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DECATUR -- It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas for Millikin University students marching past festive wreaths decorating the Kirkland Fine Arts Center, the venue for Sunday’s winter commencement.

The more than 100 graduates had no need of Santa, however, having already earned themselves a gift that will keep on giving: shiny new undergraduate and graduate degrees.

One 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center found a college student with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn almost twice as much a year as someone with only a high school diploma. The college grad’s unemployment rate hovers around 3.8 percent compared to 12.2 percent for those whose education stalled at high school.

One of Sunday’s guest student speakers, 24-year-old Jesse D. Sargeant from Decatur, had actually “failed out” of college his first year but didn’t stay down and out for long. He eventually returned and graduated Sunday with a degree in business and entrepreneurship. His speech theme was “Fail Fast,” and he beseeched his fellow graduates to embrace failure, learn from it, and keep on until you win.

“As we move forward in life, there are sure to be struggles and failures,” Sargeant told the class of 2017. “Don’t let those minor setbacks destroy your ambition. Use those failures as motivation to keep fighting, because you only truly fail when you give up.”

But even in the college Garden of Eden there is a serpent, however, and it’s coiled around graduates nationwide in the form of record school debt: currently valued at some $1.3 trillion and rising. That puts it only behind mortgage debt in the ranks of consumer bills, outpacing even credit cards and auto loans.

Sargeant was calm and trusting in the value of his Millikin degree while contemplating how much he owes. “I have a lot of college debt but I am not worried because I know I have a good degree from Millikin,” he said. “I also know I’m ambitious and I am going to get through it one way or another,” he said before Sunday’s commencement.

To find the job heights that graduates can soar to, they didn’t have to look further than commencement speaker and class of ‘83 grad, Sheri A. Eichelberger. The Chicago woman is now vice-president, Enterprise Solutions, At&T Global Business, commanding a $3 billion revenue stream.

She told graduates to strive and push themselves hard, but do it with a sense of respect and courtesy for their fellow man, likening life’s journey, and its effect on others, to the wake of a boat.

“So as you leave here today and begin your personal and professional journeys and life in general… I would ask that you ask this: what kind of wake will you leave?” she said.

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Macon County Courts Reporter

Macon County courts reporter for the Herald & Review.

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