College graduates are often urged to move beyond life’s challenges and make a difference in the world. In addressing an estimated 440 fellow graduates and 3,000 faculty, family, and friends at Goodwin College’s June 6 Commencement, student speaker James Tillman moved the audience to silence when he issued a similar challenge, one that he had already embraced on a life-changing scale.
Tillman spent more than 18 years in prison after being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. And exactly nine years to the day after walking out of prison a free man—exonerated by new DNA evidence and the work of the Connecticut Innocence Project—he spoke before the Goodwin College Class of 2015 as their chosen student representative and the recipient of an associate degree in Human Services.
“You can’t take away my smile, my joy of life, and my encouragement to others to be the best they can be,” Tillman told his classmates. “That’s what it’s all about. Love and forgiveness.”
“That’s why, as hard as it may be for you to believe, I can stand here, look you straight in the eye, and tell you that my experience in prison was a gift,” he said, “because it gave me the power of conviction. I learned that love will always be stronger than hate.”
Tillman wrote a book about his experience, The Power of Conviction: My Wrongful Conviction, 18 Years in Prison, and the Freedom Earned Through Forgiveness and Faith, a copy of which was given to each Goodwin graduate following the ceremony.
“I challenge you,” Tillman told the graduates. “I challenge you to go forth and make a difference. I love you all.”
That call to make a difference in the world was echoed by Civil Rights activist Bob Zellner, who received an honorary doctorate from the College.
“This is what it’s about,” Zellner told the graduates. “This is diversity. This is about celebrating those who do the hard work.”
A noted activist and Freedom Rider, Zellner was mentored by Dr. Martin Luther King, helped call attention to Civil Rights issues in the Deep South, and is currently walking from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. to advocate for better health care in rural communities.
He shared advice with the graduates that he had once received from Rosa Parks: “Bob, when you see something wrong, do something about it.”
“Rise up and make a new nation,” Zellner urged the graduates.
Joe Marfuggi, former president and CEO of Riverfront Recapture, Inc., also received an honorary doctorate and urged the graduates to work for a better future.
“Why settle for the way things are when you can work to make things better?” he asked.
Marfuggi worked for the Riverfront Recapture organization for more than 27 years, advocating tirelessly to increase public access to the Connecticut River.
In echoing the thoughts of Robert F. Kennedy, Marfuggi congratulated the graduates on daring to ask, “Why not?” rather than just “Why?” and on doing the work to make themselves and their world better.
In his remarks, Goodwin president Mark Scheinberg quoted Mark Twain, telling the students that the two most important days in people’s lives are the day they’re born and the day they find out why.
“Today is the day you get to show the world your ‘Why,’” Scheinberg told the students.
The Class of 2015 valedictorian, Lee Housley, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, told the graduates that despite the many roads they had all taken in their lives, they were determined to keep walking in the right direction.
“Graduates, you’re facing in the right direction,” Housley said. “Keep on walking.”