Chancellor Vidal, members of the board, members of the faculty, proud parents, family members, and above all, graduates, the first thing I would like to say is thank you. Delivering a commencement speech is an extraordinary honor, and I am so proud to be a graduate of Ivy Tech Community College. I also want to say that I will do my best to be brief in my speech as I have sat through these graduations with my children and know that they can make for a long evening.
As you heard in my introduction, in 2020, I was elected to serve in the Indiana House of Representatives. After I won the election, The Speaker of the House, Todd Huston, drove to Newburgh to meet with me for lunch. The intent of the meeting was for him to get to know more about me, so when he asked about me, I shared my work history and background; I told him that I had worked in healthcare for over 25 years and had a background in management, but he kept pushing me, he wanted to know more. So I shared my personal story with him, and since that time he has always stated, “Cindy I don’t think you share your story enough.”
As a result of that, I thought I would share a little of my story with you this evening.
When I was 15 years old, living in Mississippi, my mom left me and my younger brother and sister with an alcoholic, abusive stepfather. My mother had not made one payment on the home we were living in, so we were forced to move out. We ended up moving into a trailer park. On Christmas Day of that year, we had no tree, no gifts, and no food in that trailer.
There was a knock on the door that day. It was the patrons of the bar that my stepfather drank with and they had adopted our family for Christmas. They brought in big bags of toys, and there was even a hair dryer in there for me to use as I had been drying my hair in front of an electric heater. There were also several boxes of food we got two turkeys that day bags of potatoes, and canned goods I cooked and cried all day long, being so grateful for the kindness of those bar patrons.
I became pregnant at 16, had my daughter at age 17, and dropped out of high school; and at one point was homeless with my daughter in the late 1980s.
Moving forward to the late 90s, I moved to Owensboro to work for my aunt at Sonic Drive-In. I was working 70 hours a week and was not making any money. I saw in the newspaper that there was this city named Evansville that had all these jobs that paid far better on the hour, so I accepted a position to manage a convenience store off of Highway 41 across from U of E. One day while I was driving down Highway 41, I saw this billboard that stated, “Ivy Tech, where will you be in two years.” It was at that time I thought to myself, “Cindy, where will you be in two years?” I had been working dead-end jobs, and I just didn’t seem to be moving forward in life.
So, I drove to Ivy Tech. When I pulled into the parking lot, I was so intimidated by the thought of college. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. Everybody in my family is on welfare.
I got out of the car with my knees shaking, and I walked in the front door and was about to turn around and leave out of fear when a tall elderly gentleman approached me and asked, “Young lady, how can I help you?” I replied, “Well, Sir, I want to go to college, I just don’t know where to get started.” That man took my hand and walked me through the door of the admission office, and my whole life changed.
During my time at Ivy Tech, I was earning $12,000 a year through work and was using income tax returns and student loans for money. I also took advantage of government grants which paid for my school books, childcare, and even emergency repairs on my car. I was a single mother of two young daughters and struggled to pay my rent. I remember going to my landlord during that time and telling him that I might get behind on my rent. When he asked me how far behind, and would it only be one month, I responded with “no sir I may be about three months behind.” I remember him putting his head down, thinking for a minute and then looking up stating, “Well since you came to me it will be okay.” I once again found myself feeling grateful.
I graduated from Ivy Tech in 1999 at 32 years old with an Associate Degree in nursing. That year I took advantage of another government program that co-signed the note on the very first home I bought. I remember that day shaking so badly with anxiety on signing that banknote, that the loan officer asked if I was okay. Once again, I remembered feeling grateful.
It has taken me 24 years, but I continued in my education, receiving my Doctorate degree from USI and walking for the first time last Friday. At the age of 56, I became Dr. Ledbetter. I am so grateful that I can now pay it forward and give back to those in need.
I share this story with you this evening because I want you first to recognize how far you have come and, secondly, to know that regardless of your social status, income, age, race, or gender, you have the ability to achieve so much more. The journey to finding your story and message is yours alone. No one else can make the journey for you and hand you your voice at the end. But also, no one can take your voice away from you unless you let them.
So, I challenge you today to not stop here, to continue to pursue your goals and dreams and to keep moving forward. Keep moving forward in gratitude.
In closing, I will leave you with a quote from Melanie Beatty.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, and confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”
So CONGRATULATIONS to all you new grads, Way to go!! I know the work that goes into receiving a degree, and I wish you the best moving forward. Thank you!