I had the once-in-a-lifetime honour of giving the Address to the Graduates tonight for the 2014 graduating class at St. Joseph’s High School – 17 years after my own graduation as a St. Joseph’s Laser. It was truly a remarkable gift to speak as the first St. Joseph’s Laser on Windsor City Council – and I will never forget nor thank enough the great teachers who showed me the path and lit the way. I owe you so much. Below is my speech from tonight.
Good evening. My name is Irek Kusmierczyk and I am a proud St. Joseph’s Laser!
It is such an honour to stand here today. Seventeen years after my own St. Joseph’s graduation.
It is an honour because Lasers go on to become teachers, engineers, nurses, athletes, scientists, police officers and business owners. They have become great moms and great dads. They volunteer as coaches for softball and gymnastics. They raise money for Cancer Awareness and donate their weekends at food banks across the city.
Lasers become the very lifeblood of our community.
For twenty five years, St. Joseph’s graduates have been called to a special mission, and today you are called to carry that torch.
Lasers are called to do two things.
The first, as I already mentioned, is to serve. To serve our families. Our Friends. Our Community.
The second is to explore. That is what the next stage of your life is going to be all about.
To leave behind what is familiar. To move beyond yourself and discover your talents. To test your limits a little and embrace the world outside.
The year I graduated from St. Joseph’s High School, our family hosted a Catholic priest who had flown in from Poland to give a special homily at our church.
One night, at the dinner table, he asked if I’d be interested in taking part in a pilgrimage.
I didn’t know what that word meant, pilgrimage, so I asked him to explain.
He said a pilgrimage is kind of like a long walk. It is a spiritual journey taken by many Catholics. In this particular case, I would join a group of pilgrims on the Baltic Coast in Poland, and walk across the entire length of the country all the way to the mountains in the south.
In total, we would walk 700 kilometers in 18 days.
I laughed so hard at the idea that milk came out of my nose. I told him he was crazy if he thought I would spend a summer walking 700 kilometers – the distance from Windsor to Toronto and back.
A couple days later he flew back home.
But the seed was planted.
Two months later, I found myself standing on the Baltic Coast in my running shoes. I was 18 years old and the only Canadian in a group of 250 other pilgrims with 700 kilometers of road ahead of us.
I was a little scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t the most athletic guy in high school. And it worried me a little that the 85 year old grandma standing next to me was in far better shape and doing push ups at the starting line.
That morning, and every morning for the next 18 days, just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, we would start the long march. By nightfall, we had trekked an average of forty kilometers. Poland’s highways, forests, and valleys were like a travelling classroom. We sang songs. We shared stories.
Everybody referred to each other as brother and sister. Some were old. Some were young.
I walked with a young priest who was entering the priesthood. He was absolutely hilarious and told the dirtiest jokes imaginable.
I walked with a young couple who just got married and were dedicating their walk to the health of the baby they were expecting.
I walked with a man who lost his job, his wife and his house to alcohol, but he was walking to thank God that he had been sober for one year.
The most incredible day was the day I walked next to a man who had advanced cancer and who had stopped his chemotherapy and knew that he was going to die – and he wanted to spend his last days on a walk with God.
At the end of each day, we would march into a village, and sometimes the villagers would greet us in the town square and they would open up their homes for the night. These were often very poor farmers. The homes had roofs made of straw. They had no plumbing, so if you wanted to take a shower you had to go outside, grab a bucket, and draw water from a well and wash yourself in a large aluminum bathtub.
But even though they had little money, they were so generous with the food they prepared, and they often wanted to stay up and hear stories about my life in Canada.
Sometimes, if there was no space in the village, we would sleep in barns on bales of hay next to horses and cows, and sheep. Sometimes we would sleep on our backpacks in the meadows under the stars.
On the last day, as we were about to enter the city that was our destination, we stopped and climbed to the top of a large hill called the Hill of Forgiveness.
And we turned to each other, one by one, and asked each other for forgiveness for whatever wrongs we had committed.
It felt so free to forgive and so free to be forgiven.
It was the most incredible experience and it all began with me being open to the world and saying ‘yes’ to an unknown adventure.
That pilgrimage opened up my eyes to the world outside, to different cultures and different experiences.
It’s a big reason why I decided to leave home and study Journalism in Ottawa.
I knew I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and explore the world.
On the day of my university graduation, an old professor of mine named Dr. Norman Hilmer shared with me some words of wisdom.
He sent me a simple note from his favourite author named Ralph Waldo Emerson which said, “The world is all gates, all opportunities”.
Under the quote Professor Hilmer wrote, “walk through every gate, Irek, and every opportunity”.
A month later, I was invited by the Government of Finland to visit their country for a month as part of a Foreign Correspondents Program with a dozen other young journalism students. And so I got the chance to travel around this country I knew nothing about, learning about its culture, its history and politics. I even got a chance to travel to the Arctic Circle.
It is because of that experience that I was accepted to study European Politics at the London School of Economics in England for a year. To be honest, I was scared. I was scared to leave home for a whole year by myself. But I remembered the words of Professor Hillmer – to always walk through those gates.
That one year in England led to another opportunity: this time to study European Politics at the Jagiellonian University in Poland. While there, I will never forget organizing a workshop for a group of Ukrainian students. These students would go on to lead a revolution that would topple a dictator in their own country. They emailed me from the streets of their capital, having stared down soldiers and tanks, to share the news that they were free.
After working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a year in Europe, my experience allowed me to get a fellowship to do my PhD in Political Science at Vanderbilt University in the United States. I will never forget a class I took that was taught by the right hand man of Martin Luther King Jr., the person who was the architect of the Civil Rights Movement.
As I look back, this entire journey began because ten years earlier I had said “yes” to a pilgrimage into the unknown.
And yet the most important lesson I learned, and it’s one that Professor Hilmer forgot to mention, is that sometimes the gates just won’t open for you. And often you’ll find that your path is not a straight one, and that sometimes you have to expect major setbacks and sometimes you will fall.
But that’s exactly when you have to keep your feet moving.
When I finally graduated from university with four degrees and international work experience, I thought I had a clear path to success.
And then, one day, the markets crashed and the world found itself in the worst economic recession in a century. People lost their jobs by the thousands. Positions were cut.
I spent years preparing to be a University Professor, but when I graduated there were only three positions available across Canada.
I sent a million application letters and received a million rejection letters.
I applied for jobs outside university, but no one was hiring.
I interviewed for government positions. No such luck.
I was 30 years old and unemployed. My forward progression had ground to a halt. That straight path to a career hit a brick wall.
On top of that, I also had some student loans to pay off.
I didn’t know where to go. I was lost. And I was scared.
After a year unemployed, the phone rang. An environmental company was working on the construction of the Windsor Essex Parkway and they needed workers to join a group of biologists to catch endangered snakes and remove them from the construction site and away from the bulldozers.
What did I know about endangered snakes?
But there I was in the middle of the summer, decked out in rubber boots and long-sleeved shirts, doused in mosquito repellant, wading through knee deep swamps and tall grass prairie hunting the elusive Eastern Fox Snake. I felt like Indiana Jones.
By the way, these snakes can grow to be four or five feet long. And before you reach down with your bare hands to grab them, their tales start to rattle, and your heart starts racing about a hundred miles a minute.
At six in the morning, every morning, I would report to the field house as the sun was rising and we would walk through swamps and tall grass prairie and woods until the sun went down in the evening.
Ten hours of walking.
My feet hurt. The sun was so hot. I had dust in my mouth. I was exhausted.
But it felt so familiar to me. It reminded me of my pilgrimage.
And you know what?
It was one of the best experiences of my life. I got the opportunity to spend days walking alongside passionate biologists who took the time to teach me about the incredibly diverse habitat we have in Windsor, and they taught me all about one of the most important endangered animals in Canada: the Eastern Fox Snake.
For those five months, I got a glimpse into a world I would never have known if all I did was political science, and I am thankful every day for that opportunity.
Most importantly, I kept my feet moving.
It turns out, learning how to handle snakes came in handy as I decided to enter politics. I kid of course. I ran in the federal election in 2011.
My walking came in handy.
Despite getting my butt kicked, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I must have walked a two hundred kilometers going door-to-door. People I didn’t know would invite me into their homes and tell me about their struggles. Some lost their job. Some went bankrupt. Some were working and taking care of their sick parents at home. It showed me what true courage looked like and true, selfless love. Service above self. And it showed me just how fortunate I really truly am. It too reminded me of my pilgrimage.
It also showed me the true value in our community of those who have gotten over themselves and who now serve others.
It’s a big reason I ran again last year to become a City Councillor.
I am now working for a non-profit organization that helps technology companies grow in Windsor.
I also get to work with really talented students by growing the FIRST Robotics program in our region where students work with talented and generous engineers and skilled workers to build 120 pound robots.
In April we hosted the first Windsor Essex Great Lakes Robotics Regional that brought 1500 high school students from across North America.
And the best part for me was seeing the rookie team from St. Joseph’s High School competing. Great job Lasers, and hats off Mr. Mero.
I am now thirty six years old. Which to you must seem totally ancient, I know.
But in those seventeen years since my graduation from St. Joseph’s, I’ve travelled the world. I’ve gotten four university degrees from four countries. I’ve witnessed truly historical events. I caught snakes for five months. I work with robotics. I ran for Parliament. And I am now the first St. Joseph’s Laser to sit as a Member of Windsor City Council.
But it all began here.
At St. Joseph’s High School. During my graduation, I could not begin to imagine what my life would look like.
But Professor Hilmer was right, and he knew all along what was possible if I just kept an open mind and just kept walking through those gates and those opportunities.
My fellow Lasers, your pilgrimage begins today.
Keep your head up. Keep your eyes on the stars. And always, always keep your feet moving.
The world is all gates, I tell you. The world is all gates.