual. No complaints. No “Why me?”
Kechi had never planned on coming to America for school; she hoped to attend the London School of Economics. Once she decided to stay here, she applied to Rice, the University of Houston and the University of St. Thomas. She chose UST because the close Christian environment made her comfortable and reminded her of home. She was 20.
St. Thomas has an interesting graduation tradition. Students are invited to submit commencement speeches, and the one chosen closes the ceremony. After a couple of hours of official remarks, honorary degrees, endless students walking across the stage, who wants to hear another speech? Everyone – because this is the one that counts the most. It is from a student to other students. They speak the same language. Have the same angst. It is their day, and they want to hear from one of their own. Knowing that Kechi would be a perfect representative of the student body, Dr. Roger Morefield, one of her professors, encouraged her. “I think that her speech will reach out to students and inspire them. She’s been through a lot, but her attitude is so positive, and she’s an ideal student and a good representation of UST’s dedication to building leaders of faith and character.”
He was right. Swathed in academic regalia and well-earned honor cords, Kechi spoke to over 1000 graduates, their families, and faculty. Her message was simple – it’s okay not to know what the next step is. “Now, I know that everyone here has their reasons for pursuing a higher education, and I want to tell you mine. You see, to me, this degree is not just a degree. It is a gift to the 60 students that died in a plane crash I was in 10 years ago. It represents the fulfillment of a promise I made, to those students and to their parents that I would reach this important milestone on behalf of those they lost.
“As a plane crash survivor, I have been through many trials and have had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to make it this far. By the time I was deemed ready to rejoin the student population, I was overeager and overzealous despite the fact I wasn’t sure at the time what I wanted to do with my second chance at life. But all that time away from school had caused me to forget the struggles that came along with being a student: the rigors of pulling all-nighters for exams and preparing for presentations, all while trying to be responsible in our personal lives and disciplined in our preparation for the outside world.
“Considering this, I had to reflect on the meaning of the term “survivor.” In my reflection I realized that the struggles of a student are real, and to overcome them all in order to be here today… that word “survivor” undoubtedly applies to us all. It was in this reflection, still, that I learned a very important lesson, and that is the fact that one cannot judge the extent of another person’s struggle based on their own experience. While I will not underestimate the difficulties I have faced in my journey toward full recovery, I will instead pray that you all join me in surviving all future challenges with the help of God and those around us.
“So, fellow “survivors,” where do we see ourselves 10 years from now? Many of us have finally found the perfect response to that question. “I will be a neurosurgeon at a renowned medical facility.” “I will be a middle-school teacher with a family of my own.” “I will be the CEO of my own business.” But for the rest of us who still get palpitations at the mere thought of being asked this question, I want to tell you something exceedingly important: it is okay to still not know.
“As I have already said, this is the beginning of the rest of our lives. There is no doubt that today represents a significant landmark that we simply cannot undervalue. However, it is also significant that we realize we are not expected to have all the answers yet. What this great school has done for us is to set us on a path of self-discovery with more knowledge and life experience than when we first arrived at UST. Added to that, we are also taught to carry the qualities of faith and character into whatever career path we choose to follow. This is a core teaching which sets us apart as UST graduates, and no one out there in this big, exciting world can take that away from us.
“And so, my prayer for us all is that in response to that mind-boggling question, we can at least say this: “Ten years from now I see myself happy in a field of my choosing that makes me feel like I matter, and where I can make a difference as a leader of faith and character.”)
I did not know Kechi before the plane crash, but I assume she was a wise, generous, humble young woman before she had to fight for her life. I do know that her strength of character helped her to survive, and that came long before we educated her at the University of St. Thomas.