It would have been fitting if Oscar-nominated filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald had invoked President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous words — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — during his keynote commencement address Saturday morning at Eastern Oregon University.
Fitzgerald urged EOU’s graduating seniors not to run from what they are afraid of but instead confront their fears and use them as a catapult to greater heights.
“I challenge you to face and embrace your own fear. Know it, and rather than allowing it to freeze you, let it catalyze you into action to forge your own unique path in life,” said Fitzgerald, a 1993 EOU graduate.
Fitzgerald made this point after telling a story about how he had once let fear get the best of him years ago after coming across the scene of a motor vehicle accident while riding a bike in Santa Monica, California.
One of the victims was on the hood of a Volvo, a woman covered in blood and moaning as she rolled back and forth.
“It was clear she was dying and was about to pass. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do and should do: I wanted to help. I wanted to run to the hood of the car, grab her hand and — even if she were to pass quickly — let her know that someone was there watching, acknowledging even if there was little I could do to save her life,” Fitzgerald said.
He suddenly heard sirens blaring and he knew first responders were a few minutes away.
“And then in that critical moment I froze. Indecision and fear gripped me and I watched. Watched as this woman’s life ebbed, as the paramedics arrived and tried and failed to save her life,” Fitzgerald said.
He said that scene haunts him today.
“It is a moment I am not proud of. I could have intervened and provided some measure of comfort to a fellow human being, no matter how fleeting,” he said.
Fitzgerald said that his failure to act profoundly impacted him.
“So I made a promise to myself, that from that moment forward, in moments of indecision, when instinct told me I should act, I would act,” he said. “That I wouldn’t allow fear to freeze me, but rather to propel and motivate me.”
Fitzgerald has kept the promise he made to himself. Since then the filmmaker said he has not let fear get the best of him. It has led to him being chased by soldiers in the Congo, sparring with Fur seals in Antarctica, negotiating with human traffickers in Southeast Asia, filming in Syria, filming at Mt. Everest and documenting people cutting open 250-pound bombs with hacksaws for the value of the TNT inside.
Fitzgerald said he does not recommend others put themselves in harm’s way as he has, and that some of what he has done could be described as mistakes.
“But the thing is, as you step out of here today and set out on your careers, you are going to make mistakes — and probably some big ones. Don’t let those mistakes define you. Instead ensure those mistakes define who you become,” he said.
Fitzgerald told graduates that he credits the success he has enjoyed primarily to “hard work.” He said that he came to Eastern as a student from humble beginnings, as one who grew up near the tiny town of Monument in Grant County. His family lived 16 miles from Monument in a home without electricity or running water. At Monument High School Fitzgerald ran cross country and described himself as only average as a runner. He said his graduating class had just seven students and he was not even its top graduate and that several of his high school friends were far smarter than he is.
“We are not born with talent. We earn it through grit and a willingness to return to the task and do it better next time. We learn talent through improvement and of craft and technique — the slow, incremental, personal evolution,” he said.
Fitzgerald, who graduated from Eastern with a degree in theater, was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for his documentary “Lifeboat,” which is about refugees leaving Libya in rubber boats. It is one of a number of documentaries Fitzgerald and his company, Spin Film, have made about the plight of refugees and human rights issues, many of which have received positive reviews.
“And I have my time here at Eastern to thank for this. Professors in small classes nurtured my questioning nature instead of trying to shape it. They also challenged the notion that practical concerns should trump an internal compass in life,” said Fitzgerald, speaking in Quinn Coliseum.
Eastern’s commencement exercises have over most of the past 25 years been conducted at Community Stadium on a natural grass football field. Saturday’s graduation exercises, though, were conducted in Quinn Coliseum to protect the stadium’s new artificial turf, installed in 2018, said Tim Seydel, EOU’s vice president for university advancement. Commencement may be moved back to Community Stadium in future years with adjustments that would protect the artificial turf.
Two EOU commencement ceremonies were held in Quinn Saturday because it was not large enough to accommodate all the graduates and spectators.
Fitzgerald was the keynote speaker at both ceremonies. Another speaker students heard at both ceremonies was Cori Heymann, this year’s President’s Scholar, chosen by EOU President Tom Insko.
Heymann, who lives in North Carolina, earned a bachelor of science degree in anthropology online. She could not attend Saturday’s commencement but she did give remarks via a pre-recorded video played on a large screen.
Heymann opened by acknowledging that attending EOU while being on the East Coast posed challenges but they were far from insurmountable.
“EOU’s mountaineer spirit met no obstacles in finding its way east,” she said.
The President’s Scholar then used a needlework analogy to illustrate the varied experiences of the members of Eastern’s graduating class.
“Indeed our lives as students are like a patchwork quilt, pieces stitched together through each of our individual blocks of experience, which took place both together and apart the past few years. Here we now sit together, a piece of history, the class of 2019,” Heymann said.
The North Carolina resident pointed out that all of the graduates have learned of Eastern’s principles and values, which have been passed to them by its faculty.
“It’s now our turn to take these values into the world (and live and share them),” Heymann said.
Although separated by more than 2,000 miles, she concluded her remarks by saying she feels a kinship to the members of EOU’s class of 2019.
“In this crazy quilt of life, I’m happy to count you all as part of my academic family,” Heymann said.