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Read the 2016 Midyear Commencement Address

For his enthusiasm for both his subject material and for teaching, Paul Bracher, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, was selected by Saint Louis University’s chapter of Alpha Sigma Nu, the national Jesuit honor society, to receive the Nancy McNeir Ring Award for excellence in teaching.

In the selection process, a student observed: “He is intelligent, yet down to earth – a rare, but welcomed combination.” 

In honor of his award, he delivered the 2016 Midyear Commencement address. Read his remarks below or watch it online on YouTube.

Paul Bracher, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, delivers the 2016 Midyear Commencement address.

Thank you, Ryan, and thanks to all of you in Alpha Sigma Nu. This is awesome.

I am truly honored to receive the Nancy McNeir Ring award in its first year back. It has been a privilege to teach at SLU and get the chance to work, year after year, with talented and motivated students like yourselves. I work among many colleagues who are equally — if not more — deserving of the honor, but it feels pretty darn good to be the one here. Thank you.

I must admit that I was more than a little intimidated to be invited to deliver the commencement address today. I mean, think of the responsibility! To impart one final message to the Class of 2016 that stirs your hearts and propels you forward to careers of great success. Why me?

Then I thought back to my college graduation from New York University. It was a great day. I vividly remember the bagpipers, the procession of school dignitaries, and the sea of purple gowns that filled Washington Square Park. And then I thought back to our esteemed keynote speaker … and soon realized that not only do I not remember anything he said, I can’t even remember his name. And so, I thought, “Great! I can manage that!”

I love Midyear Commencement. The Spring Commencement in May is crazy. This entire arena is packed solid; it takes ages for the procession to finish; not everyone who wants to get into the building can fit; the speeches are longer; and students don’t even get to walk across the stage for their diplomas.

Not so at Midyear Commencement. You all get to walk across the stage, and if you have family waiting outside, I think there are still one or two open seats available over there. And there. And there, too. Tell them to come on in.

Midyear Commencement is also more interesting. Most things are timed at universities to end in May. While some of your programs were indeed scheduled to finish today, I bet there are also some of you who worked hard to complete your degree programs as quickly as possible and are finishing a semester early. I bet that a good number of you have been squeezing in classes at SLU, here and there, while working full-time jobs or raising families, and now, you’re finally finished. I bet some of you encountered some sort of trouble or unexpected event — academic or otherwise — and are finishing a semester late. The important thing is that you all made it, and this is a massive accomplishment.

I had one of those unexpected events in college that threw me off schedule. When I was a sophomore, I went to Spain on a school-sponsored trip for Spring Break. It was a whirlwind tour of the country, and we ended up visiting a lot of fortresses on top of hills. On one such visit, to the Alcázar of Toledo, my right leg kept giving out when we were descending a long, steep walkway at the end of our tour. I had to stop several times and hold on to a handrail before catching up to the rest of the group on our bus. When I got back to New York, after an MRI scan and several doctors appointments, I was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumor. While not malignant, it was a monster, spanning eight vertebrae down my back. The surgery to resect it took over 12 hours. And while everything went pretty well, though had I walked into the procedure, I could no longer walk when it was over.

You never really appreciate what you have until you lose it, and suddenly not being able to walk, at all, was jarring to say the least. I was at college, alone, in New York City. Forget about how I was going to be able to start classes the next week, or work in a chemistry lab … how was I even going to take care of myself?

It might surprise you when I say that I was a big chemistry nerd. I still am. Ever since I took my first chemistry class in tenth grade, I knew exactly want I wanted to do when I grew up: run experiments to figure out the chemistry behind how life works and teach it to others. So, it was with great anxiety that I decided to take a leave of absence from college to focus on my health and devote the same intensity to my physical rehabilitation as I had to chemistry.

On my first day at the rehab hospital, as I was lying in bed unable to go anywhere, I remember seeing another patient walking down the hallway using a walker, and literally, moving about 10 feet per minute. I thought to myself, if I could do that, I’d walk right out the door and back into the lab.

Eventually, I’d get there. The physical therapy was intense, and slowly, I transitioned from being tilted up on my feet, to being able to stand with assistance, to standing alone, to being able to walk in parallel bars, to walking with a walker, to walking with forearm crutches. The progress was slow, not measured by hours or days, but by weeks. I ended up spending three months in that hospital before I had the skills necessary to get back to the chemistry lab.

And my point is this: in life, stuff happens. That was one thing that happened to me, but these things happen to everybody. You are going to have big dreams and a plan, but somewhere down the line, you are going to get kicked in the teeth. That’s life. And when it happens, you’ve got to accept it, deal with it, and get on with it.

After I learned to stand and walk with crutches, I returned to the lab at NYU and finished college three semesters later. I was able to stay on my feet at the lab bench to complete grad school and a postdoc. Now, here I am at SLU, teaching organic chemistry and managing a research group exploring the chemistry of how life started. A dream come true.

The challenges you will face in life make the victories so much sweeter, but they can also be frustrating. Sometimes, you will look around and think that everyone else has it easier than you. That’s just a natural human perception, but just remember that few successful people are truly coasting through life as wonderfully as they might seem.

Remember all of those nice quotes from my students that Ryan shared in his kind introduction? You’d think me incapable of fault as a teacher! Allow me to read a student evaluation from my current organic chemistry class. We collected the surveys just this Monday:

I absolutely loathe this course. It is embarrassing how much I have not learned from your class, your class is unfair, you write unfair exams, and the extra materials taught me nothing. All in all, this course ruined my semester and has made me incredibly unhappy.

I should disclose that I’ve edited the student’s comment for brevity — including removing a well-placed curse word used for emphasis. Fortunately, not all of the student evals were that bad.

Don’t be fooled by those who might make their jobs seem easy. Life is going to take work, and things are rarely easy for anyone. Even people who seem universally praised, are not. We all have challenges to overcome. We all have room to improve.

And so, as you get ready to line up and walk across stage, take a little time to savor your massive accomplishment in the context of the hard work it has taken and the challenges you’ve had to overcome. As you make goals and plans for the future, remember that every successful person faces continued challenges and there is always room for improvement, no matter how talented or perfect things may seem.

Congratulations, class of 2016. Dream big and work hard!