A couple of weeks ago, I announced that I was honored to have been asked to be the keynote address speaker at the Department of Forensic Science Graduation at Virginia Commonwealth University. I delivered the speech today and wished to share it with all of you. I hope you find it inspiring.
I am truly flattered to have been asked to be here to speak at today’s ceremony. There have been so many amazing graduates and wonderful people associated with this program that could have been invited to be here today, so I am truly honored.
To the graduates – Congratulations! You’ve done it! This is an exciting time for all of you and I am sure a lot is going through your mind right now – such as when is this guy going to be done so we can go eat!
It is hard to believe that seven years ago I was sitting in the same seat as yourself. It seems like it was only yesterday. All of you took very different journeys in life to get to this point but though your paths might have been different, they converged to bring you to VCU and this program. I truly hope you have enjoyed your experience here. I’ve had many high points in my life – both professionally and personally – and I always point to my time here at VCU in this program as one in both categories. I’m proud of VCU’s program and what we’ve built. I hope you are as well.
My own journey started in high school when I began to determine what I wanted to do with my life. I loved the sciences and was always intrigued by how things work, particularly the body. Like most young men, I love sports and dreamt of becoming a professional athlete but discovered early on that wasn’t in the cards for me. I had considered becoming an orthopedic surgeon as a means to help others and perhaps still stay around the sports I loved. But, I discovered I didn’t have the passion inside of me to want to do this. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do yet but I did know I wanted to help people. Nothing has ever given me a better feeling than helping someone. I wanted to find a career that I felt passionate about that would allow me a means to make a difference in people’s lives.
As I sought to determine what career path I wanted to choose, I recalled that I would sit with my father and watch television shows such as “America’s Most Wanted.” I became intrigued by the application and enforcement of the law and wanted to dive further into that aspect. One day, in the late 90s, I watched a television show about something termed “forensic science” and how police officers were using scientific means to be able to solve crimes. They were able to obtain evidence from items that couldn’t be readily seen with the naked eye such as gunshot residue, blood spatter, and a subject that began to readily pick up steam in the media – something called “DNA.”
I was hooked. I couldn’t stop watching the stories and the repeating camera shots of people’s shoes walking around crime scenes and the pipetting of liquid into tubes. I wanted to discover more about this newfound topic on the internet, and after waiting the usual two hours to log into my dial-up internet connection, I was able to do so. I attempted to contact people associated with the industry to seek advice on how I could become a part of the community. To learn more about criminal law and proceedings, I worked in a law office during high school and had many opportunities afforded to me, including being able to attend court and sit in on sessions, being able to visit my local crime laboratory, and meeting an FBI agent. I wanted to volunteer at the crime laboratory and told them I would do anything to be exposed to the forensic science trade, including volunteering my time to help out, but it was kindly explained to me that there were rules and regulations that restricted access only to certain personnel. The best advice I received was to get a hard science degree because the business was moving away from taking police officers and putting them into the laboratory to hiring scientists to have them perform this law enforcement based forensic science.
My journey continued to Louisiana Tech University where I earned a Bachelors of Science in Biology with a concentration in Cell and Molecular Biology. I wanted to further my education with a Masters degree as the advice I received indicated the skill sets and professional experience I would obtain working to earn this degree would better prepare me to succeed in the field. I also saw this as a means to continue to round the skills and maximize the abilities I possessed. In 2003, I visited VCU to learn about the Master’s Program. I loved Richmond as it reminded me so much of my hometown of Savannah, Georgia. In the beginning, I always viewed VCU as the “little program that could”. These individuals were working to create something special and I really wanted to be a part of what was occurring here.
The following year, I applied to the Masters’ program at VCU, but was not accepted. I was very disappointed, yet undeterred and remained focused on my goals. Though difficult, this was a valuable lesson for me. I learned we encounter setbacks and we stumble and fall on occasion. There are instances where we fail and sometimes, things just don’t work out in life. How you persevere, learn, and grow from that setback, whether professional or personal, is ultimately how individuals judge your character and integrity.
I thought about these lessons when I called and spoke to the Graduate Program Director at the time and inquired on what I could do to make myself a stronger applicant for next year. I was informed I was a strong candidate but was just outside the cutoff for the number of people who were accepted. The advice I was given was to get a laboratory job to gain more experience. I wanted to show VCU I was serious about being a part of their program, so I figured the best way was to obtain a laboratory job in Richmond, Virginia. So, that’s what I did – I moved from where I grew up in Louisiana to work at the Medical College of Virginia performing cancer research.
After a year of honing my laboratory skills, I reapplied and was accepted this time! My journey at VCU had begun and what a journey it was! The education and instruction I received here was top notch and helped me to become a better scientist, thinker, and person. I learned a number of lessons from my time here that I continue to carry with me through my professional career. One of the earliest was to always remember I am never off the clock. During our very first meeting with VCU personnel at orientation, Pete Marone, who was the head of the Virginia Department of Forensic Sciences Central lab, told us very bluntly that we were all on a two year job interview – beginning right now! I’ve never forgotten those words and apply them even to this day. You are always representing yourself, your agency, and the forensics community. I am a member of, and represent my agency, at all times. I take great pride in that and I keep that in mind with all the choices I make whether in my personal or professional life. Your professionalism and how you treat others will dictate the level of respect you earn. If you want respect, command it through your words and actions. Respect is earned. It is not given.
The aspect of the program I enjoyed the most is that the people involved here weren’t just instructors or professors but mentors. If you wanted to succeed, they wanted you to succeed. They wanted to create opportunities for the students but what we did with those opportunities was ultimately our own decision. The program felt like a team and even a family for those of us who came from a long distance to attend school. So many wonderful individuals invested their time and heart, including Dr. Eggleston, Dr. Peace, Dr. Miller, Dr. Poklis, Dr. Dawson Cruz, Eric Hazelrigg, and numerous adjunct professors and mentors, who wanted to take this department from an upstart to the nationally recognized program that it now is. Like me, they had a drive to achieve and a passion to share their love and knowledge of forensic science. This fit perfectly with my passion to learn. It was exciting to attend school here at such a pivotal time of growth for the program and now watch it be recognized for all of its accomplishments. Everyone that has come through this program, whether as a student, professor, instructor, collaborator, or mentor has helped lay some building blocks and pillars to create what this program is today. This includes all of you graduates. Don’t ever forget that as you move forward in your career. Remember that no one got anywhere without some help. All of us have had doors opened for us. Be sure to pay it forward, open doors and give back as you advance in your career. People invested their time and knowledge in you. Invest in others. Whether directly or indirectly, you will influence and help shape many others during your career. You’ve laid a foundation at VCU and now you will continue to build upon the foundations at the agencies you work for.
All of you worked hard. That is obvious. As you sit here, your time at VCU as a student is closing, but your journey as a professional continues. As you move forward, always be true to yourself and stand up for what you believe in and what you know is right. Your agency, your colleagues, the forensics community, and the public will put their trust in you and the choices you make. Trust, character, and integrity take a long time to build but only a short time to lose.
Speaking of influence, remember that you didn’t choose a job – you chose a career. Remember the big picture of what your work accomplishes which is helping people. In your career, you will be giving a voice to people including those that no longer have a voice. At times, you may have specific duties that you are tasked with that may seem trite, menial, or repetitive. All of the tasks are pieces to a larger puzzle. They are equally important and work towards making a difference in someone’s life, as well as their family and friends, and even their community – perhaps in ways you could never imagine.
Always work hard but remember you are only one person. It takes a team effort. Have fun! Keep friends and family close. Achieve good life/work balance. Make your life what you want it to be and focus on the things you can control and not the things you can’t. A very wise man told me one time, “Don’t ask yourself – what should I do in life? Ask yourself – what do I want to achieve, then figure out the means to achieve it”.
So, whatever you decide your path in life is, determine how you can achieve it. Take with you the lessons you have learned from your time at VCU as you continue on your career. Be ready for hurdles and potential setbacks. Work hard to overcome and learn from them. Consider the choices you make in life, remember who you represent, and what you want to stand for. Thank you for your time and for having me today. I wish all of you the best, and graduates – welcome to the club of being an alumnus of VCU!