May 6, 2023

Keynote to Purdue Global grads: Keep chasing those dreams because you will catch them

Lauren Castrinos Bradford, an alumna of Purdue Global, made these remarks Saturday (May 6) during the Purdue Global commencement in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Welcome everyone, especially the class of 2023, to your Purdue Global graduation ceremony. My name is Lauren Castrinos Bradford, and in the midst of COVID, I earned a master’s degree in psychology when I graduated virtually with the Purdue Global Class of 2020. I live in South Carolina with my husband of 12 years, Keegan, and our two little boys, who are NOTHING alike: 6-year-old Finley is the wild one with not much self-preservation and will do anything to get a laugh. At not even 2 years old, he was driving his Hot Wheels Jeep just as well as his older brother. Dexter is our cautious and quiet 9-year-old, who, instead of climbing everything in sight at 3 years old, preferred to make us ketchup and mustard lattes out of his playhouse.  

I earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Clemson University the month before our wedding and soon started my career in applied behavior analysis, working with children with autism. More commonly referred to as ABA, it is a way to positively shape a person’s behavior for them to reach their fullest potential. I worked in the clinic and home settings with families for more than two years until the day before Dexter was born, having no idea the impact my professional experience would later have.

Dexter was born with a long rap sheet of medical complications – including a facial paralysis that required hourly treatments for more than the first five years of his life – in addition to numerous surgeries and countless doctor visits over the years. During this time, I put my career on hold and assumed the role of stay-at-home mom so I could be home to properly care for Dexter. Seven years later, Dexter would be diagnosed with autism. Because of my background in ABA, I knew this diagnosis would eventually come, and I was determined to be Dexter’s biggest advocate and cheerleader. 

I am from South Carolina, where we love big SUVs and country music – my personal southern vices being Chevy Tahoes and Luke Bryan. Finley was born when Dexter was 2 1/2 years old. Just before Finley was born, I told my husband we needed a bigger car, and for years I had my sights set on a Tahoe. He said absolutely not until you make more money in a year than a Tahoe costs. Y’all, Tahoes are expensive! One that’s over two years old still costs almost double what most people who live in South Carolina make in a year. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, so we both knew that was not going to happen.  

Fast forward two years later: We now had two kids in preschool, so I was constantly loading them in and out of the car every day. During this time, we were back and forth between our home in South Carolina and Dexter’s surgeon in Baltimore with a 4- and 2- year-old in tow multiple times per year. Cue those thoughts of the Tahoe again.  

While I was filling out that last preschool admission form, I read this quote: “In a year, you’ll wish you had started now.” Although I didn’t want to admit it, it was true. Reminiscing, there were a lot of things I wished I had started, or not given up, knowing where I would have been then: Grad school. Taking better care of myself. Rekindling friendships. Learning to cook because little did we know COVID was approaching, and Outback was not going to let us into their dining room to eat dinner. All these things I wish I’d done, but at the time I didn’t understand the impact they could make.

The “stay-at-home mom life” was quickly coming to an end, and it was time for me to decide if I was returning to either work or grad school. I chose grad school because I knew in the long run it would be the best choice for my family. Grad school was something I had thought about since finishing undergrad. I never did, and I wished I had. 

During our family vacation in June of 2019, I was sitting on the floor of our room at Great Wolf Lodge when I received my acceptance email into Purdue Global’s master’s program and would be starting in a few months. The reality of attending grad school and being a mom started to creep in. Could I actually pull this off? 

Dexter’s next surgery in Baltimore was scheduled just three months away, with at least two more to follow, along with the necessary post-op visits. This meant lots of time spent traveling and living out of hotel and hospital rooms. Knowing how busy the coming years of surgeries would be, I felt like the “perfect time” would never come. After having thought about the decision to apply for so long, I made the call to Purdue Global to push my start date up, and I attended my first class the very next week.

With surgeries planned, why would I start sooner knowing I’d be in lectures and writing papers from a hospital room 560 miles from home? Because I knew it was time to stop making excuses and not wait any longer. As I was reminded of that quote, “In a year, you’ll wish you had started now.” A month after the boys started school, I had made the usual preparations for yet another hospital stay in Baltimore, but this was our first trip with me attending grad school. Thankfully, Dexter did amazing. Finley kept us entertained, and things continued to go well, and we made another trip to Baltimore in January of 2020.   

COVID hit two months later, and I was not only doing grad school virtually, but, like so many of you, I was also doing preschool and kindergarten virtually with my little boys. Who else spent the spring and fall of 2020 trying to get your kids to pay attention to a teacher on a screen? I wanted to quit school – or at least take a break. But we all know how those breaks usually end. I knew a year later I would look back, at whatever decision I had made with either regret or pride. My boys were watching me study, respond to discussion posts, take exams and often struggle with no sleep because the option to do all of those things while they were in school was gone. But whether I succeeded or failed, they were watching. 

Remember, I told y’all I love me some Luke Bryan. When his last album came out, my life quote shifted from “In a year, you’ll wish you had started now” to “Some dreams you chase, some dreams you catch.” I kept chasing that dream of finishing grad school, and in November 2020 I caught that dream. 

I felt accomplished having earned a master’s degree, but a piece of paper and two more letters behind my name were not going to buy a Tahoe. My time with Purdue Global prepared me to spend the next year earning the required clinical hours at one of the top applied behavior analysis companies in South Carolina to sit for the behavior analyst board exam in January 2022.  

With Luke Bryan’s latest album, “Born Here, Live Here, Die Here,” blaring in the car, I headed to the testing center to come face to face with a life-changing dream I had been chasing for years. For anyone who will be taking an exam at a testing center, let me tell you this: They do not say “congratulations” or “better luck next time” when they hand you that printout. It’s folded and accompanied with “Have a good day.”  

So, with nervous anticipation and a folded paper in hand, I finally made it to the parking lot and called Keegan. I unfolded the paper and saw those four life-changing letters after my name: BCBA – board certified behavior analyst. That was it: The dream I never thought I would catch was sitting in my hands. I am a board-certified behavior analyst.

I landed my dream job three months later, and now I work with other kids with autism via telehealth, affording me the opportunity to care for Finley and Dexter regardless of where we travel in our Tahoe.

Today, you all have caught your own dream you have been chasing for two years. Four years. Maybe even longer. But don’t stop here: Keep chasing more of those seemingly impossible dreams because in a year, you’ll wish you had started now.

Congratulations Purdue Global Class of 2023. 

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