Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder gives the commencement speech at the 2018 USU-Moab graduation ceremony. [Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

From a white gown for a high school diploma, to a black gown with a blue and white hood draped over the shoulders for a master’s degree, 15 graduates represented the graduating class of 2018 at the Utah State University Moab campus on April 26.

The USU-Moab campus allows flexibility for non-traditional students — people who return to school after a break in formal education, or parents of young children and the people who want to remain in the community while earning a degree or certificate.

The procession of graduates ranged in age and background as well as in areas of study. Colored cap tassels ranging from light blue for education, gold-yellow for science and russet for natural resources, represented the variety of disciplines.

Family members, guests and educators filled rows of chairs set up in a large meeting room at the Grand Center. Chatter ebbed as Lianna Etchberger, the USU southwest region executive director, welcomed the crowd and asked people to rise for the opening ceremony. The procession sounded off with a performance of traditional Japanese-style drumming by Moab Taiko Dan.

After the final drum beat, Troop 802 of the National Boy Scouts carried the American flag up the center aisle. The standing crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Michaiah Sims, a young local musician and singer, sang the national anthem.

Some of the graduates, like Kelly Zurich, are Moab denizens who call the community “home.” Zurich received a nursing associate degree and has plans to work at the Moab Regional Hospital in the future.

“It was good,” she said of her time at USU-Moab. “It was a lot of travel during the first year, but the second year was all here, so that was nice.”

USU is a large institution with students from across the country, but the atmosphere at the Moab commencement suggested a tight-knit community within the regional campus, firmly bonded to the greater community outside the university. Graduates shared warm, familiar smiles with one other and with dignitaries and university officers. In the audience, neighbors and friends waved to each other between rows; speakers shared jokes from the microphone.

Cheila Risenhoover graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She was the first 2018 graduate to speak at the ceremony.

“If you watch the nightly news,” she began, “you’d think the entire world is falling apart around us. Many of us, being non-traditional students at this campus, have ‘been there and done that.’ Our world has, at some point, probably fallen apart. We failed and we persevered. For those of us who have not experienced this failure — don’t worry, you’ll get there.”

Risenhoover described how she struggled to balance her schoolwork with the arrival of her first child. She teared up at the podium as she thanked her husband and mother-in-law for their support as she raised her infant daughter while completing her degree.

“This was not expected,” she said of her swelling emotion, immediately adding, “Oh, come on, sure it was.” The crowd chuckled.

Recovering her composure, Risenhoover warned her peers not to expect their graduation to be the end of life’s challenges.

She admitted to sometimes fantasizing about a time when her worries would be over, and life would settle into an easy and contented routine once she finished school, or found her partner or found a job, but she reminded herself that life will always hold trials.

“The solution is not to eliminate these trials,” she said, “but to endure them, and make the conscious choice to be happy right now, right here, in this moment.”

She concluded her speech with a quote from the German intellectual Albert Schweitzer: “Success is not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success. If you love what you’re doing, you will be successful.”

The commencement address was given by Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder.

Winder shared the story of his career arc, from his youth, when he “believed the path to success was through the wallet,” to an “existential moment,” when he realized that what he really wanted in life was to make a difference in the lives of others.

He began in the Utah Department of Corrections, and soon after started working for the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, where he filled various roles within the organization. He described finding opportunities to help people solve problems in times of crisis.

Winder was elected Salt Lake County Sheriff in 2006. While in charge of the largest correctional facility in Utah, Winder began education programs for inmates.

“In some instances that was the first certificate these human beings had ever received,” Winder said, remembering the emotional ceremony in which inmates received their certificates. “Perhaps the first recognition.”

The point of Winder’s speech was that actions matter: we should direct our actions toward where we can do the most good.

“It’s not enough in life to learn, because learning just says that you can absorb the materials. And it is not enough in life to be able to think, because thinking is just another element of learning and understanding the environment you are in. What you need, ladies and gentlemen, is heart and passion. You need to find that in this life that animates you and motivates you, because this life is short,” Winder said.

Degrees were conferred one by one and graduates received congratulatory handshakes from a line of dignitaries. A post-ceremony social hour took place where graduates laughed and ate as they mingled, saying their final goodbyes, proud to have received, as Risenhoover said, “the first page of the next chapter” of their lives.

Commencement speaker Winder: “Find what animates and motivates you. Life is short.”

“It’s not enough in life to learn, because learning just says that you can absorb the materials. And it is not enough in life to be able to think, because thinking is just another element of learning and understanding the environment you are in. What you need, ladies and gentlemen, is heart and passion.”

– Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder