Alabama commencement address

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, both for adventures and corporate talks. It’s an exhausting schedule but sometimes an event really stands out. Recently I had the great honor to give the commencement address to 1,000 graduating students at the University of South Alabama. With over 10,000 people attending, I talked about becoming a modern-day alchemist by taking lead and turning it into gold.

You might remember, from your history textbooks, those medieval alchemists who toiled to mysteriously turn lead into gold. No one has yet figured out how to literally turn one metal into another, but on a figurative level, some people have successfully turned their trials and tribulations into priceless experiences. I call these people modern-day alchemists. All of us can be alchemists, taking the lead that life piles on top of us and finding ways to transform it into gold. I strive to be an alchemist every day.

My message was especially poignant because Mobile, Alabama is on the front lines of the giant oil disaster in the Gulf. It is also one of the major headquarters for clean-up efforts. The students, most of whom are local to that area, are definitely entering a time of challenge, and I told them, despite the challenges—tough economy, environmental disasters, climate change, a clash of religions and cultures—they are the world’s best hope for alchemy.

I’d like to thank State Representative Jamie Ison, who has served the Mobile district for the past eight years, for bringing me to speak. I first met Jamie about a decade ago when she was the Regional Director of the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind. Several years ago, she was on a team I led up Kilimanjaro, when 5 blind climbers from 4 continents stood on the Roof of Africa

Jamie was looking for a challenge and despite a bad knee, being 52 years old, having never climbed before, and living at sea level, she cruised to the summit with a big smile on her face at the top. She was part of the team which helped Douglas Sidialo to climb Kili. Douglas was the first blind African to stand on top of Africa. He lost his eyes in the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Nairobi. He wanted to make a statement about peace triumphing over terrorism.

Since that climb, Jamie and I have stayed in touch and it was her idea that graduating students would appreciate my experience at shattering expectations and taking on adversity. As a former grade school teacher, I loved the opportunity to send young adults off to the next exciting chapters in their lives.

It is also gratifying to learn that my message was heard. Below is just one of the comments I received following my talk:

Thank you, Erik for sharing your story and message to “Reach” and be “alchemists” to the 2010 graduates of the University of South Alabama and the world!!!

Many may look at your blindness as an unfortunate handicap…I consider it to be one of God's blessings to the world…were it not for your “disability” many of us would not have the honor to hear your message!!!

Thanks for showing us all the light!! Keep your light burning!!!! REACH!

Frances Henson

The city of Mobile, Alabama surprised me with a welcome gift.
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