“Congratulations, today is your day! You’re off to great places, you’re off and away!” wrote Dr. Seuss in “Oh, The Places You’ll Go.”
Ivonne Gonzalez, student speaker for the College of Health Sciences commencement ceremony at Eastern Kentucky University on May 11, connected with the works of Dr. Seuss from a young age. Her earliest educational memories include poring over the colorful pages to visit whimsical literary worlds. In fact, it was Seuss’s quirky, imaginative rhymes that helped Gonzalez learn English after her family immigrated from Mexico in 1999. In her commencement address, she pointed to Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” as a description of the occasion, and of the journey that led her to that day.
“You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where you go.”
Where Gonzalez’s parents decided to go changed her life’s direction forever. “They decided to veer off their paths in order to provide better opportunities for my brother and me,” she said. “They saw that Mexico had very little to offer for our futures and wanted us to have a better life than they did.”
“You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed. You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.”
That better life took shape quickly. “I learned to acclimate to this new country at a very fast pace,” Gonzalez recalled. “I learned English and was embedded into the culture in a short amount of time – I felt like a true American.” She recounted how privileged she felt for her life to feel so simple, and so much like that of her classmates.
Gonzalez participated in every extra-curricular activity she could and stayed involved with her local church and community. “I felt like I had taken the lead so early on and I was thriving every minute of it,” she said. “But little did I know that one day it wouldn’t be that easy.”
“I’m sorry to say, but sadly it’s true, that hang-ups and bang-ups can happen to you.”
Gonzalez’s simple, perfect American dream became complicated and difficult once she entered Sacred Heart High School in Louisville, Kentucky. “Even though I wanted to think I was just like all my other classmates, I knew there was something different about me.” Her immigration status began to prevent her from the activities her friends were enjoying, like earning a driver’s permit or starting a part-time job. The disappointment she felt began to color the way she saw her future. “College didn’t even seem like a realistic goal for me.”
Instead of being defeated by circumstance, however, Gonzalez lived by the words of “very wise man,” Nick King: “You are the architect of your own life, and only you are responsible for your successes or failures.”
Gonzalez admitted that she did not achieve her goals alone; there were “many hands at the table during my journey.” She was first driven by her family’s sacrifice. “I would remind myself daily how my parents left everything and everyone they knew behind, and how at the end of it all, I wanted them to look back and say that it was all worth it.”
Many of those hands also belong to faculty and students at EKU, Gonzalez said. The Latino Student Success Center pointed her to resources and financial aid opportunities to help make her college dreams a reality. After enrolling and changing her major five times, she found a home in the College of Health Sciences. “The professors in this college have been more than inspirational and I thank them for that,” she praised. “I have learned how to flourish as an individual in and out of the classroom.”
Much like her elementary and middle school days, Gonzalez stayed active outside the classroom. During her time at EKU, she was a member of the Alpha Omicron Pi Sorority, Student Government Association, Latino Student Association, the Rodney Gross Scholars, and Freshman Academy for Diverse Students. She also earned the Martin Luther King Service Award in 2016 and was elected EKU’s first Latina Homecoming Queen in 2017.
“And you will succeed? Yes! You will indeed (98 and three-fourths percent guaranteed).”
Despite the obstacles, Gonzalez graduated with bachelor’s degrees in public health and Spanish. This fall, she hopes to be accepted into the master’s of occupational therapy transition program at EKU.
Her final advice to her fellow graduates included to be the “architect of your own life,” and to remember that “failing is a valuable opportunity to learn.”
“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!”
-- by Madison Harris, Student Writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management