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Sierra Pannabecker's moving speech at Winter Commencement captured the essence of one of the university's core values: service.

Sierra Pannabecker's moving speech at Winter Commencement captured the essence of one of the university's core values: service.

Making Big Strides in the Human Race

One La Verne student’s real education came in the discovery of helping others rather than a focus on her own achievement.

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  • August 27, 2010

On Saturday, Jan. 30, Sierra Nicole Pannabecker graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of La Verne with departmental honors in English. It marked the final step in her four-year quest to earn her bachelor’s degree.

Having grown up in Upland and graduated from Claremont High School, Pannabecker chose to attend La Verne for a number of reasons: location, caliber of professors – “especially in the English Department,” she said – and the university’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. It also helped that there was an existing family connection; her grandmother, Pat Pannabecker, earned her teaching credential from La Verne College in the 1960s.

Sierra Pannabecker is spending the spring tutoring at Simons Middle School in Pomona as part of GEAR-UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs), a U.S. Department of Education program designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

“I’d love to teach junior high one day, so I’m getting lots of practice,” said Pannabecker, who in July plans to relocate to Portland, Oregon, where she will attend graduate school.

What follows is the speech Sierra Pannabecker gave as student speaker at the College of Arts & Sciences 2010 Winter Commencement Ceremony:

“It is tempting to tell myself that after four years of college I am now ready to conquer the world. Graduation speeches typically invoke students to do their part to change their society for good, do something earth-shaking. But I’m not an engineering major, not biology, not poli-sci. I picked English. So, armed with my Norton anthology of short stories, I approach the future with optimism and the prospect of limitless opportunity.

“But one thought haunts me. It is the words of the one who some call the wisest man in the world, King Solomon. In the book of Ecclesiastes he wrote: “Everything is meaningless! What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever” (1:2-3). I learned this lesson when I went to Rome last January. I learned that the city that now stands was built upon the ruins of an older city. Every time they tear up the cobblestones they discover another tomb or temple to some god, and this stands to demonstrate the fact that even the Great Roman Empire has been paved over in the passage of time. Those men who believed their memory would endure the ages if they built a big enough monument have been forgotten just like everyone else.

“It would seem from these reflections as though any mark I seek to make on the world will only be as lasting as concrete or memory. I came to La Verne four years ago wondering what my niche would be. My biggest fear then was anonymity; that I would grunt and sweat at my work and never do anything of consequence. I became an English major so that I could write a book that would outlive me. Just as Shakespeare wrote that his sonnets would give eternal youth to his lover, I believed that I, too, could gain immortality from pen and paper.

“I see things a little differently now. You can be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize and still most will not know your name. Recognition is hard to come by honestly, and it seems by the number of celebrities, sports stars, and politicians causing mischief that fame is not fulfilling. I think perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned at La Verne is that the way to happiness is through service. This is such an integral part of the college experience that it is in our mission statement: “The University believes that personal service is the primary goal of the educated person.

“I first learned this lesson during a choir tour in Hawaii. My favorite night that week was the night we performed at the Fisher house, which is a hospice for terminally ill Army personnel and their families. They were grateful to have us and we were happy to be there, too. After the concert they made us dinner and we all sang Karaoke late into the night.

“Another moment of genuine joy happened to me this summer when I was studying abroad in England. I was in London and it was close to midnight when I was stopped on the street by a very old Frenchman walking with a severe limp and a cane. He told me had left his wallet in the restaurant where he had eaten dinner, and now he had no way to get home. He asked for two pounds for bus fare to his hotel which was 10 miles across town. I gave him some money and he thanked me and we began talking about what we were doing in England. I learned that his leg had been disfigured during a tour of service in the South Pacific in the Second World War, and that he was in London for surgery on a cancerous tumor resulting from the radiation he had been exposed to while stationed near a nuclear test site. That brief interaction was one of the most beautiful moments of my time in England and I will never forget it.

“I’m now certain that my purpose is not to write a Pulitzer prize-winning novel and I’m not afraid of dying in obscurity because I know that it isn’t the grand, ostentatious things I do that will make me happy in the end. It’s the moments of joy or peace that I create for the people I come into contact with every day. There is freedom in this notion. I will not be afraid of failure, I will be bold in my daily activities and I will give freely of my resources be they time, money or intellect. This is the reconciliation King Solomon came to as well. He wrote “There is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in his toil, that is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12). To me, this means picking a vocation that makes me happy. I’m going to be a teacher, which means I will help people, spread knowledge, play and learn myself. That will be truly fulfilling.

“In closing I’d like to thank all my professors and the administration for making La Verne such a special place to find my purpose, and my parents for providing access and my grandparents for their emotional support. I’d also like to give a big thank you to Gerard Lavatori, Al Clark and all the professors involved in the Honors program for giving me a place to feel challenged, providing me with a place to exercise my giving potential, and introducing me to so many good friends.”

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