The most important graduation speech I’ve ever heard

This is taken from a friend’s speech that he gave at our graduation this past May. I had no idea that he was going to be speaking much less that it would be about the service club that both of us had poured our time and hearts into over the past couple of years. I had felt pretty lethargic about graduating and leaving that little city until during his talk I heard him mention the children in Backyard Ministry. Let me just say the floodgate of tears broke at that moment as I sat in my cap and gown in the middle of hundreds of students about to receive diplomas for their years of scholastic achievement. To me, the ceremony was going to be nothing more than a formality, a nuisance really. I was unprepared for the rush of emotions that overcame me. There in the hot sun, in the midst of all the other primped and groomed university students, I was wiping away black, salty streaks from my face. But it didn’t matter, this was the most important graduation speech I had ever heard. Thank you for these words, Ryan Pickens.

“…But it has been outside the classroom that I have grown in ways that I could not have expected, not just in preparing me for medical school, but for my entire future. Lee University has a way of taking you out of the classroom and bringing you face to face with the real world. The summer after my sophomore year I joined… the Medical Missions trip to the western mountains of Guatemala for my cross-cultural experience. As a pre-med student, I was excited to finally get out of the classroom and have a small part in practicing medicine first hand. But what I learned during those two weeks was less about performing medical procedures and more about becoming a compassionate physician, having to break down cultural barriers, and building relationships in order to understand the needs of the people. I knew that what I was experiencing could never be taught in a classroom and I decided then and there that I had to return to Guatemala the following summer. Although I do not know for sure which path my medical career will take, I am certain that missions will always be a passion. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll fulfill my pact with Dr. Veenstra and return to Guatemala with Lee students as an experienced physician.

While the professors have been outstanding and Guatemala was very impactful in my pre-professional experience, the greatest opportunity I’ve had at Lee has been in a little neighborhood… about ten minutes away from campus. In the spring of my junior year, I went on a retreat with Backyard Ministries – a student-run organization that tutors and mentors the neighborhood kids. I wasn’t looking for commitment. I was just intrigued by what I had heard and honestly didn’t have anything else to do that weekend (which is pretty surprising, I know). Despite efforts to remain a bystander, I was unexpectedly assigned to be the tutor of a 2nd grade boy, named David. Little did I know that David would be one of the greatest teachers I’d ever have at Lee.

Since then I’ve spent several hours every week at Backyard, playing with and mentoring David and his friends, taking them for hikes to waterfalls, and even surprising them by showing up to their school cafeteria for lunch. It is the absolute highlight of my week and it has forced me to re-evaluate where my priorities lie. A few weeks ago, when it seemed like every one of my senior classes had a final project due at the exact same time, I decided that there was just no way I was going to be able to make it to Backyard that day. It couldn’t have been ten minutes after it started when I picked up the phone to hear at least half of the Backyard kids all yelling my name. Apparently they had borrowed a phone from another tutor just to call and ask why I wasn’t there yet.  Needless to say, I was on my way as soon as I hung up. It didn’t take much to remind me that I don’t have to get all the way through medical school to impact lives. They weren’t interested in my GPA, my major, or my professional goals – they only cared that I came and took part in their lives.

And that’s what I’ll take away from Lee – the passion to invest in the lives of others, not just those I meet professionally, but all of those around me. While I am still preparing to serve through medicine in the future, I have realized that I can never pass up opportunities to serve right now. My only regret is that I didn’t get to know David and all the other kids at Backyard four years ago.

God’s plan for preparing me for my future has been different, and better, than I expected. Without all of the opportunities at Lee – the professors, friends, mentors – I would not have experienced God’s unique way of preparing me. While I feel fully equipped academically for medical school, in the past few months I’ve realized that God may still have a little preparation in store. Although I’ve been accepted to medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I am currently planning on deferring until the following year to explore an opportunity to live and serve through medical missions with the people of Ecuador.

Lastly, I apologize for having read this speech.  I had planned to spend this morning practicing so it would flow more naturally and smoothly but David and the other kids from Backyard have been begging for several weeks for one last outing before we leave.  So I spent this morning playing at the park and drinking slushies.  I think it was a wise choice.”


backyard boys

Some of the precious Backyard students.


Building the Kingdom of God...


My status update on this day last year in reference to Backyard. 🙂

2 thoughts on “The most important graduation speech I’ve ever heard

  1. Pingback: Life Update / Living Good Stories | Add to the Beauty

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