Former High School Dropout Delivers Moving Speech at Newport News Commencement

Brianne Gulbranson recently graduated from ECPI University’s Newport News campus with her associate degree in Computer Information Science. She’s already enrolled to continue her education, working towards a bachelor’s degree in Cybersecurity.

But things didn’t come easily for the mom of three, and she shared that as one of two student speakers at the Newport News commencement ceremony on May 13. Hear from Brianne herself, in her full speech below.

“First of all thank you to all the faculty, staff and all of you, that have made this journey possible. And thank you to my friends and family who have helped support and cheer me on every step of the way, especially my three boys and my fiancée, who have been my biggest supporters. They have dealt with me everyday and never once doubted my ability to succeed, or let me doubt myself.

If you had told me a couple of years ago that I would be graduating college and giving the commencement speech, I would have thought you had all lost your minds. I have never walked across a stage at a graduation before. I dropped out of high school and had my first son at 19, and like a lot of young mothers I entered the workforce to provide for him. In 2008, I thought I had found an opportunity to go back to school, so I started at ECPI for a game programming and simulation degree. Shortly after starting I found out I was pregnant with my second son and it ending up being a high risk pregnancy that required surgery. I tried to finish my degree, but honestly, I was a mediocre student at best and flunked out.

Fast forward 11 years and on my oldest son’s 16th birthday I realized that while I was a mother of three wonderful boys, I wasn’t happy with my life and need to make some serious changes. So, while they were absolutely terrifying, since I would be on my own for the first time in 12 years, I started making those changes. I worked for a year, and then Covid hit and I was laid off. After some time, my now fiancée and I decided that this was the perfect time for me to go back to school since I had to be home for the kids. But that was a scary choice too, I had failed two colleges at this point and if I went back I wanted to come back to ECPI. The staff and faculty members had been so helpful to me before when I attended, and I knew that support was what I needed. But wait, I had flunked out remember? To come back I had to jump through a lot of hoops, one of which was going in front of an Academic review board. And while I had created those hoops by my previous decisions, it’s a lot to fully open up, truly face yourself and expose all your heartaches and failures, and tell your story to people who decide if you get another chance or not.

But they gave me that chance, to come back, to better myself, and show my children that no matter what happens you have to keep moving forward. I wish I could say that this time has gone smoothly, but it hasn’t, because that’s just how life works. My oldest left a month after I started school to go to boot camp and became a United States Marine, and while I am more proud of him than I can say, I miss him so much it hurts sometimes. And shortly after that we had a tragedy that rocked the foundation of our family. All of this on top of the day-to-day things of being a mother, a partner, a co-parent, and caregiver to my family. But here I am, standing before you now, 14 years after starting this journey, still moving forward.

I told my story, not for recognition or praise, but to show that no matter what happens in your life you can still overcome and succeed. Writer Sherrilyn Kenyon said, ‘Life isn’t finding shelter in the storm. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.’ For me, success in life is about learning to accept the hard times and learning to adapt to the things that come your way. We are all going to face failures and setbacks, but that shouldn’t stop the forward momentum that we have all created. We will stumble and fall, but we have to get up and fight for what we want, just like we all fought to be here tonight. We all had our own fair share of trials and misfortunes, but whatever path brought you to this point, no matter how easy or hard, take pride in the fact that you are here, graduating, you have reached that goal that you set for yourself. So now, it’s on to the next, and no matter what happens or what life throws at us, one way or another we will succeed, because we will always continue to strive for our goals.”

—  Brianne Gulbranson, May 13, 2022

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