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The Untold Graduation Speech of a First-Generation College Student

Updated: Oct 29, 2022

A few months before graduation, I signed to be a commencement speaker for the journalism school at Michigan State University. I submitted it to the committee and was one of the finalists. Ultimately, I wasn't chosen, but I want to share it.

A few months before graduation, I signed to be a commencement speaker for the journalism school at Michigan State University. I submitted it to the committee and was one of the finalists. Ultimately, I wasn't chosen, but I want to share it.

Disclaimer: This speech contains sensitive topics. Reader discretion is advised.

I would like to start off my speech by saying congratulations to our graduating seniors! My name is Julian Stainback and I am honored to speak to you all today. I am a graduating senior, double majoring in journalism and media and information. I’m a first-generation college student, but the experience here at MSU has been both unforgettable and a culture shock.

Growing up in Detroit was an experience. I have endured bullying for nearly 12 years before coming to college. People would call me derogatory terms, make fun of my sexuality and intimidate me. Many times, I referred to the schools as ‘battlegrounds.’ It was hard to go to school and get an education because I constantly had to defend myself. It was one point I contemplated suicide. I felt like taking my life was the only way to end my pain and suffering.

In Detroit, going to college was the expectation, and the culture in both my high school and community reflected it. It was very difficult, considering my parents were divorced and I had to be the leader and provider for my siblings. My parents (mom and grandmother) were proud of me for choosing to attend college. Being a first-gen didn’t seem like a big deal until I actually came to MSU. From the moment my mom dropped me off, I felt like I was on my own in a completely different environment. It was a culture shock because life in East Lansing was completely different. In my hometown, I would hear arguments and sometimes gunshots in my neighborhood. It was at one point I was scared for my life.

Not many people can understand the pressures, stress, and anxiety that low-income, first-generation students face every day. We have to fight for support, recognition, and most importantly, being accepted for who we are. Attending a predominantly white institution was challenging. Throughout my time at Michigan State, I was pretty much on my own without any support. For low-income students who are first-gen, it can be extremely difficult to live life on your own. There would be times when I didn’t want to continue, but I kept going. It can be very discouraging to have trouble finding support on-campus. Oftentimes, we are overlooked as if we’re not even there and we have to fight for equality, inclusion, and most importantly, acceptance. At first, I felt like an impostor at State, I was one of the few first-gen students who just couldn’t identify with anyone else.

In my second semester here, I was placed on academic probation. This completely shattered my self-esteem but it sparked me to keep going. In sophomore year, I was on a major hunt going to colleges that would suit my interest. Then, it hit me: journalism. Taking my first elective was inspiring and before I knew it, I switched my major to journalism. Since switching, I have met some awesome students, staff, and faculty that helped me get more acclimated to journalism.

Going from a science major to the arts was a challenge within itself because I had to go from a mathematical mindset to a creative one. I ultimately found my passion for journalism when I took newscast production for the first time. I worked my way up to be an executive producer for the J-School’s Emmy award-winning newscast, Focal Point News. Being able to put my vision together and have it air live is a thrilling experience.

Ultimately, I found my career path: being a news producer. Being able to cover community news, which was something not found in Detroit, gave me the kickstart. In the future, I hope to create a newspaper that touches small communities and the stories they have to offer. I could not thank the J-School enough for allowing me to express myself through the art of storytelling. Who knew you could create stories right off of your phone?

I also would not be here if it wasn’t for my mom, Latoria Thomas, and Carolyn Thomas. My grandmother took on the father role, giving me wisdom like no other parent could do. My mother was able to manage to raise three children on her own without my dad’s support.

I would also like to thank the entire chapter of NABJ. (wait for applause). Since joining this organization, I felt like I have finally found my place here. I have met many awesome friends who I consider family. Through the professional workshops and bonding events, I was able to develop my own image and personality in journalism without barriers and get access to internships, something I struggled with throughout my time in journalism. Again, thank you NABJ.

Lastly, I’d like to thank The State News, MSU’s independent newspaper, for giving me the opportunity to report on stories that matter most. I have worked for the newspaper as an audience engagement editor and as a mental health reporter. Being at The State News gave me the voice and courage to be myself.

As I end my speech, I am proud to say that I have been a mentor, a best friend, a king, and even a brother to many. I have helped so many people during my journey because we all know college is very stressful, trust me. Being here has allowed me to look at the world from a different perspective and I have learned more about expressing myself. Most importantly, I have learned to be more empathetic and understanding because not everyone is the same and everyone comes from different parts of the world. But, the biggest life lesson I learned is that it’s okay to be different, to be your own individual, to find what makes you happy regardless of the outside world. Thank you Michigan State for giving me the best five years of my life. As the saying goes: Once a Spartan always a Spartan. Go Green!

Respectfully signed,

Julian Stainback


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