A commencement speech from a guy who's been there, done that

Jeff poses with Bucky Badger, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's mascot.
Jeff poses with Bucky Badger, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's mascot, during a shift at his catering job. Photo courtesy of Jeff Cartwright
Jeff Cartwright's high school senior portrait.
Jeff Cartwright's high school senior portrait. Photo courtesy of Jeff Cartwright
I was angry at Wisconsin, angry with how different it was, and also angry that it wasn’t different enough.

To the high school graduates of 2011:

I congratulate you on your successes and triumphs, and for completing a major chapter of your life. Now I urge you to look to the future. Not toward summer plans, college classes or even future careers. No, those things are for another commencement speech. I urge you to look toward the person you wish to be. And that means so much more than a job title.

Let me explain. When I was asked to write a commencement speech for recently graduated high school seniors, I wasn’t sure how much advice I could actually give you guys.

I am not much older than you. I graduated from Hopkins High School in 2009 and just finished my second year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I plan to major in journalism and strategic communication.

I could give you advice about classes, talking to your professors, being proactive in your education and probably some partying tips that seem to be as ingrained a part of college curriculum as a textbook is for a class.

Although that advice may be very pertinent to your near future, it is about as useful as memorizing Susan B. Anthony’s middle name when it comes to growing up. The B stands for Brownell, by the way.

Below are some hard lessons that no one told me when I went off to college. These are the biggest challenges I’ve faced since leaving home, the ones that pushed me to grow up and truly embrace independence.

Lesson 1: Change comes hard and fast

Leaving home brings changes. You are in a new place with new people and new challenges. But I wasn’t prepared for how much this new environment would change me.

I experienced culture shock when I moved to Madison. This may sound ridiculous, considering I am from Minnesota.

I’ve read those suffering culture shock can feel a hostility toward the new place they are in. That’s exactly how I felt.

I was angry at Wisconsin, angry with how different it was, and also angry that it wasn’t different enough. I wanted to go far away from Minneapolis for college and, although Madison is different than Minneapolis, it still felt too close to home.

The hostility made me ignore a lot of what Madison and the state had to offer. I was set in my ways and my unwillingness to change may have hampered some new friendships and opportunities early on.

Do not be set in your ways. Be outgoing and don’t be afraid to change because this is the time in your life when you define who you really are.

Once I made Madison my home, I began to develop a community of my own that challenged me to be a more accepting, well-rounded person.

But don’t worry fellow Minnesotans, I still believe Minnesota is the better state.

Lesson 2: Friendship takes on a new meaning

High school friendships may be life-long for some, but I’ll bet that most of yours won’t survive the separation of college.

I learned this lesson during Christmas break my freshman year when one of my best friends and I let a little fight end our already withering friendship. Our friendship had been put on a backburner when we went to college and our mutual interests became fewer and fewer. All it took was a one simple fight — about something so miniscule that I can’t even remember what it was about — to smother what was left of our friendship.

The more time I spend at college, the less important friends from back home seem. I have found friends in college who are more like me compared to my high school friends. Looking back, I think we were friends because we were conveniently in the same building. Although this may sound sad, it is quite the opposite.

College allows you to make new friends that bring stronger connections than you have had in high school, in some cases. I have stronger bonds with many of the people I have known for only two years in college than I have with people I’ve known for 10 years back home. And I really believe these college friends are friends I will have forever.

Lesson 3: Your parents will never stop being your parents, seriously

The hardest lesson of all is redefining your relationship with your parents. The first long break back home will be difficult.

When I returned for Thanksgiving break, it was like I was back in high school under my parents’ authority after experiencing my first few months of independence.

When I came back, I wanted to be treated as a family member visiting for Thanksgiving, not their son who they could tell to clean his room, rake the leaves or assist in cleaning the house. But alas, my fantasy didn’t come true. Old habits die hard.

Luckily, my parents were on the more lenient side of the parental-control spectrum. Some friends had curfews when they came back, which feels ridiculous when you’ve been deciding for months how late to stay out. Some had to ask their parents’ permission to even go out with friends.

Forgive your parents; they have to learn how to be parents to an adult child. Give it time, they will eventually figure it out.

Lesson 4: College is not for everyone

Not everyone goes to college. Not everyone is meant to sit in a classroom and there is nothing wrong with that. You already know that. But what those of us who go to college discover is many of our friends don’t make it through the first years.

I have friends who’ve transferred, dropped out or are well on their way to one of those decisions. I almost transferred to a school back in Minnesota early on in my freshman year when I wanted to move back to a more familiar place.

Try and stick it out for as long as possible because although the first few months are hard and lonely, it gets awesome faster than you’d think.

With those lessons in mind, I want to once again congratulate you for what you’ve already accomplished, and what you will in the future. Not all of you may make it through college into the job of your dreams or the life you’ve always wanted, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Life is full of good surprises, thankfully, and many of them come from your plan not going as planned.

Thank you,

Jeff Cartwright
ThreeSixty alumni ‘2009