This weekend the University of Nebraska will hand out 6,700 diplomas to our newest class of graduates in Kearney, Lincoln, Omaha and Curtis.
That’s 6,700 lives transformed. It’s 6,700 future farmers and ranchers, nurses and doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, artists and scientists for Nebraska’s workforce. It’s 6,700 stories of hard work, personal investment and sacrifice, and dreams realized.
Let me share one of those stories.
At age 1, Ashton Dugan, a native of Cozad, was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis. She grew up legally blind as a result.
Ashton loved sports, but couldn’t participate the way her siblings and friends did. Even so, she was able to run track, and soon realized she wanted to pursue a career related to sports and medicine. She wondered if her disease might keep her from that goal.
But after interning at a local clinic, Ashton learned about the field of physical therapy and the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s athletic training and pre-PT program. She enrolled – and is about to earn the UNO degree that she hopes will pave the way for a career in physical therapy back home in Cozad.
In Ashton’s words: “Even though some people, and even yourself at times, may doubt what you can do, always remember that you can do anything you set your mind to.”
Ashton’s story is replicated thousands of times over, at each commencement ceremony across our campuses. I see in the faces of our graduates, their friends and family, and our faculty and staff that these students have indeed achieved – and will continue to achieve – more than they thought possible. I see their pride and joy as they walk across the stage and I’m reminded each time of the transformative power of higher education.
Nothing, in fact, changes the trajectory of a young person’s life more than a college degree.
I’ve experienced this in my own life. It’s true for so many of my colleagues who were the first in their families to attend college and now come to work every day committed to opening the same doors of opportunity to future first-generation students. And I know it will be true for the 6,700 young people who this weekend will celebrate the end of one chapter in their lives and begin preparing for the next – whether it’s entering the workforce, continuing their education, serving in the military or something else.
Higher education isn’t just about getting a job, although it’s true that in today’s economy, more and more of them require college. It’s not just about earning more money, although, to paraphrase our alum Warren Buffett, there’s no better investment than the one you make in yourself.
Higher education is about opportunity – to experience the world in a new way, to meet people different from yourself, to discover passions and to build a brighter future. It’s about new knowledge and discovery that make Nebraska’s economy and quality of life better. It’s about the futures of our children and grandchildren and our collective commitment to growing our state. That won’t be possible without the life-changing work being done every day by Nebraska’s many outstanding institutions of higher learning.
Nothing illustrates the power of higher education better than the stories of our students.
A few months ago I learned about a young man named Seth, a journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. When Seth was 17, his family’s home went into foreclosure. The dream of attending the university seemed out of reach. But his parents encouraged him to go for it. He started at a community college, paying most of his own way, and later applied to transfer to UNL, following his parents’ advice.
“When they got the message that I got accepted to the university,” Seth said, “that was the greatest day that you ever heard.”