I remember my first day of college. I was nervous and expecting that someone was going to ask me what I was doing there, and then ask me to leave. It was a strange and fearful moment when I realized that as the first person in my family to begin college, the journey had begun and there was no stopping the inertia that had been initiated. There was apprehension and a lot of the unknown staring me in the face.
As vividly as I recall that day, I also recall the trip home on the bus, feeling taller than I had been when I woke up earlier that morning. There was something different about the world, suddenly, I was a college student… and it was at that point where I never looked back, through undergraduate and graduate school that followed.
Many of the lessons that I learned proved to carry me through the rest of my life, and they came from those glorious years of learning and the experiences that I consider to be invaluable. Testing the waters and pushing the limits of my knowledge to new heights while shaping the core values that would serve as the rudder of my life’s journey are the moments and memories that are once again spinning through my mind as I prepare to accept a great honor from my alma mater.
It was at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL, where I discovered an oasis of all things that I loved… standing in front of people and using words and music, to connect with others. I also found academic challenges, a community of sharing, a fraternity of brothers and a place to call home.
As the drum major of the Marching Titans, I had been handed the whistle to lead my fellow marching band members down the gridiron at halftime at football games. I also organized and directed the “pep band” for the basketball games while subtly developing a sense and understanding of leadership along the way. Lesson learned was the discovery of the strength of teamwork, cooperation and learning when working together with others.
As a hopeful singer, it was there, at IWU, that I was first encouraged to study the art and the craft required to make it professionally as a vocalist. Because of the attention shown to me, I found the courage and inspiration to do the hard work that is necessary to find success in singing, or any of the other fields of endeavor that I successfully pursued later in life. The lesson learned was simple, yet very profound, hard work and dedication really do pay off.
It was during my time as an undergraduate that I struggled with my feelings about my country and the war that raged in Viet Nam. Fortunately, I was surrounded by caring and loving professors who understood the struggle of my generation and guided us through the tumultuous times of conflict and our collective search for meaning in life. Lesson learned was to find out how to decipher truth from fiction and how to appreciate history as it happens before our eyes, not after it had already passed.
My heart learned about what I believed to be love and love lost. I also recognized that my passion was brought to the surface, to discover that I am a musician first and everything else second in life. On campus, it was Parent’s Weekend when I sang “Leaving On a Jet Plane,” as my first professional singing gig. It was then that I overcame the terrifying fear of performing in public, a feeling that was solidified when chosen as the vocalist for the IWU Jazz Band. Lesson learned was confidence. That inner strength directly led to my career as a speaker, singer, broadcaster and entertainer.
There are people I remember too, who were there when just the right words were needed, or to provide a show of recognition for an accomplishment to help me realize that if I believed I could do something, I could usually do it. Lesson learned was that it only requires one voice, your own to succeed.
I have fond memories of the priceless friendships that were formed and the lives that I knew when we were all so young and vibrant who have since been lost. I also recall the pride of accomplishing what I set out to do, namely, become the proud graduate of this fine institution of higher learning.
A number of years ago, I was humbled when receiving a call from the president of the IWU. He informed me that the graduating class of 2003 had requested that I deliver their commencement address. It took me only seconds to accept. It was the pinnacle of my pride as a graduate, or so I thought.
A couple weeks from now, my pride will once again swell to an all-time high as I accept the honor of being chosen as the Illinois Wesleyan University Distinguished Alumnus for 2017 at the Homecoming celebration. This honor will be shared with my fellow classmates and with all those who inspired me to always try to do my best. Using all of the lessons that I learned, I will stand proudly and speak from the heart as a grateful student of life and never forget the greatest lesson that I have ever learned… which is, how to love and to be loved in return.