When I came to Western Carolina University, I quickly discovered there is something inherently special about this place – an unspoken yet agreed upon understanding that what we have in this space is unique and offers us the comfort and security to find out who we really are. It was in this place that I took the time to find out, for myself, who I really am.

When I was growing up, I always knew I was a little different. I spent a lot of my time in church, and I found my youth group to be a safe haven providing me with a solid group of friends. I played sports and was particularly good at baseball and soccer at a young age. I had a loving mother and father. Although they are divorced, they have been in my life equally with their support and guidance. Looking back, it can paint a pretty Norman Rockwell scene in your mind. But still, I knew something was different.

It was my freshman year when, after months of soul-searching and praying, I was finally face-to-face with myself, standing in front of my dorm room mirror. I had come to discover my reality. It was then when I was able to tell myself the three hardest words to leave my mouth: “I am gay.”

What a journey that was. I was raised relatively conservatively and with Christian values, which I still live by today. I kept thinking, this couldn’t be happening.  At first, the realization and acceptance angered me. It terrified me that I was something I never thought I was supposed to be, something I never should be. Even today, it makes me nervous to talk about because I don’t want to offend or upset anyone and I know the intense and often dangerous hatred of the topic could be a factor in possibly ending relationships and friendships. I feared how my family would react, as this realization countered a lifetime worth of beliefs for many of them. But, at that moment, standing in front of the mirror, I knew for a fact this was my truth and I must walk in it.

There is something to be said about the purification – or cleansing – I went through to understand that sentence: This is my truth and I must walk in it. I slowly started to strip away barriers I had put up to keep my secret. I wasn’t being myself. Trying to hide it was exhausting, and hiding the truth only hid parts of my personality and my ability to connect with people. When I looked in that mirror, I was able to speak my truth and take my first steps walking in it.

Commencement is a day when we look back at life-changing moments throughout our time at WCU. Each of us had something happen that we learned from, whether it’s failing a test and learning from your procrastination. Or maybe it’s a relationship that has had its ups and downs, but you’ve conquered more than you ever thought you would together, and you know you’re just getting started. Or maybe it’s having friends enter and exit your life and learning something they bring to you along the way.

I’m a firm believer in those lines from “Wicked” the musical: “People come into our lives for a reason, bringing something we must learn. And we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them, and we help them in return.” If that doesn’t summarize college, I don’t know what does. Constant interactions with people who think, talk and act differently than we do only lead each of us to find out for ourselves what we believe in, allowing us to shape our own opinions.

Here, I have been immersed in incredible classroom debates and discussions that have opened my mind to new things that were never in my realm of possibility – fascinating, intimate conversations on some of our most fundamental forms of philosophy and government. WCU gave us that atmosphere to learn and to listen.

Yet, I notice that, as a society, we do not listen to each other anymore. I can’t scroll through my Facebook feed without seeing someone bashing another person’s opinions, shutting someone down with no contextual backing, just doing it because what they saw was different than their beliefs.

There are going to be people in life who are different, people who think, act, talk and walk differently. That’s totally OK. But we cannot fall victim to a political climate that screams, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” As a society, we are going to disagree on key issues that can be controversial. But this country’s fiber is one that is formed around democracy, a form of government that allows for disagreement. Can we not disagree without demoralizing and ripping each other apart?

Western Carolina is a place that has allowed us to disagree and counter one another in a civil manner – face-to-face disagreements that have allowed us to come to our own understandings on topics. My hope is that, as a society, we can move forward with the same civility we have kept in our classroom discussions.

This column is excerpted from an address delivered by Brandon Truitt ’16 at WCU’s fall 2016 commencement ceremony. A former Waynesville resident who earned degrees in communication and political science, he is now a reporter at WNCT-TV in Greenville.