My address to the graduating class of 1999 at Stetson University.

My undergraduate class elected me as the male graduation speaker. This is what I said during commencement on May 9, 1999.

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Stetson U. commencement address
By Andy Dehnart

Last summer, Central Florida was ravished by wildfires. Started by both lightening and arsonists, they scorched everything in their paths. The orange flames, giant dragon tongues lapping at trees and bushes and homes, consumed acres upon acres of land. Thick, black smoke poured into the air, blanketing and smothering the state. Fuzzy woodland creatures and people alike fled their homes. It was a time of crisis.

Thanks to the work of firefighters and help from drenching rain, the fires are now out; the crisis is past. Left behind, however, is the evidence of the fire’s destruction: blackened trees, charred leaves, and piles of ash. But there, within this apparent disaster area, is new life. For all its wanton destruction, the fire actually regenerated the forest, fertilizing the ground with ash and destroying the vegetation that choked existing trees and prevented new growth. Fire is nature’s way of reviving itself.

How can something so negative be so good? I’ve often asked that question of life at Stetson. The phrase “Happy Hatter” has, at times, fit me about as well as all of us would fit into one of our closet-sized residence hall rooms.

While water dripped from the library’s ceiling onto books, we built a fitness center. A well-rounded liberal arts education exists only in theory here, as we concentrate on the job market value of our degrees. Our overly litigious university sometimes constricts academic and personal freedom. Many faculty are afraid to challenge the powers-that-be, and plenty of students care more about Abercrombie and Fitch than astrophysics.

But within the fire, there was life. There were the professors who opened their doors and e.mail whenever I wanted to talk. There were the students who challenged me and made classes intellectually stimulating, not a $20,000 a year drool-fest. There were those people who actively fought intolerance and prejudice, Eurocentrism and sexism, racism and homophobia.

It is within them — those rare professors and students, staff and administrators who actually choose to work hard and fight for what they believe in — that Stetson exists. They are the university, and without them, it’s no more than a well-dressed, well-manicured campus.

A week ago today, I was at Disney’s Magic Kingdom with two friends. As we passed in front of “It’s A Small World,” one of my companions noticed a small boy. His eyes were flooded with tears, and it wasn’t because he’d been forced to listen to that disturbing song over and over again.

She stopped and asked him if he was lost. He nodded his head, and then continued to cry. My friend flagged down a Disney employee, who took the boy by the hand, and helped him look around. We stood nearby, searching the crowd ourselves for a sign of frantic parents. Eventually, another employee came our direction, and pointed over her shoulder. There was the boy’s despondent father; they were quickly reunited.

We’re essentially all lost children in the theme park of the world. But we have no ultimate destination; there are no parents to find and go home with. It’s up to us to explore and wade through the crowds; we must take advantage of the wildfire, cultivating the ashes to grow our own futures.

Our families serve as the park’s information booth, providing us with invaluable maps and advice and directions and support. But it’s still ultimately up to us to choose our destinations.

We spend our time on rides and at shows, meeting new people and creating great memories. Each ride gives a slightly different thrill, a different experience than the one before it. For all the times it has flipped me upside down and made me want to throw up, Stetson has been a great ride. But eventually, we must move on.

Unlike the lost boy, we have a choice. We can stand, bewildered, sobbing, in the middle of the crowd. Or, we can head for the roller coaster — the large, metal one that screeches terrifyingly as it tears through turns and inversions at breakneck speed.

Take a deep breath, grab onto the handlebar, and make the most of the ride.