Student Speaker: Omar Willis

Omar Willis Bio

Omar Willis graduates with his Associate of Arts degree. After graduating from Lynnwood High School, Willis began work as a hairstylist for Gene Juarez Salons and Spas. He wanted to go to college, but did not think he could afford it.

However, after his father passed away, Willis learned he qualified for a college tuition waiver due to his father's service as a Vietnam Veteran. Now Willis, 24, is trying to get as far as he can toward his goal of earning a master's degree, before the benefit runs out when he turns 26.

Motivated, he finished his Associate of Arts in just one year, while working, and earned a 3.9 GPA. He has also been involved on campus: performing in the college's production of The Member of the Wedding and the Theatre Arts Students Organization production of Molière's The Miser, participating in service-learning projects with AmeriCorps program Students in Service, and leading the student philosophy club.

This fall, Willis plans to attend Western Washington University or the University of Washington to study theater and communications.

Omar Willis2011 Commencement Speech

Edmonds Community College is comprised of many different students, from many different backgrounds, but we all have one thing in common, we are here because we made a choice to enrich our lives in ways that will give us the promise of a brighter future.

For us to make it to this day and across this stage, many things had to happen. We had to make sacrifices, many of us faced extreme obstacles to make it here today, but you did make it and for that you should be proud. You have succeeded in overcoming adversity to accomplish something great.

College is a journey, but it actually starts before you go to school. In a way, my journey began in the 1960s.

In the late 1960s, a young teenage marine is in the jungles of Vietnam fighting a war that he doesn't understand. He just wants to serve his country.

His choice is to do something he believes is right.

After two tours, six years of service, nine gunshot wounds and one year of hospitalization, he makes an honest attempt to return to a normal life back home.

Flash forward to a late winter night, the year is 2007, after four decades of suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and complications from the gunshot wounds of the war, Johnny Willis lays in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones as he takes his final breaths and leaves this earth.

I was 19 when my father passed away. I had just started my career as a hairstylist working for Gene Juarez Salons and Spas. Ever since I was little I wanted to go to college, but I never thought spending four years as a starving student would be practical. I needed to work to help support my family. The rising cost of tuition seemed insurmountable and my grades in high school were less than desirable. I needed stability fast and a trade seemed my best option.

After a few years in the hair industry, I felt it was time to try to understand more about my father-s service. I discovered that because he was disabled from service-related ailments at the time of his death, I could attend any public institution in the state of Washington free of tuition - I would only have to pay for books and fees - as long as it was before my 26th birthday, at which time the benefit would cease.

I had just turned 23. I wondered if I could do it.

I took 15 credits my first quarter and I earned a 4.0. Even so, I felt that I was not doing enough to honor my father's service. I knew I had a unique opportunity and I wanted to work hard to honor my father's memory.

He used to always tell me, "To be good is not enough when you dream of being great."

I decided to try to finish my Associate of Arts in a year so I could get my bachelor's too before I turned 26 - and I wanted to get the best grades possible while doing it. My last quarter I took 27 credits while working and now I'm graduating with my Associate's degree and a 3.9 GPA - respectable.

Many people told me I was crazy for trying to juggle so much. But I had made a choice and that choice fueled my passion.

Passion is something that you can actively pursue after you make a choice to be committed to something.

It can be a job, a hobby, or even a person. It can be music, computer technology, sports, or writing. We all made it here today because we are passionate about our future. We made a commitment to shape that and to grow.

Did you know that it generally takes about 10,000 hours to master any set of skills? With 2,088 hours in the average work year, it would take five years to master most fields. The more competitive the field, the higher the level of mastery required - and the more time it takes. So to become a licensed hairstylist it takes a minimum of 1,800 hours. To become a doctor, it takes upward of 20,000 hours.

The point here is that NOTHING HAPPENS OVERNIGHT. Even Justin Beiber was grinding it out several years on YouTube before he became an (air quote) overnight success.

Will Smith was honing his talent for six years on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and played in lesser-known film Six Degrees of Separation before becoming the movie star that people know him as today.

Stephen King taught English before breaking through with Carrie at the age of 26. He, like you, woke up everyday and made a choice to actively pursue his passion.

When you leave here today, don't be afraid of making the wrong choice of what you do for your career, just be committed and continue to pursue your future passionately. With your career, you can make a choice that defines you.

There are two things: the way that people define you and the way that you define yourself.

What really matters, is the way that you define yourself - and that comes from what you do, your actions, and your choices.

You can say I am a hairstylist, I am a parent, or you can say I am a friend. You can say I am a dancer, a musician, a businessman, or an IT specialist or you can say I am President of the United States - whatever you choose make it an important part of your identity. Always work at those things that you define yourself by. Give yourself a focus and work toward your priorities.

And after today you have another important part to your identity, one that shows you have overcome adversity, one that can never be taken away - you are a graduate of Edmonds Community College - it is now part of your identity forever.

Thank you.