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Jessi Howell

Portrait of Jessi Howell

President Benson, Provost Musselman, Dean Murphy, Dean Fair, Dean Small and Dean Roemer, distinguished faculty, friends and family, on behalf of the graduating class of 2019 — thank you for your continued guidance and support! And a special thank-you to my family and friends. I simply could not have made it this far without you. And congratulations to my three sons, Daniel, Dominique and Dorian — this is just as much your achievement.

Graduating class of 2019, I’d like to share with you my story.

I started college 11 years ago. I was deployed onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. That makes me sound cooler than I really am though; I updated service records.

But yeah, 11 years. That is how long it has taken me to earn a “four-year” degree. A lot of life has happened over the last 11 years — I got married, deployed again, had a few kids, got divorced and, in between all of this, I was taking classes here and there.

I was so distracted by the chaos of life that I didn’t realize how unhappy I had become. I really didn’t know who I was anymore. I had to make the choice to figure that out.

After a lot of prayer, I decided to quit my stable but unfulfilling job, put my stuff in a storage unit and moved myself and three boys into my parents’ house, where the four of us lived in one bedroom together. I was accepted to UT Dallas and, like many of you, I worked multiple jobs. Eventually, I was able to afford a small apartment in Dallas. My boys shared my bed, and I took the couch. I drove two hours in the morning so that they could continue to attend a top-rated school.

“Wherever life takes you, take the culture of UT Dallas with you. Always remember that you are a Comet, you are resilient, but, more importantly, you embrace the differences in people, highlight the similarities and celebrate the unity in that.”

Nothing about the choice I made to do this has been easy. It’s been feelings of constant doubt and mom guilt, and I have fought hard to keep the faith.

My point is, it doesn’t matter how long it took you to get here or if you had to ask for help. Never forget who you are and the challenges that you have overcome. No matter what your story is — and we all have one — you had to make distinct choices to get here. Nobody can take that away from you.

No matter where you came from, we are all united through this shared culture of diversity, inclusivity and understanding that constantly reminded us that each and every one of us belong here. The group of Hindu students praising their gods at TI Plaza, the Muslim student organization teaching the meaning of the hijab outside the Student Union and the Christian group praying at the reflecting pools — you belong here.

Of course, our differences are beautiful, but what has truly shaped us is that we invite the differences; this University thrives off that beauty.

Wherever life takes you, take the culture of UT Dallas with you. Always remember that you are a Comet, you are resilient, but, more importantly, you embrace the differences in people, highlight the similarities and celebrate the unity in that.

The world that we live in today needs people like you to set the standard of how we treat one another. Always hold yourself to that higher UT Dallas standard.

Class of 2019, congratulations, and thanks for your beautiful differences. Never stop sharing them with the world!

Jessi Howell is graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. She came to UT Dallas from Richland College, where she earned her associate degree in applied arts. Since transferring to UTD in summer 2018, she has worked in the Military and Veteran Center and the International Center on campus. Her campus and community involvement are heavily emphasized in human rights and inclusion, such as Unconscious Bias, Diversity Dialogues and Religious Tolerance in the Workplace. She has volunteered with organizations such as Girls Inc. Dallas to support their STEM outreach program, Equest Therapeutic Ranch and the National Down Syndrome Congress. She is the mother of three boys, Daniel, 7, Dominique, 5, and Dorian, 2. She is a recipient of the Donald E. Hicks Memorial Scholarship, a member of the SALUTE Honor Society, Peer Advisors for Veteran Education Program, John Marshall Pre-Law Society and is the current TI Founders Leadership Fellow, where she is immersed in the world of nonprofit leadership and philanthropic giving. She has participated in the fast track program for the last three semesters and this spring she will matriculate into the Master of Public Affairs program at UT Dallas. Upon completion of her master’s, she plans to attend law school to study immigration law.