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Zachary Smith's Commencement Speech

Environmental studies major was chosen as student speaker

Zachary Smith, ESF student speaker for December Commencement

The following is the text of the speech delivered by student speaker Zachary Smith at ESF's December Commencement:

A few months ago I was flying back from Montana from visiting my sister and her family. I was lost in thought when I noticed a man walking down the aisle with large cargo pants that quickly marked him as a DEC forest ranger. As he made his way closer, he suddenly stopped, a wide grin spreading across his face and asked, "Are you a Stumpy?'

After a quick moment of surprise, I remembered I was wearing my ESF hat so I responded, "Yup, and if you know what a Stumpy is, you must be one too." For those of you in the room who don't know, a Stumpy is an ESF student or alumnus. We passed the next few hours sharing stories of school, talking about the difficulties of creating practical policy around the environment. As I walked off the plane and we parted ways, I realized that in just a few months I too would be an alumnus and I started thinking about how tightly knit of a community we are. But why?

For those who don't know me, my name is Zack Smith, and if my time here at ESF has shown me anything, it is that what brought us all here to ESF is the concern over something greater than ourselves. Because in the end, we are Stumpies because we care.

So after years of caring and studying over beer, or tea, we find ourselves looking out over the edge of the rest of our lives. Yet, as I was reminded by a billboard in the Denver airport this summer, success is rarely a straight line. I can say this because I have a bit of personal experience.

I am graduating at 27 years old after a very circuitous route. Since high school I have tried two separate careers including that of a full-time musician and working in the home weatherization industry. I have lived in Brazil, New York, Florida and Virginia and have moved a total of 10 times. I went from learning Portuguese in a foreign country to opening up for nationally known country artists like Rodney Atkins. Within a year of that, I was living in my mother's basement wondering what I was doing with my life. I went from having random people buy me popcorn at baseball games because they saw my show, to being so depressed that I was having night terrors and waking up to sweat-soaked sheets from the anxiety I felt over my situation. I looked for jobs, but even those I knew I could do wouldn't accept an application without a college degree. So, when I ran across some of my old paperwork from my first year at ESF in 2012, it was the first time I remembered feeling hopeful in almost two years. So, 2.5 years later, here I am, and here you are. Now, you may have noticed that I haven't done any "thank you's" yet. I did that on purpose so I could give everyone some context to understand just how thankful I am to everyone who has made the past few years possible for me.

To my countless new friends and fellow Stumpies, thank you so much for sharing your passions, your excitement, and your brilliance. You have set the bar high for me. To all of our amazing faculty and staff, your guidance, wisdom, understanding, friendship and your gifts of knowledge have transformed my life and the way I view the world. To our administration, I could not ask for a more supportive nor a more caring group of professionals and friends. Most of all, I could not leave this room without thanking my amazing family for never losing the faith in me that I had lost in myself only a few years ago. Your support has meant more than words can ever express and is the reason I am here today. With that is mind, graduates, if there is anyone in the room that has helped you arrive here today, I welcome you to stand for a moment and thank them with me.

But now what?

I share the story of my path not to be depressing, but to offer a little context as to why I am here today. And I offer the graduates a moment to think on that same question. Why are you here today? We are Stumpies because we care and we are passionate about the environment, but each one of us has something specific that brought us here. Each one of you came here with a dream that was uniquely yours that you were chasing. Whatever your situation was or has been, the pursuit of that dream has kept you going through hours and hours and hours and hours of hard work with only minutes of sleep.

Has your goal been to preserve the ecosystem services of our wetlands? Have you been designing the sustainable homes of our future so we can tread more softly in our daily lives? Have you been fighting for environmental justice and equality, realizing that our environments do not simply include the birds and the trees but our societal structures as well? What dream have you been chasing? It is important that you think on it for a moment and remember because soon those dreams may be challenged like mine were.

Soon we will have car bills and house bills and school bills. We will be graced with husbands, wives, dogs, cats, children, and careers that all require our time and attention. Just as our dreams and aspirations have kept us pushing through the work we have done here, it will be those dreams that will push us through the challenges we have yet to face. I remember when I had given up on mine and I can assure you that everything gets harder without them. We will wake up every morning with decisions to make and paths to take. What will make all of the twists and turns, the ups and downs, and the hard work worth it is if we know that we are doing it all for a reason. Our dreams and passions are gifts in that way. When we are tired and feel lost or afraid of what tomorrow might bring, it is those dreams that we must return to keep us on course. Thanks to our families, friends, our professors and mentors, we have all the skills we need. With everything you have put in, you owe it to yourself to see it through. You owe it to yourself so that in 50 years when you are looking back on this time in your life, you'll know that you did what you needed to. But that's not the only reason. With a gift as great as a dream comes an even greater responsibility to see it through, not only for ourselves but for the world. We owe the world our thanks for making us who and what we are and for that we owe the world our greatest efforts to see those dreams come true. We owe them this because with each gift passed on, the world gets a little bit kinder. We are Stumpies because we care, and with each gift we give we show the world that they can do it too. If you're waiting for permission to pursue those dreams, unfortunately this is the closest thing to it the world will ever offer. You will have to realize that the permission you seek and the only one that will really matters is your own.

So, go! Sow seeds of hope, respect, and relationship as you share your gifts and know that with each day you do you will grow a little stronger, stand a little taller until one day like the mighty oak, your gifts, like seeds of hope will feed the dreams of those around you. Your branches will shade the young who are just starting out on their paths. Your roots will hold the ground for our children when the rains would have them washed away. In doing this, in filling your own niche that only you can, you will be the example for all others to grow towards. Your work and memory will instruct and provide for seven generations to come. Congratulations, my friends. Your best days and your best work are waiting.