‘We are survivors,’ Garbe tells Class of 2017

Riley Garbe's commencement address
Riley Garbe, Student Speaker December 2017 Commencement

Riley Garbe, Student Speaker
December 2017 Commencement

Riley Garbe first came to UW-Green Bay as a fifth-grader on a Phuture Phoenix field trip, where a visit to the campus turned into a dream of one day graduating from college. Despite surviving a difficult childhood that included witnessing abuse and violence and moving from home-to-home, Garbe entered the University on a Phuture Phoenix scholarship. He was recognized today (Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017) by the Alumni Association as the University’s Most Outstanding Student. He was also nominated and selected from all graduates as the student commencement speaker.

The following were his remarks to his fellow graduates, which were interrupted by applause and drew an emotional standing ovation from fellow classmates, friends and family in attendance:

Greetings to my UW-Green Bay Phoenix family. I am grateful and honored to be today’s commencement speaker.

As we take in this special moment, I’d like us all to remember our journeys up to this point. The late nights studying, those last minute essays and projects, the stress of balancing your responsibilities, eating cheap meals to get by, and worrying as you look at your bank account balance. But those are just on the surface. Many of you graduating today have achieved this incredible feat working multiple jobs, caring for your children or other family members, dealing with illness, grieving the loss of loved ones, navigating financial aid, and/or utilizing disability services. But here we are. We can all take a sigh of relief because we survived. For many of us, the struggle, the hustle, and the grind began long before college.

For me, I was born into a tough world. My parents were drug addicts and alcoholics, my parents went away to jail and prison throughout my childhood, I witnessed abuse and violence more times than I can count, my older brothers quit school to get involved in gangs and drugs, and by age 12 I had already lived in 16 different homes and two shelters. Like many of you, the odds were stacked against me from the beginning. Well my friends, here we are. If there is anything I would like to stand before you today and represent, it is this: first, the message that nothing is impossible and miracles really do happen, and second, to be a voice for all the young kids out there whom the world has betrayed, abandoned, and given up on.

At one point in college, I moved off campus to live with my family because my father was sick and could no longer work. I was studying for classes, competing for the cross country team, helping to take care of the little ones in our family, cooking and cleaning, and working to help the family pay bills. My dad told me, “Son, you are a survivor.” And today, I tell you that we are all survivors.

To everyone involved with Phuture Phoenix, to the university’s academic services and financial aid office, to all of the wonderful professors I had in the English and Education departments, to Coach Mike Kline and my cross country family, to the spiritual directors and priests in my life, and to my hundreds of kiddos out in the community who keep me going everyday, thank you all for helping me to be a survivor.

My fellow graduates, we have been out in the dry desert, falling to our knees many times, and crawling to find a sign of life as the sun cooks our bodies and sweat burns our eyes. It is out in the dead of the desert where we have clawed beneath the dry, hard surface and discovered the water of life. Though we thought we were going to die out in the desert, today we sip that water of life (some of us might sip a little something else today too), say cheers to our fellow graduates, and continue to survive.

Each of us has spent time at this great university gaining wisdom and knowledge through classroom experiences, lab experiments, opportunities out in the field, internships, scientific research, and studying abroad. Now it is our responsibility to use that wisdom and knowledge to go out into the world and do our part to progress the world in a positive direction. It was through sacrificing my life for others that I discovered myself. I recall one kid who I mentored in an after school program and coached in a running club, whose rides never showed up on time. I willingly stayed late with him everyday to practice basketball and multiplication. When his ride would arrive, he would walk out with his head down in embarrassment that he was always the last one to be picked up, the kid who people had given up on, the kid who just wanted someone to love him. In that young man, I saw myself and remembered that I need to be the champion for him that I needed when I was his age. Just as many role models in our lives have helped us to survive through the challenges of life, it is our turn to help others be survivors.

UW-Green Bay Class of 2017: Together let us pour love out into a world that is broken and crying for us to do something. Congratulations, now it’s time to celebrate as we continue to rise like the Phoenix!

Not only is Mr. Garbe the Fall 2017 Commencement Speaker and Outstanding Student Award recipient, he also represents a milestone for one of the University’s signature programs, Phuture Phoenix. This important program began 15 years ago to introduce middle school students to college, and to encourage them to dream big about their futures. The first Phuture Phoenix participants walked across this stage in 2015. Today, 16 Phuture Phoenix students graduated, bringing the program’s total impact to 51 students. And today, Mr. Garbe represents the FIRST Phuture Phoenix graduate to be recognized as the Outstanding Student and to be selected as the Commencement Speak for the graduating class. Congratulations, Riley and to all Phuture Phoenix graduates!


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