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Commencement speaker shares life lessons to inspire UW-Eau Claire grads

| Julie Poquette

Joseph Webb Jr. knows a lot about overcoming adversity.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire alumnus shared his personal story Dec. 17 with the university’s newest graduates, delivering a message about the value of tenacity, hard work and making the right decisions.

Webb, who earned a master’s degree in education-professional development from UW-Eau Claire in 2011, delivered the Charge to the Class to graduates in Zorn Arena at the university’s morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies. He also was honored at a midday awards event as a recipient of the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association’s Outstanding Recent Alumnus Award.

Now a doctoral candidate in workforce education and development at the Pennsylvania State University Berks campus, Webb also serves at that university as a counselor for multicultural and international students and as the director of Student Services and Veteran Affairs. He also travels nationally as a motivational speaker and trainer.

In his speech to UW-Eau Claire graduates, Webb shared details of his youth, spent growing up in the foster care system and moving from one home to another.

“I often walked on the wrong side of the street in search of any form of friendship or attention I could find,” Webb said. “I lacked personal guidance, integrity, spirituality and the luxury of a consistent family. Growing up on the streets, I did not realize the decisions I was making as a youth would come back to haunt me later as an adult.”

His talent as an athlete and the encouragement of “someone who believed in me more than I believed in myself” led to a full college football scholarship. However, because he had not scored well on the SAT, he was ineligible to play during his first year. He also was short on money: The $600 he had received when he aged out of the foster care system after high school didn’t last through his first semester. Without money for his expenses, “everything seemed to go downhill,” and he made poor decisions, ultimately being kicked out of school and losing his scholarship.

Webb’s first college experience, although unsuccessful, had instilled a desire to pursue higher education. He enrolled at a community college back in his hometown, “living from home to home” and working the night shift as a dishwasher. After a year, he received a call from his high school football coach that ultimately led to his enrollment at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio, and a place on the team of then head football coach Todd Glaser.

Glaser would later become head football coach at UW-Eau Claire, and Webb, under the mentorship of Glaser and others, would successfully complete his bachelor’s degree at Marietta and enroll as a UW-Eau Claire graduate student, completing his master’s degree two years later. He worked as a graduate assistant with Glaser during his studies at UW-Eau Claire.

“There were many people at UW-Eau Claire who supported my academic endeavors,” said Webb. “[These individuals] believed in me, and helped me hone the skills necessary to become a successful person.”

Others helped Webb as he faced post-grad school challenges in landing a job due to his poor decisions earlier in life. He ultimately was granted a governor’s pardon in the state of Pennsylvania and his criminal record as a youth was expunged. Within months he landed his first professional position in higher education.

“I have known firsthand the smell of failure, and have experienced the taste of success,” Webb said. “I believe that the success of life is determined by where you end, not where you start. It is this philosophy that inspires me to work closely with and transform the lives of today’s students.”

Webb told UW-Eau Claire graduates that true success can be obtained through persistence and dedication.

“You have to respect your standards and level of satisfaction in order to truly feel the benefits of success,” he said. “You have to have the stamina to get up again and again.”

He also advised graduates that “the road to success is typically not straight.”

“You will encounter a curve called Failure; a loop called Confusion; speed bumps called Friends, Co-workers, and/or Family; red lights called School Loans; caution lights called Relationships; and you may experience a few flats along the way,” Webb said. “But, through all this, you also have a spare tire called Determination, an engine called Perseverance, insurance called Faith, an Emergency Kit to accept assistance from others, and a driver, which is you. With hard work, passion and dedication, you too will make it to the other side of the street, the street that leads to the road of success.”