At the University of Hartford commencement Sunday, faculty and speakers warned the roughly 1,000 graduating students of a crossroads they might soon face.
Kennedy Odede found himself at one years ago, walking the two hours back to his house in the slums of Kenya, from the brutal factory job that paid him $1.50 per day. Odede decided there was more to life, and took a path of academic vigor and excellence that would bring him to the stage at the University of Hartford, accepting his first honorary doctorate of humane letters, and speaking to the nervous and eager graduating class.
“I took the unknown path, set on doing something good and I remained deeply committed to my community. These are the same ideals that the University of Hartford stands for. It’s why I’m so proud to be standing on this stage,” Odede said.
Students coming from 36 states and 27 countries cheered when Odedereminded them not to fear the uncertain future and to be patient with incremental change.
“It is OK to not have everything figured out,” Odede said. “Do the small amounts of good you can.”
Odede imparted the lessons he learned from his arduous journey out the Kenyan slums and onto the Hartford stage.
Odede saved bit by bit from his meager salary to start Shining Hope for Communities, an organization that provides free schooling to girls in Kenya. A student from Wesleyan, curious about his community work, spent time with Odede, and eventually convinced him to apply to the school, despite never receiving any formal education. He graduated Wesleyan at age 23, and was a speaker at his commencement in 2012.
“My mother once told me: You don’t have to change the world. You just have to touch it. I hope all of you discover your purpose and touch the world for good,” Odede said. “Choose the unknown path, stay committed to your community and always remember to let your light shine.”
Those lessons translated to Vania Legall, a graduate in international relations and economics, who was inspired by a speech Odede gave four weeks ago. Legall moved to America four years ago from the ghettos of Guyana in South America.
She struggled with the social changes of a new school in a new country, and felt enormous pressure to show to other Caribbean people that it is possible to fit in, and fight to be successful.
“He was telling us about his experience growing up in a ghetto in Kenya, and what made his story stand out was despite all the things going against him, from the time he was born he knew he was different. Most people don’t believe there’s a chance out,” Legall said.
According to a release from the University of Hartford, 92 percent of the graduating class believe their academic program prepared them for further education or a career.
For those students, President Walter Harrison also made crossroads a point in his commencement speech, and urged the eager class to follow the words of Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra.
“So, his advice — and mine today — is: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’ ”