By Irvin Scott

Last month, I was honored to address the 340 students graduating in the Class of 2016 at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a two-year technical college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The college is named after a Pennsylvania congressman who passionately advocated for ending slavery during the Civil War and also helped bring free public education to the state—a true champion of both education and equal opportunities for all. I was inspired to see these same values shine through in the stories that the Thaddeus Stevens College faculty told me about the Class of 2016. In hearing their stories, a few of which I highlight below, it became clear that these graduates have learned not just about technology and engineering and design, but also about three important lessons that will enable them to unlock their full potential throughout their lives.

  • Lesson #1: Seek out and seize opportunities. The story of a student named Jermain demonstrated to me the power of seeking out and seizing opportunities. Jermain decided to enroll in Thaddeus Stevens’ HVAC program, even though his girlfriend had just had a baby and he was juggling fatherhood with a part-time job delivering pizzas. This wasn’t always easy for Jermain—there were times when his car broke down or he had to scramble to find a babysitter for his child. However, after he sought out and seized this opportunity to pursue his education, he stuck with it, because he knew it would lead to more opportunities for him and his family. As I shook his hand on his graduation day, I knew that Jermain will have tremendous opportunities knocking on his door for years to come.
  • Lesson #2: Defy expectations. I also was inspired by the story of Catherine, who graduated from Stevens’ architecture program. After Catherine was injured in a bad car accident last year, she could have taken the easy route and dropped out of school, but she didn’t. Instead, she defied expectations and turned the accident into a positive turning point. She returned to school, led a recent trip to New York City, and even ran track this spring. While many people in her position would have given up, Catherine made her hardship into an opportunity for renewal and reinvention. My hope is that Catherine and her classmates continue to defy expectations and use every challenge as an opportunity to persevere and rise up.
  • Lesson #3: Give back. In all of the stories that the Thaddeus Stevens faculty told me about the Class of 2016, it was clear that their students understand the power of giving back. This desire to help others drives so many of them, who work multiple jobs to support their families and volunteer with organizations to empower underserved communities. They’ve already made tremendous positive impacts on their school, families, and communities, and this spirit of service will help ensure that everyone has access to the opportunity to succeed.

One story from the Class of 2016 encapsulates all three of these lessons. Bryant, a carpentry technology student, grew up seeing his mom work two jobs and struggle to support him and his sister. When he was younger, Bryant never really liked school and after starting at Thaddeus Stevens, he even thought about dropping out, because it was more challenging than he expected. He was frustrated and angry. But in the midst of this tough time, one of Bryant’s teachers told him: “Instead of fighting with anger like you were on the streets, fight with your mind, use your brain as a weapon. Nobody is going to give it to you—you have to take it for yourself.” And that’s exactly what Bryant did. Rather than quitting, he defied expectations and focused all of his energy on the opportunities he had in school, driven by a desire to help his family—especially his mom, who worked so hard for his sake. He graduated from college last month not just with a credential, but also with the honor of being voted the “most improved” in the Class of 2016.

Thaddeus Stevens College’s Class of 2016 is a testament to how far you can go when you seek out opportunities, stick with them, and give back. I know that the family, friends, and professors who have supported these students along the way are immensely proud of them, and I have no doubt that the namesake of their college would be proud of them, too. I also know that they’ll continue to learn, problem-solve, serve, and inspire—just as they have inspired me.