Class of 2020 Commencement Remarks by Medal of Honor Winner Ryan Hamilton
The Gift of Graduation
The following remarks were shared with Gannon's Class of 2020 during a special ceremony in May 2021, by Medal of Honor Winner Ryan Hamilton '20.
Good afternoon fellow graduates and those in the audience with us today both in person or virtually. I want to thank my professors, staff members, and peers who thought me to be a worthy candidate for this recognition, and for the opportunity to speak to you all today in this celebration.
I thought for quite a while to try and encapsulate this experience for us in some brief but wise words, but I have always found that the best way to provide a message is to tell a simple story.
My freshman year I was lucky enough to sign up for an Alternative Break Service Trip, or ABST for short, and travel to San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. We spent most days serving and learning with the people of San Lucas, we helped build local infrastructure, ovens in homes, road construction, and visited a local hospital and women’s center that were supported by the mission. We also were very intentional about immersing ourselves in the community. One day we took a small excursion to a neighboring town that had beautiful ceramic work that was all handmade in Guatemala. While there, I bought a series of pieces, but one item, in particular, was very special, a small but beautiful and ornate cross, with the most intricate glazing and detail work. As soon as I saw it, I knew it would be perfect for my friend Allison. Not only would it fit so beautifully in with her plants and mementos, but, also, I have always known Allison to be a very faithful person. So as the trip reached its end, I packed this fragile cross up in my luggage and it made the journey with me all the way from Central America back to my dorm room in Finegan.
Soon after arriving back myself, Allison, and some friends were sharing stories in the Finegan Lobby. Now the entrance to Finegan, which was usually bustling with people, was instead intimately quiet that day, just with our new group of friends sitting around. In the middle of sharing how my perspective had forever been changed and my direction in life even altered by my time in Guatemala, I went up to my room to retrieve the cross for Allison, I walked down carefully from the second floor, step by step ensuring that I kept it wrapped up for it to be delivered perfectly. I made it to the main floor. I rounded the corner right near the vending machines. Neared the section by the pool tables where we were sitting. And I finally presented the beautiful cross, unwrapped it from its paper packaging, and dropped it right onto the floor, shattering into dozens of pieces.
Fast forward about 3 years time, with a million experiences in between, I found myself coming back from Spring Break, senior year, lucky enough to take part in an ABST but this time in Mexico. Arriving back from that experience, I was filled with a different kind of glee and excitement, merely weeks away from graduation I was rearing up for my life to massively change. This was the time to finalize my first real job and get ready to start my career. We were all so close I could just feel a hum of anticipation. And then, just like the turn of a dime, everything changed. I don’t think I need to give you quite a play-by-play of the rest, but in so many ways, our expectations were completely shattered, and the world as we knew it was as well.
But the part of the initial story that I think is the most important, is that the cross didn’t get swept up into the trash, quite the opposite actually. The shards and the splinters were glued and mended, and the stories it carried became even richer as I could pass that gift onto my friend as it was put back together.
I like to think of our experience, this past year, in a similar light. Even though the end of Senior year was the furthest thing from what we may have expected, we have been reshaped into new people by it. Every detail of my senior year and post-graduation I was planning to a tee, just as I planned this perfect gift to be delivered to my Allison. But as we all painfully know, sometimes life isn’t forgiving, and our broken plans need to be swept up, and put back together. And I think that if we reflect on it, the people we are today are new and wholly different versions of ourselves than we were if we sat in these seats a year ago. I know that my journey has been massively different than I have expected, and that there is no doubt that I was broken apart when life changed due to COVID, and that it has taken some time for my life, and the lives of those around me to reform. Just as the glue that helped form that cross back together to carry the memories of my experience, we have become different versions of ourselves throughout this time. I am just beginning to realize that in myself and I have seen this change in so many of you as well.
Graduation is an opportunity to not only look ahead but now, for us, it is a chance to reconnect. This event has brought me back in touch with all of those that I haven’t truly been connected with since we left campus suddenly more than a year ago, thinking we would just have classes off and be back in a few weeks. And after that experience, after months of separation, I have a newfound appreciation for those in the web of relationships that make the Gannon family so strong. Now let’s cherish this graduation with those here today and so many watching from afar, and allow this moment to be a gift we all share together.
Thank you, Class of 2020!
Watch Ryan's speech here.