Nathan Durham's MEd ’24 Commencement Speech

When finishing high school in 2014, I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I graduated, but I knew I didn’t want to stay in my hometown of Auburn, CA while I figured it out. Because of this, I joined the Army, and JBLM was my first duty station after finishing training. It meant a lot to be stationed here, as my grandfather was also assigned to Fort Lewis many years ago. I just wish he would have mentioned how much time I’d be spending trying to keep my gear dry. 

During an overseas deployment to Iraq, I remember discussing the future over a game of spades with other members of the maintenance team I was on. Everyone seemed to have a good idea of what they wanted to do, and I found myself still aimless in what my plan was. When sharing this uncertainty with my squad mates, someone mentioned that they could see me becoming a teacher. I had never really considered a career in education, but I began to imagine myself working in a school and loved the thought of it. This was my first encounter with my own call to action, and I didn’t even know it yet.

Nathan Durham stands in front a rose bush on campus.

I began taking classes towards my undergraduate degree in history as soon as I could, and after returning from another overseas deployment to Afghanistan in 2019, I separated from the Army. I entered a position with Raytheon Technologies as a field engineer, where I was in a constant battle with myself over whether this was what I really wanted to do, or if it was just the safest option I had at the time. I enjoyed the many perks and comforts of being in a career like that, as well as the praise of obtaining such a big kid job. At the same time, the closer I got to completing my undergraduate degree, the more I realized how unfulfilling my situation was. 

At the end of 2020, I decided to leave Raytheon and completed my Bachelor of Arts in History the following spring. By this time, I had seemingly hit a reset button on my entire life, where I was trading my title of Raytheon engineer for Trader Joe’s crew member and trying to begin substitute teaching. All the while that initial call to action growing slightly louder as I pursued this new career. That Trader Joe’s employee discount might still be the best I’ve had yet by the way.

I learned quickly through substitute teaching that I wanted to serve students outside the classroom, leading me to apply to the Masters of Education for school counseling and mental health counseling program here at the University of Puget Sound. After applying and being accepted, I still couldn’t help but wonder if my choices to leave my previous jobs and careers were the right choices, and what people would think of me for making those decisions. 

It wasn’t until the early phases of my internship that it all began to make sense for me. I was working with a 6th grade student that made the faint call to action I had been chasing seem like an airhorn being held to my ears. This student was struggling to make sense of some big changes they were experiencing in their life, and I was faced with being the adult that I needed at that age—or protecting myself and the feelings that surfaced for me in those moments. 

Instead of letting the discomfort and pressure of the moment distract me from why I was there, I opened the space to be anything the student needed to process their big feelings, and my call to action in becoming a counselor became crystal clear.

Coming to the end of my graduate program at UPS, I have gotten much better at keeping my things dry, especially without the use of an umbrella. More seriously, I have learned that necessary change takes a great amount of courage, and the willingness to do things differently than what you’ve known so far. I have realized that the people you surround yourself with are not only a direct reflection of your own values and beliefs, but also serve as a network for support should you realize that you can’t do things alone. I was shown how much love and power there is in keeping a circle around me of individuals that don’t look like me or were not born into the same privileges I was, and how equally important it is to include voices unlike my own whenever possible, no matter how uncomfortable it might be for me. 

In closing, I never would have imagined that I would be standing here telling my story in front of all of you when sharing my lack of direction with my squad mates in Iraq all those years ago. This was only possible for me by listening to what started as a faint call to action that grew increasingly louder as I used my own privilege of access to continue my studies in a liberal arts education. 

Moving forward, I hope to further my awareness of how different my story is from others, and how I can use the advantages I’ve gained to foster healthy partnerships with any community I get to share space with. 

So, graduates, scholars, family members, I encourage you to respond when your call to action comes. I challenge you to find your place in the uncomfortable and settle there. I ask that you listen with curiosity to those you might not understand yet. And finally, I welcome you to join me in making a difference with the unique education that the University of Puget Sound has offered us all in any community that you have the privilege of serving.


Nathan Durham MEd’24 recently graduated from the University of Puget Sound with a Master of Education in School Counseling and was selected to be the graduate speaker at Puget Sound’s 132nd Commencement Ceremony. He received his B.A. in History for Secondary Education from Grand Canyon University.