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Then and Now: CALS Commencement Speakers

As UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences students graduate each year, a CALS senior is given the opportunity to address their classmates with a message for the future. The community created in the college lasts years beyond graduation, so we wanted to visit with our previous commencement student speakers, going all the way back to the first speaker in 2003!


2003

Chris Vitelli, 2003 & now

Chris Vitelli, agricultural education and communication
Current city: Merced, California
Current role: President of Merced College

What advice do you have for this year’s graduates?
Celebrate your achievements today and start working on your next life goals tomorrow. The world will leave you behind if you do not continuously work to better yourself, broaden your perspectives, and reinvent who you are to adapt to the innovative practices of tomorrow—all while holding true to yourself, your values, and character.


2004

Marshall Baker, 2004 & now

Marshall Baker, agricultural education and communication
Current city: Stillwater, Oklahoma
Current role: Senior consultant for MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) Consulting

What advice do you have for graduates?
There was a pressure to very clearly orate our plan for the next 20 years and how we would change the world. Truth is, very few of us are in jobs we planned for — or even knew existed. What problem do you want to help solve in the world? Pursue that. Build experiences around that. Meet people in that space. Really soak up each stop along the journey to solving the problem you care about. Think about the journey to the problem rather than the specific job progression. When people ask what your plans are, share the cause that fires you up and leave them wondering!

 


2005

Megan (Hoot) Walker, 2005 & now

Megan (Hoot) Walker, family, youth and community sciences
Current city: West Harrison, New York
Current role: Chief Volunteer Officer and Vice President of Mobilization and Community Engagement at the March of Dimes

If you were giving the CALS commencement speech today, addressing the newest class of CALS graduates, what would your message be?
Dream big, find your purpose and passion, always try your best and persevere, never stop learning and driving towards your goals, find work that doesn’t feel like work and make an impact, break the rules and never doubt that you can change the world.

 


2006

Emily (Hand) Petrilli, 2006

Emily (Hand) Petrilli, agricultural education and communication

In her 2006 speech to her peers, Emily said:

Our class is full of undergraduate and graduate students who will be great at making a living—but we can do so much more. When we leave here with our diplomas, let’s use them to change the face of more than one of our office walls. Let’s use what we have gained to change the face of our communities.


2007

Arthur Gonzalez, 2007 & now

Arthur Gonzalez, family, youth and community sciences
Current city: Los Angeles, California
Current role: Human resources manager, Getty Images; Author of young adult fiction and children stories

If you were giving the CALS commencement speech today, addressing the newest class of CALS graduates, what would your speech be about?
My speech would be about the swift nature of change and resiliency. How life rarely unfolds in the manner in which we envision; however, there is no waste or disappointment in it—only lessons to challenge our ambitions and tests that keep us questioning what makes us happy.


2008

Victoria Joy Ackroyd, 2008

Victoria Joy Ackroyd, landscape and nursery horticulture

Victoria’s speech, focused on giving back, ended:

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where or how you see fit to donate your time. The point is that you choose to do so. We owe a debt of gratitude at so many levels, and it really is a debt that should be paid. The beauty of paying this debt is that you get rewarded: Not in frequent flier miles or a higher spending limit, but in knowing that you have done your part, just as generations before you did their part, to make America great and to help your fellow man. As you set your feet to a new path, as you face the beginning of a new phase of your life, I hope you carry the insights of this ending, this commencement, with you. Congratulations, class of 2008.


2009

Matt Vann, 2009 & now

Matt Vann, environmental management in agriculture and natural resources
Current city: Raleigh, North Carolina
Current role: Assistant professor and tobacco extension specialist at North Carolina State University

If you were giving the CALS commencement speech today, addressing the newest class of CALS graduates, what would your speech be titled or about?
I would stress the importance of collaboration and the idea of working together toward a common goal. Each of us have unique gifts, talents, and perspectives that make us better collectively. We need to utilize each of those strengths to advance the agricultural sciences.


2010

Benjamin Anderson, 2010 & now

Benjamin Anderson, entomology and nematology
Current city: Kunshan, China
Current role: Assistant professor of global health at Duke Kunshan University

How has your degree in CALS helped get you to where you are currently?
I was first introduced to research as a CALS student working in Miller Lab. This experience, along with my entomology training, led me towards a career in academia.


2011

Kayla Morse Higgs, 2011 & now

Kayla Morse Higgs, family, youth and community sciences
Current city: Sharon, Massachusetts
Current role: Director of K12 Partnerships at WPS, a professional learning institute for educators; currently working toward a Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership and Management from the Institute of Nonprofit Practice, Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University

If you were giving the CALS commencement speech today, addressing the newest class of CALS graduates, what would your speech be titled and what would your advice be?
My speech would be titled, “Above all, seek balance.” Life and careers have no linear path, often the best ones are far from straight.  Give yourself grace to radically fail, and then strategize a better way; to say no to an option and then enthusiastically say yes to another. Balance requires us to bring the fullness of the human experience and be content with it. Learn to be more immersed with being than becoming, because when you look at who you are and who you’ve become—you can appreciate yourself and your contributions more fully, and think more broadly of what you can be and do.


2012

Cacee (Ford) Hilliard, 2012 & now

Cacee (Ford) Hilliard, agricultural education and communication
Current city: Williston, Florida
Current role: CARES Program Coordinator, Florida Farm Bureau Federation

How has your degree in CALS helped get you to where you are currently?
My degree in agricultural education and communication helped me kick- start my career in the teaching field. For five years, I used my degree to teach high school agriculture in Baker and Marion counties. During this time I was able to craft my skillsets in educating diverse audiences about agriculture and environmental stewardship. In my position now at Florida Farm Bureau, I use those same skillsets to teach audiences, of all ages, how farmers and ranchers positively contribute to and protect Florida’s environment.


2013

Monya Sharp, 2013

Monya Ayla Cashae Sharp, family, youth and community sciences

Monya drew inspiration from the movie Toy Story, and ended her speech:

As we move forward today let us not forget our growth never ends, there is always a lesson packed in our old toy box and because we are a part of the Gator Nation, our potential is nothing short of infinity and beyond!  Now let’s get to work!


2014

Casey Parker Crockett, 2014 & now

Casey Parker Crockett, entomology and nematology
Current city: Lake Wales, Florida
Current role: Technical Development Specialist for ADAPCO (Allen, Dan And Pete Company), a mosquito control company that serves mosquito control organizations throughout the country

If you were giving the CALS commencement speech today, addressing the newest class of CALS graduates, what would your speech be titled or about?
My speech would be titled “Let life take its course.” While a student at UF, I knew I would work with insect vectors, but I didn’t know where, in what capacity, where I would live or how I wanted to serve my industry. I just had a direction and that was all I needed. While I was in school, I networked and spent time talking to people in various roles and I just followed the path that felt the most right for me. Get comfortable trusting your gut AND always keep an open mind. The next step may not always be obvious, but it is there and if your passion drives you, you’ll never take a faulty step.


2015-2016

Due to renovations on the O’Connell Center, our college did not host a separate commencement ceremony. Therefore, there was no CALS student speaker for these years.


2017

Jose Alvarez, 2017 & now

Jose Alvarez, family, youth and community sciences
Current city: Gainesville, Florida
Current role: Master’s student in agricultural education and communication, specializing in leadership development

What advice do you have for graduates?
Have the mind of a scholar, the heart of a servant and the hide of an alligator.


2018 (spring)

Abigail Schirmer, 2018 & now

In 2018, our college hosted a student recognition ceremony in the fall and spring semesters, so there were two featured commencement student speakers.

Abigail Schirmer, nutritional sciences and microbiology and cell science
Current city: Daytona Beach, Florida
Current role: Medical student at Florida State University, College of Medicine

What advice do you have for graduates?
The attitude and mindset you possess amidst a challenge are just as important as conquering the challenge itself. Always share gratitude with colleagues, teammates, mentors and friends. Embrace obstacles as opportunities to learn, so that you may help others overcome theirs. Practice empathy every chance you can, it’s more impactful than you realize in the moment. It may not seem like it now, but things always work out the way they are meant to be.


2018 (fall)

Christine Krebs, 2018 & now

Christine Krebs, wildlife ecology and conservation
Current city: Gainesville, Florida
Current role: Agricultural education and communication Ph.D. student

How has your degree in CALS helped get you to where you are currently?
As a wildlife ecology and conservation undergraduate student in CALS I was exposed to the beauty and science of biodiversity. The outdoors was embedded in our curriculum. Through my degree program and involvement in the college, I became very curious about the intersection between science and society. I chose to stay at UF to pursue my master’s degree which just fueled that curiosity and led me to pursing a Ph.D.


2019

Victoria Harris, 2019 & now

Victoria Harris, biology
Current location: Gainesville, Florida
Current role: Veterinary student at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine

How has your degree in CALS helped get you to where you are currently?
My time at CALS provided me with phenomenal mentorship and guidance while I was an undergraduate student. Beyond providing me with a solid scientific foundation, faculty members in CALS would not hesitate to help me navigate the veterinary application process by providing essay critiques and practicing for the veterinary school interview. I would not be in veterinary school without the support of my mentors in CALS!


2020

Vada Hammons, 2020

Vada Hammons, animal sciences
Current city: Fort Collins, Colorado
Current role: Veterinary student at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

One year later as the world continues to navigate the pandemic, how would you address the newest class of CALS graduates?
Our spring 2020 commencement was online and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. My message was focused on hope and understanding that our ability to adapt was wildly impressive. Now, I would certainly congratulate the 2021 graduates on overcoming those same obstacles, and staying steadfast and determined despite the long term change in our academic careers!


2021

This year, biology student Amanda Myers will be addressing the graduating class in a speech delivered on our social media. Tune into the CALS Facebook page (/UFCALS) on Monday, May 3! Congratulations to the class to 2021!

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