Taking the stage in front of a packed Schottenstein Center full of approximately 2,300 soon-to-be-graduates and their families, Frank Shankwitz, co-founder of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, encouraged students to approach post-collegiate life with positivity.
“In your future years … whenever someone tells you that you can’t do something or it can’t be done, look for a way to turn that negative into a positive,” Shankwitz said. “Surround yourself with positive people. Successful people keep a positive attitude. They won’t allow themselves to become negative. A positive person is reliable and will work hard to complete a task. And more important, a positive person is a person of high character.”
Wearing a cowboy hat that matched his black robe, Shankwitz, the commencement speaker chosen to address the crowd for Ohio State’s 411th commencement ceremony, began with a joke that alluded to his background as a retired homicide detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
“During my 41-year career as a police officer, I conducted thousands of background investigations of suspects. The new word for ‘background investigations’ is ‘vetting,’ which leads me to wonder how the commencement selection committee ever selected me to speak to you today following their vetting process,” Shankwitz said. “Issue No. 1, I’m from Pac-12 country. And the big issue No. 2 is, as a very young boy, I used to live in what I believe you call, ‘up north,’ or Michigan.”
As the laughter of the crowd died down, Shankwitz focused the theme of his speech on the importance of giving back to others.
Drawing upon personal experiences, Shankwitz described an encounter he had as a motorcycle officer with the Arizona Highway Patrol that changed his life.
In 1980, Shankwitz met Chris, a 7-year-old boy suffering from terminal leukemia who wanted to be a highway patrol motorcycle officer. Upon hearing his wish, the Arizona Highway Patrol made him the first and only honorary Arizona Highway Patrol officer, “complete with a uniform, badge and motorcycle wings,” Shankwitz said.
Days after having his wish granted, Chris died, but Shankwitz said it was this experience that taught him the importance of helping others. Meeting Chris also inspired him to create the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation is a nonprofit corporation that works toward fulfilling wishes for children with “life-threatening medical (conditions),” according to its website. Since its inception, Make-A-Wish has been able to fulfill more than 350,000 children’s wishes.
Matt McCracken, who received a degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering, said he appreciated that Shankwitz shared examples from his own life in his speech to bolster the advice he gave to the graduates.
“Just his personal story, as far as what he came up from and what he ended up doing with his life, was really inspirational,” he said.
In his speech, Shankwitz said there were some people who initially raised doubts regarding turning the concept of Make-A-Wish into reality. But despite these skeptics, Shankwitz’s goal was achieved, due largely in part to a quality he strives to possess — ‘stickability.’ Shankwitz said people who have “stickability” will not give up on their thoughts, ideas and goals, and he encouraged members of the OSU graduating class to develop this quality in their personal and professional lives.
“If you want to do something, do it. Never go through life saying, ‘I should have,’” he said. “Never give up. You can make a living by what you get, but you can make a life by what you give. Everyone can be a hero.”
Yunpiao Bai, who received a degree in logistics, said she enjoyed hearing these encouraging words.
“(Shankwitz) said to turn your difficulty into something that makes you stronger, so I thought that was very meaningful,” she said. “I can connect on a personal level, so that was really cool. I liked that.”
A total of 3,305 degrees and certificates were awarded for Autumn Semester 2015. Of these, there were 2,634 undergraduate and associate degrees and certificates, 450 master’s degrees, 212 doctoral degrees and nine professional degrees.
In addition to the diplomas earned by graduates on Sunday, four other honors were presented during the ceremony.
Alumnus and microbiologist Thomas D. Brock, who received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in botany from OSU, was awarded the Joseph Sullivant Medal; a Doctor of Science degree was awarded to the vice chancellor of the University of London, Sir Adrian F.M. Smith; and Mabel Freeman, former assistant vice president for Undergraduate Admissions and First Year Experience, was awarded the Distinguished Service Award.
Shankwitz was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree for his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
After one last rendition of “Carmen Ohio,” the graduates picked up their diplomas and exited the arena, celebrating their status as official OSU alumni. It is this sense of fellowship that Kevin Ball, who received a degree in criminology, said he will remember most about OSU.
“It is a big school, but when you break it down, it is not that big,” Ball said of his alma mater. “There is that huge sense of family. You always have Ohio State to lean back on.”