Commencement speaker Crystal Olson urges graduates to live lives of courage

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo conferred degrees on approximately 400 students as the university held fall commencement exercises Saturday, Dec. 15.

In her commencement address, WCU senior Crystal Leigh Olson of Hickory encouraged the graduates “to embark upon this life’s journey with courage, a certain degree of humbleness, and empathy toward those around you.”

Olson won the honor of delivering the primary address at fall commencement by virtue of her winning essay in a contest sponsored by Western’s Honors College.

“There are many challenges ahead of you, and as you face them, don’t be afraid,” Olson told the graduates in the Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center. “These challenges shape you mentally, physically and spiritually. In order for growth to occur from within, you must be prepared for difficult times, as well as for success.”

Olson spoke about some heroes from the pages of history – individuals such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. Marty St. Clair, who created the AIDS drug AZT, and Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland who visited the WCU campus earlier this fall.

“To hear (Walesa) talk last month is something I will never forget,” Olson said. “His Solidarity Movement changed the course of his country’s history. Lech Walesa was an electrician by trade, but he found himself leading his countrymen in the fight for freedom. President Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize for his courage and leadership during troubled times. He will never be forgotten.”

Something else that won’t be forgotten, Olson said, are “the horrific events of Sept. 11. Even though our nation paid a terrible price, we must go on with our lives and live every day to its highest potential. So many people have opened their hearts to people who are in pain because of this terrible event. Out of the ashes of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there have emerged so many heroes,” she said.

“These heroes are common, ordinary people – like you and me – who have made a difference. There were stories of people in the World Trade Center who helped their injured coworkers out of the building. There were stories of the firemen and policemen who rushed into that burning building to save the lives of others, and for some the cost of their courage was the loss of their lives.”

Olson said WCU has had its share of heroes since the terrorist attacks. As a student leader in WCU’s Honors College, Olson said she had five individuals approach her on Sept. 11 about helping to coordinate an emergency blood drive on WCU’s campus. That blood drive turned out to be one of the most successful blood drives ever held on the campus.

“Out of the ashes of any disaster, hope and courage always will be resurrected,” Olson said. “Throughout the history of the world, many heroes have emerged – some are more well known than others and some remain unsung.

“We each have the potential to do great and magnanimous things with our lives. My charge to you is to live your lives with courage, dignity and pride, and to be ready for all that lies ahead in your future.”

A chemistry major and Honors College student, Olson is the daughter of Bernard and Terri Olson of Hickory. Last February, she was one of 106 college students across the nation named to the USA Today College Academic Team.