This past weekend, we celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the John B. Ervin Scholars Program at Washington University in St. Louis. I can say without a doubt that the constant support and good will of the program (which now employs me), I would not be the man, writer, and educator I am today. It was such a pleasure to see everyone over the weekend, particularly the alumni and family members. I’m proud to be an Ervin Scholar and even more proud of the program and the changes it is making on campus, in St. Louis, and in the world. I even had the honor of being asked to be one of the alumni speakers at our celebration banquet on Saturday. Just to show how much I love this program and the difference it’s made for me, I’ve decided to post my speech below. Enjoy!
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an honor to be asked to speak here tonight on a stage where so many inspiring alumni have stood before. I’ve had the pleasure to reconnect with so many alumni this weekend and meet so many more. I want to tell you a little bit about my story and how the Ervin Program has made everything I am possible.
I was raised in Versailles, Missouri, yes it is pronounced that way, in a single parent, low-income household. My mom worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known to make sure we had everything we ever needed and I could just enjoy being a kid.
So when I entered WashU and the Ervin Program, I knew I had to make her proud, had to be successful. I planned to major in Biology on the pre-med track. I was going to be a doctor. How many of us can say we started out that way too? And I made it through the first semester only to discover the joy of writing that I had only dabbled in and, to my surprise, a love for English which I said I’d never study again after high school. So I decided I’d double major in Biology and English with a minor in creative writing, still pre-med. Great idea right? Everyone at WashU does it.
It wasn’t until about halfway through second semester, after spending more time on my English and Writing courses and even less on bio and chemistry, that I realized it just wasn’t going to work.
You see I had discovered this passion for writing but I was supposed to become a doctor. Where did I go from there? What should I do?
Well, I did what most people would do. I asked for advice. I asked my friends here at WashU and back home, my girlfriend (now wife). But the most important conversation I had was with Laura Stephenson, then assistant director of the program. I remember sitting with her at an event and she offered me some very simple advice that I have since offered to other undergraduates. She said to do what made me happy, do what I was passionate about and not only would my family support me, but the Ervin Program would still be there as well.
You see, I knew what my heart was telling me to do and what everyone else was telling me but in that moment, I needed to hear it from someone who had been through all of this before, someone who had the wisdom to speak to what others had done, and the willingness to see me succeed not because of any familial or social obligation but because they genuinely just wanted me to succeed. And Laura was there for me. That bit of advice started me on the path that led to my career in writing. So Laura, thank you.
My second and most cherished memory of my time with the Ervin program is a conversation I had with Dean McLeod about six months before he passed away. It was my second year of college and I was at an Ervin breakfast. We were sitting together and he asked me how my writing was going. In all honesty, I didn’t even know he knew I was writing. I told him it was going okay but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. I wasn’t sure if I could make a career out of it or make enough money to support a family one day. And he gave me some profound advice that still resonates.
He said if I was passionate about writing, then I should keep writing. I should write every chance I got and hold on to my passion and if I did that, then the money would find me. And he was right.
I kept writing and kept writing and when the time came for me to leave WashU, I continued writing and got my MFA. Now I have the wonderful joy of both writing and teaching other young writers here at WashU. That’s all possible in no small part because the Ervin Program supported me in all that I did. If it weren’t for Ervin, who knows where I, a first generation, low income kid at WashU, would have ended up.
I should also say that when I graduated, the Ervin Program hired me on as a staff member and its been one of the most rewarding experiences of my journey as an Ervin Scholar. Every day I get to hang out with Ervin Scholars for hours, get to offer them the advice that was given to me by upperclassmen and the staff. I can share the advice that Laura and Dean McLeod gave to me when I was an unsure student. Honestly, I can say that working with the Ervin Program isn’t a job for me. It’s living with my Ervin family , something truly indescribable.
And here’s the thing for all the alumni in the room, you can have the same experience. I challenge you all to get reconnected with the program beyond this weekend that only happens once every five years and get involved with the undergraduates. Meet an undergrad, share your story with them, and stay connected when you get back home. They will reach out to you with questions and seek the same advice we all needed at their age and you have the opportunity, the privilege and the responsibility to be there for them. That’s what living the legacy of the Ervin Program means.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my story and memories with you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening.”