Damon Woodard's commencement speech for Summer 2023

Damon Woodard is a UF professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of UF’s Applied Artificial Intelligence Group.

Thank you, President Sasse …

Graduating students …

I feel like a proud father when my own students earn their degrees — but here, that pride is magnified by thousands!

With my pride comes a sense of responsibility. A responsibility to celebrate your UF accomplishments and send you off on your next great adventures with the right words and the deepest truths.

So here goes: Everything you just heard about me in that introduction is accurate. Everything is true. But it is the resume-ready, glossy truth. 

There is a grittier truth that I’ve decided to share with you. This unpolished version of my story includes that I dropped out of high school in 9th grade. I have a GED, not a high school diploma. My first career was as an auto mechanic, fixing Toyotas and Oldsmobiles in my native New Orleans.

I’m 50 years old, and for the past three decades, the glossy truth was the only one I talked about. But on the advice of my wife, Kila, I’ve started opening up about the gritty truth.

To my surprise, this has caused many of my graduate students to open up to me about their own unpolished truth. The things they don’t list on their resumes.

Graduating students, each of you has completed all the rigorous requirements to earn your valuable UF degrees. That is an incredible lifetime milestone that you will always cherish. 

From my personal experience and from listening to my students, I know that in addition to your academic leaps and bounds, you’ve faced your own private hurdles.  

Maybe those hurdles involve family problems. Or mental health challenges.  Financial hardships. Difficulties with a professor or a boss. Uncertainty about choices or an unhealthy relationship that your friends keep urging you to end — yes, I’ve had those, too!

Whatever it was … whatever it is … I get it. I know. The world can be a treacherous swamp, filled with many dangers but, graduating students, you are Gators, you have crossed the swamp, and you are earning degrees from a top-5 public university! Congratulations!

So how are we to square that extraordinary pride of accomplishment with the grittier reality that we all live in, and internalize? How do we get past the feeling that maybe we can’t really conquer the world?

My answer lies in how we recognize and respond to opportunity. 

Real opportunity doesn’t usually arrive as that glossy, “golden” thing you read about. They are often gritty, impossible-seeming, and scary. This is the kind of opportunity I want to tell you about today.

Shakespeare wrote famously in Julius Caesar:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads to fortune.”

I love those lines, and I’ll get back to them. 

In our family, I was the second of five sons. My mother went to work when I was 13, leaving me with an abusive father. I had been an excellent student, but because of my home life, I started skipping school, then dropped out at age 14. Every morning I pretended to go to class. But instead… well, let’s just say that New Orleans doesn’t have a lot of rules, but I still found some to break!

My mother cleaned offices, worked as a cashier in a convenience store, and was a home healthcare provider. I don’t remember her complaining about her hours. But I’ll never forget the look on her face — her disappointment when she learned I had dropped out of high school. 

At nearly 18, I decided to get my GED, and go to college. To earn money for tuition, I enrolled in trade school to become an auto mechanic. A year and a half later, while working in an auto repair shop, I found out about a night school program in computer information systems offered by Tulane University. 

My father said: “I am not about to send my son to a school where doctors and lawyers send their children so that he can fall on his face.”  

But my mother believed in me, and with her and my limited income, I enrolled. 

I didn’t want to talk much about my mom too much today because I didn’t think I’d be able to get through this speech. She passed away a year before I earned my doctorate, unable to witness the result of all her support. Let’s give a round of applause to all mothers here — and to everyone in your lives who believed in you.

While a student at Tulane, a staff member in the computer lab picked up on my initiative and convinced me to go see the chair of the computer science department about enrolling in a four-year program. The department chair examined my transcript, encouraged me to apply, and later offered me a partial scholarship. 

However, she said I would have to catch up on all the high school math I had missed — algebra II, trigonometry, and pre-calculus — while starting the “weed out” freshmen courses in the computer science program. 

At 21, the age of many college seniors, I would have to restart my sophomore year in high school, begin as an engineering freshman, and work part-time as an auto mechanic.

This was not opportunity knocking. This was opportunity growling. I was terrified that I would fail. But I decided to try anyway.

My next two years were so hard, and not just because of work and school. Although New Orleans was my home, Tulane was like a foreign country. When professors lectured, I had to write down all the words I didn’t understand, so I could look them up at home later.

Every day, I thought about giving up, but at age 24, I completed my undergraduate degree.   

Graduating students, when you’re daunted by an opportunity … when it seems scary and impossible and just about growls at you … but you see that it will move you in the right direction … that’s Shakespeare’s flood tide. Those are the opportunities that will lead to fortune.

When working on this speech I got curious about the origin of the word “opportunity.” It comes from the Latin “ob” meaning “to” and “portus” which means port, or harbor.  In other words, ‘coming to port.’

That gets me to my next story.

While at Notre Dame working on my graduate degree, 9-11 happened. I can recall seeing the hurt on the faces and hearing the pain in the voices of the people I cared about. This motivated me to want to make a difference by joining the Marines. I shared my plans with a professor at Notre Dame who had served in the Army. He convinced me that I could make more of a contribution by putting my engineering know-how to work for our country. 

He introduced me to Prof. Patrick Flynn, whose research focused on what, at the time, was the emerging science of biometrics — the automated recognition of individuals based on physical or behavioral characteristics. In other words, being able to automatically identify the bad guys. This was 2001, six years before the iPhone came out, and facial recognition technology was in its infancy.

Pat would become my dissertation advisor and because of 9-11, from that day forward, my career has focused on making the nation more secure.

Graduates, I hope that you, too, will leap at opportunities to help your country, your community, or your neighbors. Such opportunities are the ultimate flood tides. They will lift you up, along with those you serve, wherever you make port.

For most of my career, I shared only the glossy, resume-ready side of my story because I was afraid to share the grittier side.

But in 2021, a writer for UF’s alumni magazine, Barbara Drake, reached out to write a profile about me. My wife urged me to tell Barbara the unpolished truth, saying she thought it could do some people some good.

Kila was right. Now that students share their own unpolished truth, I’m better at connecting with them and giving them advice for grad school or their careers. In fact, knowing their struggles helps me appreciate their successes. I believe in them, like my mother believed in me.

All of which brings me back to you.

When President Sasse asked me to give your commencement speech, I had the same feeling as all those years ago when the department chair told me I had to learn that high school math.

Being your speaker was a scary, gritty opportunity — but by this stage in life, I had learned enough to say “yes.”

Graduating students, my hope is that all of you will also say “yes,” starting today. Say “yes” to the same flood tides. To those opportunities that scare you, seem impossible, or come at the worst times.

I hope that you will also leap at opportunities to help others. And whatever private challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome, I hope you’ll talk about them so that you can help the people around you who are struggling — even if it’s not on their glossy resumes.’

President Sasse, thank you for giving me this scary, gritty opportunity that I will always cherish. 

And now, Class of 2023, you made it! Congratulations, best wishes, and enjoy celebrating with your loved ones. As they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” 

UF News August 12, 2023