Commencement is my favorite part of the academic year. We celebrate the achievements of graduating students and the faculty, family, and friends who have supported and inspired them. When COVID-19 necessitated the postponement of this year’s in-person rite of passage, Rocky Raider and I posed with cards that had each graduate’s name printed on them. It was during this photoshoot that I met Curtis and was reminded that how we celebrate is less important than why we celebrate.
My impromptu meeting with Curtis reminded me of the importance of Southern Oregon University to students in Oregon. Our university opens the door to a brighter future and nurtures leadership.
It was a beautiful spring morning, partly cloudy, with rain predicted later in the day. As we moved through our photoshoot, I caught a glimpse of someone wearing a commencement gown and standing near where the cards had been arranged. I saw what we used to call a “nontraditional” student—a man, probably in his 30s, wearing his commencement robe, and looking confused and uncertain.
“I see my name here,” he said. It turned out that Curtis’ last name started with a Z, and thus his card would be the last name to be photographed. Curtis then somewhat hesitantly asked if anyone could help him with his cap and honor cord.
Curtis had just picked up his black robe, cap, and honor cord but did not know how to put the pieces together. Happy to help, I explained how to affix the tassel to the mortar board and the symbolism of moving the tassel from the right to the left to signify the actual attainment of his degree.
While Curtis worked to affix his tassel to his cap, he looked at me and said, “I just don’t know how to do this; I am a first-generation college graduate.”
“Well, so am I,” I said. And I will never forget what he said next: “Wow, and look at you and what you have done!”
“And you can do it, too,” I replied immediately—remembering my own youthful feelings of uncertainty and how important encouragement from others was.
This encounter took on even more significance when I learned about Curtis Ziegler ’20. He had overcome mountains to get his degree.
Curtis was living under a bush in a park in Medford. He bounced around growing up and was in-and-out of juvenile hall. “I got lost in addiction and served time in jail. My mother died while I was locked up, and that was the pain I needed to become clean,” he said.
Just 90 days sober, Curtis began attending community college. “I took advantage of every resource, got really connected, and worked through barriers. Business owners—even the sheriff—all helped.” Though scared when he transferred to SOU, Curtis found a community of caring faculty and staff members who wrapped their collective arms around him and supported his will to succeed.
“I have been clean for five years. I have a beautiful wife and four amazing kids. I am a productive community member, and am making my community better by helping others as a counselor.”
Curtis’ story is a testament to perseverance and resiliency. Your generous support of SOU students acknowledges this and demonstrates the power of our university to provide opportunity.
Please join me in supporting our SOU students. Together, we can make a difference in their lives.
Southern Oregon University
P.S. Curtis is now enrolled in graduate school, and I am confident that he will continue to serve our community in ways that he never imagined possible. Leadership begins here!