February 25, 2023

Commencement speaker to grads: You can overcome the hurricanes of life

Dolan Williams, an alum of the Concord Law School at Purdue Global, made these remarks during the Purdue Global commencement on Saturday (Feb. 25) in Anaheim, California.

Graduates, family, friends and the entire Purdue community, welcome! My name is Dolan Williams, and I am a graduate of Concord Law School at Purdue Global, Class of 2015. It is an honor and a pleasure to be here. If this is your first time visiting Southern California, the answer is yes, the traffic is always this bad, and no, nobody in California knows how to drive.

Here’s how it started:

When I first decided to further my education back in 2005, the company I was working for was having massive layoffs that lasted years, but my wife was staying at home with our kids, and I was the only earner. At this time, my wife and I had more kids while the company I worked for shrank by 50%. My personal life was moving in a direction different than my employer’s, and I knew a job loss would have been devastating but knew an education was my ticket to security and prosperity.

Originally, I started in a graduate program at Arizona State around the same time my oldest was born. What I came to realize was getting started was the easy part. Every day I could feel the pressure mounting to do my best at work to survive but also make sure I got that assignment in before 11:59 p.m. In fact, the day my oldest was born, I had to hand a project to a classmate to turn in for me so I could run to the hospital. Before my program was over, we had two kids, and this photo accurately summarizes how well I handled work, school and home to cross the finish line. I barely made it.

After graduation, I learned that no matter my education, my family was counting me, but I had little control over things like company downsizing. I had trouble sleeping, and my heart broke every time I saw another colleague pack up their desk. I felt so dependent on the decisions of people whom I never met, and those feelings of helplessness were exhausting. I just knew I was next on the chopping block, and for any of you who experienced layoffs, especially during the pandemic, this is probably all too familiar.

I still needed a change if we were to survive. Like so many of you, we had no plan B. I needed something that would help guard against rocky professional waters but also allow me to keep the commitment to my family. One day, I was driving down the street with my wife, and I turned to her and said, “What if I became a lawyer?” Mind you, I didn’t come from a family of lawyers, and I didn’t even know any lawyers at the time. But it didn’t matter. She was all about it 

So I had to start looking for how I was going to keep my job and pursue a new degree. So I started looking the way any of us begins a life-changing, meaningful research project.

I Googled it.

Thankfully, Concord Law School pulled up, and I was on the first step in my journey. I told my wife, and she celebrated the idea.

After graduation, when I worked at a law firm in 2017, I would listen to music while researching. I wasn’t a fan of musical theater, but I tried the “Hamilton” soundtrack on a whim. I instantly fell in love with it, and now I’ve seen it live four times.

To be honest, I haven’t shut up about how much I love it since the first time I saw it onstage.

There is one song that stands out to me called “Hurricane.” For those unfamiliar, Alexander Hamilton lived on St. Croix, and this massive hurricane destroyed the island. Hamilton wrote this amazing poem about the wreckage and how some rich folks helped get him off the island and to America to get an education. In the song, Lin-Manuel Miranda says, “I wrote my way out.” The idea is he used his skills, and a little bit of luck, to get off the island, permanently.

But what this said to me was that before he fought for America’s independence, Hamilton fought for his own freedom. Believe it or not, you all did the same thing in your own way. Your hurricane could have been a bad boss. It could have been a bankruptcy, divorce, or maybe you just wanted to finish what you started. Whatever your reason, you wrote your way out. 

My hurricane? My hurricane was a combination of struggles I had growing up and believing that I could make something of myself. Like so many people I grew up with, I had a single mom who had some mental health struggles and a father who suffered from the twin demons of drug and alcohol addiction. Ultimately, neither of my parents could survive their hurricanes and died way too young. How this affected me growing up was that I learned failure wasn’t an option because there was no backup plan. As I got older, got married and had children, I knew if I let the hurricane of my youth consume me, my family would suffer, too. The life raft for me, like many of you, was an education and a commitment to my growing family.

I started my program here about three weeks before my youngest daughter was born. I thought finishing my first program was tough, but now with four kids, I had a small army that needed me at my best. Every day, for years, required a daily routine of study, work, time with family, study, rinse and repeat.

This was all without any guarantee that I would finish, while praying I’d survive another round of layoffs. You all know this pattern and feeling all too well. 

For students who follow a traditional path to their education, it is hard to adequately explain what it’s like to see you have so many years left in the program but also be worried about getting the bills paid. It’s hard to explain to someone of having a deadline not only for work but also one for school, and a deadline to help your kids finish their presentation for their own class. Just take a moment to consider how impressive and how unusual your accomplishment is, and take a moment to thank your support system for helping you through. I do every day.

Nevertheless, I understand some of you may be scared despite today’s celebration. There may be a promotion, a new job you had your eye on, the bar exam or your boards. You may just be wondering if the degree was even worth it.

I can relate. As I mentioned before, we had just one income, no hope of job security, and to fight the belief I was doomed to the same fate as my parents. I had this recurring nightmare of losing everything, and it seemed like the hopes I had as a kid for giving my kids a more comfortable upbringing was slipping away. Regardless of your circumstance, the point is that I can relate to the fear and anxiety that may be filling your mind.

What I can tell you is this: My experiences of staying up late at night wondering whether I could afford to feed my family shaped me for the better. It taught me what I was made of and gave me the confidence that if I could live through that, I could live through anything. Just one degree later, I see the fruits of the labor I put in years ago, and I promise you will, too.

In closing, the reason Purdue Global chose me to speak is not that I’m a famous person. I haven’t written any bestsellers, and I don’t have my own television show. Purdue Global asked me to speak to you because I am you.

I know what it’s like trying to do your homework AT work. I’ve felt the guilt that comes with not being able to spend as much time with your family as you want. But despite how it started, it was worth it, and I can tell you how it’s going now.

Now, I can actively support my wife the way she supported me, and strengthen the relationship with my kids. I have the pleasure, and the honor, of running my own law practice and don’t stress about layoffs anymore.

I don’t worry about long commutes because I get to work out of my home and spend more time with my family. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel so dependent. I feel independent. Success isn’t just having a long and impressive list of accomplishments; it is the power to live your life on your terms. With your degree, this is the power that you all have NOW. 

I survived these hurricanes, and so did each of you. Just like Alexander Hamilton, you wrote your way out, and now it’s time for the next chapter in your story.

Thank you, and congratulations, graduates!

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