Alumnus-turned-professor has learned to celebrate accomplishments without comparing himself to others.
As we celebrate our graduates this spring, we hear many powerful stories about their experience—both in college and in life. More often than not, they’re stories of overcoming significant obstacles to reach their dreams.
During our graduation ceremonies, we get to hear from some of these students, as well as FRCC professors who’ve had an impact on our students. We call them our “Voices.” This Spring, were sharing several of their speeches with you here.
We hope you learn something worthwhile from each our our graduation voices.
Steve Yamiolkoski: Math Professor
I’ve been a math teacher for about 20 years, and any teacher is going to encounter students that occasionally become discouraged at the task before them. I sometimes share with students these words: “I’m not necessarily better at math than you are; I just learned it before you did.”
As a senior in college, I found myself sitting in some upper-level math course with some horrible name: Estimation, Approximation, & Convergence: A Rigorous Introduction to Modern Mathematical Analysis.
We were assigned homework every Monday which was due the Monday of the following week. I spent the next seven days pouring over these problems using my notes, my book, my study buddy; I would get what I thought was a correct answer and visit my professor usually to find out that, for the last few days, I had been using the wrong approach or answering a different question than what I was actually being asked.
Sweat, Tears and… Rage
Finally, often around 11:00pm on Sunday night, mere hours before the assignment was due, I would have about 20 pages stapled together that represented my sweat, tears and a good dose of rage. And people say math isn’t fun.
The young man who sat in front of me in this class was, come to find out, a junior in high school who was taking some classes at the college. Before class one day, I was sitting at my desk with my wad of an assignment in front of me and he came in and sat down. He casually looked around the room when his eyes fell upon my pile of work. He asked:
“Did we have homework due today?”
“Can you tell me which problems?”
I’m not a jerk, so I told him the problems that were required for the day. He then took out two pieces of paper and, during the lecture, completed the same homework problems in one hour that took me one week.
The “Great Injustice”
A few days later we got our homework back and I had earned a glorious B-… he had an A. How was I to proceed? How was I to deal with this injustice? Well, to be honest—there was no injustice.
My work had a few errors; his didn’t. My work was a bit long winded and took the long way to get to the answer; his work was more precise. My work was good; his was better.
This high school student was better at math than me. He understood the concepts better, he could explain it better, and he didn’t need to work as hard at it as I did.
Comparisons Are Odious
I knew then—and I still know today—that I can’t compare myself to him. That I shouldn’t compare myself to him.
I worked as hard as I could in that class, and I left nothing behind. I did the best I could, and I completed the class. The abilities and accomplishments of the math student in front of me were completely independent of the work I was doing, and his strengths had absolutely no bearing on my successes or shortcomings in that class.
I learned a lesson from him that I still follow today: It is important to celebrate the triumphs and rejoice in the accomplishments of others, but we must do this in such a way that we do not diminish our respect of our own achievements.
We All Have Unique Gifts
Every day that I come to work, I am surrounded by the most wonderful teachers and students who all have gifts that I don’t possess. I can learn from them and I can respect them but I should not sacrifice my own sense of self-worth.
I have attended several graduations in my life as both a graduate and a spectator, and it can be very easy to trick yourself into thinking that your accomplishment tonight is commonplace or trivial. It is easy to kick yourself when you hear Latin phrases after some graduates’ names and think they did better than you—but you shouldn’t.
You set out to accomplish a goal in the face of ridiculous odds, and you made it here tonight on your own path working as hard as you could and pushing your own abilities to the limit. You will always be surrounded by people that need to work harder than you and people for whom success seems to come more easily.
You Made It
And if you think you have left something on the table and you could have done better, then you can do that next time. You can do it for you. There are people here tonight who are proud of you: Whether it is family and friends who will cheer loudly when they hear your name, or a teacher who will smile when they see you walk across this stage.
Please know that while this night is for all the graduates, it is also for you as individuals because you made it. You made it, you did it.
My name is Steve Yamiolkoski, and I am a graduate of Front Range Community College’s Westminster Campus. I am very excited to have each and every one of you join me as fellow alumni.
And since the people who know me well would be shocked if I left this stage without dropping a movie quote, I will give you one of my favorites: “I find this hard to say without sounding condescending, but I’m proud of you.”
Enjoy the night, you earned it!