Last Thursday I was invited to be a Distinguished Student Speaker at Northeastern Illinois University‘s Graduate Recognition Ceremony. My upbringing and history has made me suspect of all institutions, but my experience at NEIU has been a boon for my confidence, production, and direction. And now I have a Master of Arts degree.

Below I’m posting a full transcript of the speech. For history’s sake. And also for blog content.

Before I begin I’d like to thank the College of Graduate Studies and Research for inviting me here tonight. I’d also like to thank Dr. Pepper and Dr. Adams in the Department of Communication, Media, and Theater for recommending me for this honor. Tonight is one of many rewarding moments I’ve had as a graduate student here at NEIU and I’m grateful to this school for providing me and many others with such meaningful opportunities.

As someone who was homeschooled all the way from kindergarten through high school, I’ve never taken a traditional approach to anything. I took off a couple of years after high school to join a religious commune. Despite my naïveté at the time, I learned to ask questions that the community was increasingly unable to answer. So I went off on my own, working in the stuffed animal warehouse at Six Flags and reading Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and Marx on my lunch breaks. I realized, I should go to school, where I can do the same thing and get credentialed. And not be around stuffed animals all day.

My undergrad was rewarding—but difficult. I started at the College of Lake County and then transferred to North Park University, just down the street, to study English and Philosophy. I wanted to find meaning, to learn more about the world, and to understand how I could make a difference. But I graduated in 2009, at the height of our Great Recession. The pressures of the practical kicked sand onto the fires of my idealism. The specter of student debt loomed like a super cell storm just over the horizon. I spent the following years working in greasy bike shops, wealthy non-profits, ethically questionable media agencies, and boring consultancies. I felt like an indentured servant trapped in a world of dead-end jobs.

I’d considered graduate school in the past. I even gained acceptance to a couple of programs. But each came with a big price tag or full-time commitments. I couldn’t afford to quit working, no matter how much I hated my job. After being thrust into the real world with few practical skills in 2009, I was skeptical of all higher-ed institutions. I almost gave up on the idea.

But then I remembered Northeastern. The school with the pool, as we called it at North Park. I started to ask questions. Can I go to school there and still work? Yes. Is the faculty engaged and producing? Yes. Do they have programs relevant to my interests? Yes. Do they offer scholarship and other opportunities? Yes. And a big one for me, and for most of us: Is it affordable? Yes.

Because my interests have always been interdisciplinary and connected to communication, I applied to the CMT program and began in Fall 2013. Armed with professional experience and more perspective than I had as an undergrad, I vowed to take this opportunity for all it was worth. And I’ve done just that. I’ve won multiple scholarships, I’ve taken awesome classes and independent studies with excellent professors, I’ve provided research assistance, I’ve written a 140-page thesis paper, and most importantly, I’ve found direction. I’m a full-time freelance writer, researcher, and consultant now, which is what I’ve always wanted, and this fall I will be applying to PhD programs to begin in 2016. None of this would have been possible without the support of my family, my school colleagues and friends, the CMT faculty and staff, and NEIU.

My story might be unique, but my accomplishment is not. I’m proud that we can all share in this tonight. We’ve worked hard. We’ve earned it. And we’re excited about whatever comes next. Thank you.

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