What makes graduation special…

Imagine a place with 40,000 people and every single one of them absolutely happy. Now imagine the sound of applause that keeps on lasting, only to be interrupted by occasional screams of joy. You can feel the air which is filled with thousands of hopes and dreams!

It is graduation day at the University of Houston, or at any college campus for that matter. No other experience in life can ever match the consistency and predictability of this day.

I had the honor of shaking hands with every one of 4,438 graduates who walked across the graduation stage! Among them a 19-year old completing his bachelor’s degree in Biology and a 68-year old receiving his master’s degree in Construction Management. Also among them a student whose physical challenges did not allow him to even move his hands or feet, and another student whose near fatal injury had left him with only a 5% chance of survival.

The day was filled with many special memories. Among them, the moment when actor Dennis Quaid held up his President’s Medallion high and told the graduates, “This university gave me the best gift…it helped me discover my passion.” And the moment when Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil, tightened his grip on his Medallion and said, “My education here was so good that I have sent my daughter here as well.” And then there was the moment when Welcome Wilson, Sr. (a 1949 graduate) stood up to receive his honorary degree from his son who now serves as a member of the University of Houston System Board of Regents.

And then to top it all, Emma, a 107-year old lady, graced the occasion. Born in 1906, Emma always wanted to attend college but segregation robbed her off her dream. Nonetheless, she did what she could at the time and became the first African American woman streetcar driver in San Fransisco to support her family. Later in life, Emma moved back to Houston. She drove her own car and went fishing on her own boat until the age of 100.

She encouraged her great grand daughter, Kimberly, to attend college. Kimberly was admitted to Columbia but life got in the way. Kimberly left Houston for the West Coast, where she met a man and married him. But one day, their townhouse caught fire and they lost everything. With three children in tow, the couple moved back to Houston where, once again, she started to be nudged by her great grandmother, who wanted her to go to college.

Finally, Kimberly enrolled in a community college and then transferred to the University of Houston. Four years later, at age 44, Kimberly was ready to graduate and her great grand mother came to see her walk. How special on a Mother’s Day weekend!

All of us have had people like Emma in our own lives, people who refused to give in even when we did. All of us remember some place special, like Dennis Quaid did, where we discovered our passion.

What better day than today to remember them and tell them how truly special their role has been in our lives. Congratulations, graduates!

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