When Kechi Okwuchi boarded a plane 10 years ago she didn’t know that it would be a journey that changed her life forever. Last week Kechi, who was one of the only two survivors of the Sosoliso plane crash that killed 107 others, including 60 students of Loyola Jesuit College in Abuja, Nigeria, graduated with honours from the University of St.Thomas and was subsequently handed the duties of speaking at the 2015 commencement ceremony. She dedicated her accomplishments to her classmates who died. These are words of wisdom that any leader could live by.
Here is the full speech:
Fellow UST graduates of 2015, we have finally made it. This stadium where we sit, the moment that this ceremony represents, we all walked different arduous paths to get here, but we have finally made it to the beginning of the rest of our lives.
When we first started at the University of St Thomas, many of us had no idea what to expect from college life or college studies. Many others, however, had a clear educational goal, a chosen career set in stone that they wanted to carve a path towards. I would fall under the first category. Five years ago when I first arrived on the UST campus as a freshman, I had no major, no definite career plan, and very high expectations. The only thing I knew for certain was that I was ready to soak in as much knowledge as I possibly could for as long as I was a student at this esteemed college. I changed my major twice, and I know I am not alone there.
However, as I stand on this platform today, looking into the face of each and every graduate sitting before me, I realize that it is no mistake that we are here today. Being here means that we have struggled through numerous courses and exams and dabbled in multiple areas of study, trying to find our niche. It means that we spent our time at UST searching for our calling, for what felt right, for what we truly enjoyed to learn, or at the very least, what we could tolerate. It means that after years of engaging in this scholastic search, we eventually found something that stuck, something that we felt would finally give an answer to that nerve-wracking, burdensome question that every student has heard at least once: ‘Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?’
Now, I know that everyone here has their reasons for pursuing a higher education, and I want to tell you mine. You see, to me, this degree is not just a degree. It is a gift to the 60 students that died in a plane crash I was in 10 years ago. It represents the fulfilment of a promise I made, to those students and to their parents, that I would reach this important milestone on behalf of those they lost.
As a plane crash survivor, I have been through many trials and have had to overcome numerous obstacles in order to make it this far. I could not be here today without help from God and from those around me. I suffered from third-degree burns over 65 percent of my body, so the healing process has understandably been a slow one, one that continues even now. Because of my accident, I had been out of school for so long, from ages 16 to 20, that by the time I was deemed ready to rejoin the student population, I was overeager and overzealous, despite the fact I wasn’t sure at the time what I wanted to do with my second chance at life. But all that time away from school had caused me to forget the struggles that came along with being a student: the rigors of pulling all-nighters for exams and preparing for presentations, all while trying to be responsible in our personal lives and disciplined in our preparation for the outside world.
Considering this, I had to reflect on the meaning of the term “survivor.” In my reflection I realized that the struggles of a student are real, and to overcome them all in order to be here today… that word “survivor” undoubtedly applies to us all. It was in this reflection, still, that I learned a very important lesson, and that is the fact that one cannot judge the extent of another person’s struggle based on their own experience. While I will not underestimate the difficulties I have faced in my journey toward full recovery, I will instead pray that you all join me in surviving all future challenges with the help of God and those around us.
So, fellow “survivors,” where do we see ourselves 10 years from now? After all these years as college undergraduates and graduates, many of us have finally found the perfect response to that question. “I will be a neurosurgeon at a renowned medical facility.” “I will be a middle-school teacher with a family of my own.” “I will be the CEO of my own business.” But for the rest of us who still get palpitations at the mere thought of being asked this question, I want to tell you something exceedingly important: it is okay to still not know.
As I have already said, this is the beginning of the rest of our lives. There is no doubt that today represents a significant landmark that we simply cannot undervalue. However, it is also significant that we realize we are not expected to have all the answers yet. What this great school has done for us is to set us on a path of self-discovery with more knowledge and life experience than when we first arrived at UST. Added to that, we are also taught to carry the qualities of faith and character into whatever career path we choose to follow. This is a core teaching which sets us apart as UST graduates, and no one out there in this big, exciting world can take that away from us.
And so, my prayer for us all is that in response to that mind-boggling question, we can at least say this: “Ten years from now I see myself happy in a field of my choosing that makes me feel like I matter, and where I can make a difference as a leader of faith and character.”
Fellow UST graduates of 2015, I say to you, congratulations!