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The Difference One Person Can Make
Text of Speech at Graduation Pinning Ceremony

Robert Bruce Scott was a guest speaker at the 8th Annual AGL Honors Pinning Ceremony, in the Black and Gold Room, Memorial Union Building, Fort Hays State University, on May 13, 2005. This ceremony is named for three individuals whose support and commitment were instrumental in its development; Dr. Rodolfo Arevelo, Dr. Myra Gordon, and the late Dr. Charles Leftwich. These individuals made a strong and solid impact at Fort Hays State University. Through this ceremony, the students of color/minority students/students of ethnic background will be recognized for their accomplishments.

Congratulations to the non-traditional graduates, graduates from the Black Student Union, graduates from the International Student Union, and graduates from the Hispanic American Leadership Organization, as well as other Fort Hays State University graduates from diverse backgrounds who might not be members of one of these organizations.

You are completing your university program at a time of unprecedented challenges in a world that is not the same as it was a few years ago. While security and fear are dominant themes in the media, four years after 9-11, I would like to speak today about peace, hope and the importance of human relationships—the difference one person can make.

Story about Mrs. Hattie Dunn

I grew up in Great Bend, and when I was visiting there several years ago I heard a story from a mother about her son’s fifth grade year at one of the Great Bend elementary schools. The boy and his teacher that year did not see eye to eye. They got off to a bad start and things got progressively worse. The teacher saw this boy as a trouble-maker, inattentive and showing signs of learning problems.

The boy’s mother and father tried to work it out with the teacher, but couldn’t, so they appealed to the principal, asking that their son be moved to the other fifth grade teacher’s classroom. That was not allowed by the principal, and the situation stayed the same through the first several grading periods, with the boy’s parents getting very anxious in the middle of their son’s first bad experience in school.

In December, just before the holiday break, the principal made the family an offer: the boy could move to another teacher in another classroom, but it would also be at another school, Jefferson Elementary School. The family agreed, and in January the boy started attending the fifth grade class of Mrs. Hattie Dunn.

I can describe Mrs. Dunn, because 30 years earlier she was my fifth grade teacher at Jefferson. She is not one of the teachers that first comes to mind when I think of those who have deeply influenced my life, but it was a good, solid, productive school year. Mrs. Dunn was a large woman with a thoughtful look in her eyes and you knew you were not going to get away with anything. But she was actually kind, not mean.

Anyway, the boy isn’t even through his first week in the new class, with a new teacher, in a new school, when Mrs. Dunn, on a Thursday, calls his mother and says she needs to see her, and could they come in after school on Friday.

With some trepidation the mother walked into the school, and she and her son sat down in front of Mrs. Dunn’s desk. Mrs. Dunn said, “I wanted to see you because I think you need to know that your son is a bright, intelligent young man. He is going to do very well.”

It was a much improved atmosphere in the boy’s home that weekend. And when Mrs. Dunn didn’t arrive for work at her usual time on Monday, the school sent someone to her home to check on her. They found her in her living room, in an easy chair, where she had peacefully passed away while reading the morning paper.

That week with a perceptive teacher has made a huge difference in one young man’s life, in school and out of school. Time with the right person always makes a difference. I am sure that some of you are thinking now of people whose influence helped you along the way. They may be here with you today or it may be someone who couldn’t make the trip. And some of your friends, classmates and teachers at Fort Hays will be among those whose words and actions have changed your life for the better, and helped make possible your accomplishments which we are honoring today.

Story about Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu

Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu grew up in Nigeria and moved to the Midwest in 1982, completing her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in education at a Midwest university. I want to read to you from what she recently said about the difference that one person made at that point in her life and career.

As I was completing my master’s, I began to develop interest and aspiration for a Ph.D. degree. I had a strong interest in a particular field. I approached the program coordinator, who informed me that he could not admit me into the program.

I could not understand the basis for denial. I had an excellent grade point average. I had been an honor roll student in the School of Education. I had been a recipient of scholarships from the School and also had received other national and international scholarships.

The professor told me that he had some concerns about my ability to complete the doctoral program. I can only think of four things that played into this decision: I was Black, female, linguistically different and from a Third World country.

In this recent article, Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu says that she “wept bitterly” after this experience, and then she went to see another professor, Dr. Ridgway, from whom she had taken a class in foundations of education several years earlier. She asked Dr. Ridgway if he would agree to supervise her doctoral work, and right on the spot he went down the hall, got the program coordinator to change his mind, and came back with an acceptance form, allowing Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu to enter the doctoral program. She completed her Ph.D. in 1991 and today teaches international and multicultural education at the University of Missouri in Kansas City.

Dr. Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu concluded her story (in the Jayhawk Educator, Winter 2004/2005 edition, newsletter from the University of Kansas School of Education) with a special note for Dr. Robert Ridgway, now a retired professor emeritus:

I learned from you what it means to give an opportunity to others to grow. I have given the same kind of opportunity to many doctoral students who were judged to be non-doctoral material. When my doctoral students express gratitude to me for the opportunity I have given them, I always tell them the gratitude goes to you, Dr. Ridgway. You made a difference in my life and I will forever be grateful. You touched one life (mine), and today I am touching many lives and will continue to do so. As educators, we should never underestimate the potential of any student.

Again, like Dr. Ukpokodu, we may be thinking right now of those who have made a positive difference in our school experiences and in our lives, and some of you—like me—are reflecting on what we have said, could have done and should have said and done in circumstances when a colleague, a friend or just a fellow human being needed help, encouragement or someone to listen.

You are graduating this weekend, into a local, state, national and global community in considerable disarray, as people and nations turn in on themselves, living in fear, worried about security.

I believe that security comes from hope and faith, not fear. Security comes as a result of the pursuit of knowledge and cross-cultural understanding. Peace grows through friendships, discovering shared interests and common goals. The best route to peace and security is traveled by those who respect, value and learn from our human differences. No relationship is too small or fleeting to honor with thoughtful care and attention.

You are the new ambassadors of Fort Hays State University in the larger American and global society. Please remember and share what has been positive about your learning experiences at FHSU, and stay connected to the Fort Hays community so that you can play an active part in fixing things that were not quite right.

Be involved in the Tiger alumni association so that FHSU can build on what you have accomplished here, what you have given of yourself during your time in Hays.

I’d like to conclude with a quote from the German writer and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived from 1749 to 1832.

Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.

Best wishes to all of you for continued success and every happiness. Go Tigers!

Article by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online