SAINT VINCENT COLLEGE
173RD ANNUAL SPRING COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
BY ALEJANDRO VILLANUEVA
DECORATED ARMY RANGER, PRO BOWL NFL PLAYER, NOTED HUMANITARIAN
Saturday, May 11, 2019
Robert S. Carey Student Center
Saint Vincent College
This is a very special place, and I don’t mean the beautiful campus, wonderful staff, monastery or Basilica – but this gym. This gym is a very special place for me. You see, every single time we cancel practice due to the weather, we come in here. So, every single time I come to the gym, I have a feeling that it’s going to be a great day.
For all of you who do not yet appreciate the joy of work being canceled – the graduates – this is a very special moment. First and foremost, let’s thank the parents, mentors, counselors and family members who have contributed to your graduating today. Please give them a round of applause.
I do not want to take things for granted in life. I have three kids now all under the age of three – yes, as you saw, I’m Catholic, and yes, that’s probably the reason why I’m here. I find raising my kids a very tough challenge. Believe me when I say anyone who got you here went through a lot. Never take them for granted and never stop thanking them for getting you where you are.
I’ve never delivered a keynote speech before. My only point of reference is my graduation nine years ago. I was honored to have the commander in chief speak at my graduation and deliver a beautiful message that inspired our entire class to go out and fight for our country. But I don’t remember what the message was. I honestly don’t remember much of the speech at all. So, I know that today, even if I were the President of the United States delivering a speech to inspire you all to go into battle, you probably won’t remember anything, and that definitely takes the pressure off.
So in this pressure-less environment, I’d like to take this opportunity to simply share some of the lessons I’ve learned in my life. I’ll start by saying that to me, life is like reading a tough book. As you read it, sometimes you’ll read a page or a paragraph where you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘what in the world did I just read?’
Similarly, I think we all try to make sense of life as best we can, and over time, it becomes a collection of chapters and anecdotes that ultimately come together to shape your outlook on life. Good experiences shape you in a way, bad experiences shape you in different ways. The reason I use this cheesy cliché analogy of reading a book is because English is not my first language, and I’ve always struggled with reading comprehension. I could have gone with the classic, and told you that ‘life is like a box of chocolates…’
Growing up, to better understand what I was reading, I would summarize each confusing page or paragraph into a sentence that would help me understand and connect ideas better. These sentences in real life are nothing more than life lessons. And from my collection of experiences, I’d like to share some of the notes I’ve taken in life and hope you find them useful.
My first mental note that I specifically remember was at the age of 21. It is by far the weirdest mental note I’ve ever made, but without doubt it is the most useful. It took place in the middle of Ranger school in the mountains of north Georgia during one of the worst winters of the past 100 years. It snowed in Atlanta for two or three days straight, which was very unusual, and forced the instructors in our course to make us walk throughout the night to avoid freezing. There was snow on the ground everywhere, and we walked in the woods for 10 days. Five days walking, a day of rest at base camp, and another five days training in the woods with nothing more than a heavy sack. It rained as soon as we left on the first day, but after that, it was nothing but snow. The standard two meals a day obviously was not enough, especially for some of us bigger candidates, and it was pretty wild to watch your body wrestle with being cold, sleepy and hungry. I found out that cold is by far the most debilitating weakness of the mind, followed by sleepiness, and finally hunger.
We would march through the woods in formation, and when the weight of the sack became too unbearable, we would bend at the waist to rest our shoulders. During this rest, our eyes would shut, and we would go into a very deep sleep. We were so tired that we would actually dream that we were sleeping and dreaming, experiencing dreams inside of dreams. When you wake up after a minute, you’d look around and see nobody. It was a very powerful way of finding out how strong your mind really was.
After completing the first five days of mountain patrols, we came back to base camp where we showered and ate warm food. As you can imagine, the food was delicious and the feeling of sleeping in bed was so comforting that it made you sleep with a smile on your face. I would go on for another month and a half, for a total of three months, before I graduated and was sitting in my house in Columbus, Georgia, when I remembered a simple mental note I made to myself in the midst of my misery. As long as I’m warm, fed, and have slept a couple hours, there’s absolutely nothing in the world that I can possibly complain about. Of course, not even a week went by, and I started complaining about absolutely everything. But, the mental note stayed with me as a pretty important reminder that every single endeavor, activity and circumstance outside of those three is nothing more than a series of created expectations in my life to include pain. I could control my outlook on everything simply by changing my attitude or my perception of the world. While it is almost impossible to live life constantly reminding yourself this and living in perfect contentment, it was good for me to know that at one point, I was able to realize this.
The second life lesson that I paraphrased in my life into a mental note was when I got to the National Football League. I’m not sure of the exact moment, and it wasn’t in a specific place, but I realized in such a competitive environment where egos, jealousy and envy are three of the most common things you breathe in the air, I made the mental note to myself that in life, you’re only competing against yourself. There is a saying that in the NFL, the day you sign your contract is the happiest and saddest day of your career. You think you’re happy to achieve a milestone, but all of a sudden, when you look around, you realize that the thing you fought so hard for does not really change any of the things you expect it to change. It summarizes many of the challenges we face today in society that not only stem from our competitive nature, but also from our inability to see that our lives, though interconnected, are definitely different from one another.
As someone who does not have social media, it’s bizarre to see how an algorithm can connect people and exploit our willingness to be recognized, to be part of something or to maintain a place in society. The person you think is yourself exists only in you – every other person you meet in life creates another version of you, and with every person you meet, you create a version of them in your head that is always different from who they really are. As complicated as this might seem, this is why it’s so uncomfortable for me to see my parents dance, or to even see a picture of my dad with hair.
Finally – and this is something I’ve learned through my marriage, through my teammates, through my friends, and through my country I love so much – I’ve learned that we, as humans, are meant to depend on one another. As hard and difficult as it may seem, I don’t think anyone here will not find satisfaction in giving back to others. Giving without recognition is the most fulfilling. Giving to a person that is harder to like is the most rewarding. Giving without hesitation is the most authentic. Never be ashamed to reach out for help in times of need – only be ashamed if you do not do more for others. Our strength and skills individually are meaningless. Our cooperation and trust in one another is what has made us successful as a species.
I wish you the best in your future endeavors. Always compete to be your best self, and know that when life gets hard, all you have to do is find somewhere warm, get some food, and get some sleep, and of course, always give thanks to those who came out to see you here today. Enjoy your celebrations and give thanks to one another. Start planning on how you’re going to be here for someone else to help them get to where you are today.
Go Bearcats, go Steelers, may God bless you, and of course, Rangers lead the way.