Ronald Reagan, Val Kilmer, William Shatner. William Woods University has hosted many well-known speakers throughout the years. But the 2017 commencement speaker outshone them all.
Jimmy Wayne, an award-winning country music singer and New York Times best-selling author, gave the address at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 6. He talked about his life, from foster care and homelessness to Nashville and Madison Square Garden, and how he persevered.
“This was the best commencement address we have ever experienced,” declared Dr. Jahnae H. Barnett, university president. “When I looked into the audience, I saw tears, appreciation, and guests sitting on the edges of their seats.”
And the graduates agree.
“I loved that he relayed a ‘no one can help you if you don’t help yourself’ mentality. He told us to work hard, thank those around us, be happy — and success will come,” shares Tori Brandt ’17, a Business and Accounting major, who is now working for the State of Missouri Auditors office while getting her MBA from WWU.
Wayne kicked off his speech by singing “Where You’re Going,” a song about the importance of looking ahead. This message resonated with the graduating class, particularly Anthony Bedford. Bedford, who sang the national anthem during the ceremony, is a social work major from St. Louis and is now employed by the Callaway County Children’s Division.
“His speech not only gave insight into his life, it also gave strength, encouragement, and guidance; it was a testament that no matter what hardships you may face in life, you can rise to success if you work hard and BELIEVE. I will forever be grateful for Jimmy Wayne’s speech and it will live with me in every move, step, and decision I make in my life.”
Professors were also impressed by the talk.
“This commencement address was the most vulnerable and meaningful presentation I have seen in my twenty-three-year tenure as a professor,” says George Garner, a Social Work associate professor. “His overarching themes of love, respect, appreciation, mentoring, hope, and work ethic were perfect messages for graduates.”
Wayne also discussed his current mission of helping to improve the foster care system and extend it to age twenty-one. He hiked 1,700 miles from Nashville to Phoenix to raise awareness, a journey that turned into the New York Times bestseller “Walk to Beautiful.” This type of involvement appealed to the WWU social work department. According to Garner, “Our graduates could relate to the issues and emotions he experienced, and grasp ideas that will allow them to be more effective practitioners.”
Jimmy Wayne’s address ended with a lively standing ovation. President Barnett and Dan Westhues (senior vice president at Central Bancompany, an alumnus of the William Woods MBA program, and a university trustee) then presented Wayne with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, recognizing his work on behalf of foster children.
“As our students enter into the workforce and start their career, it is important for them to also be a part of and contribute to their community,” shares Westhues. “My hope is that Wayne’s story activates this generation to contribute to the betterment of our society, while accomplishing their own individual goals.”
For more about Wayne, read the commencement speaker announcement.