All University Commencement

Joe Recognizes Two Outstanding Graduates

There are as many paths to graduation as there are graduates here today. A college education is as much about learning a discipline as learning about yourself – what you value, what you’re passionate about, and where you want to go. Ultimately, the sense of accomplishment is proportional to the challenges you faced. So let me recognize a couple graduates who had a slightly steeper hill to climb than most of their fellow students, starting with Raymond Walter.

Some of you may recognize his name because six years ago Raymond was featured in one of the University’s first Short Takes videos. He was featured because he was graduating with a B.S. in mathematics, physics, and economics at the age of 18. That’s right – he was graduating with a triple major before most kids his age had taken their first college class. You see, Raymond graduated high school at the age of fourteen, finished his economics courses his freshmen year, and was already working on graduate level courses by his sophomore year.

This is all the more remarkable due to the fact that Raymond has had to overcome some very serious physical disadvantages. He has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy in which the muscles weaken and waste away. The disease affects one out of every 3,600 male infants and most must use a wheelchair by age 12. Breathing difficulties and heart disease usually start by age 20.

“I don’t anticipate living as long as usual,” Raymond stated in an interview. “In some respects, there is a lot of pressure to get as much done as I can. I don’t waste time.” He sure didn’t. As both a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship recipient, he has made extraordinary use of his time. As physics professor Dr. Laurent Bellaiche remarked, “if you combine someone who’s smart and who works quite hard, you get someone quite exceptional.”

That’s Raymond Walter.

Today, Raymond earned a PhD in physics – the first of two anticipated PhDs he is working toward. He still has a little more work to do on his PhD in mathematics – so we’ll be seeing him again soon. Congratulations to you, Raymond.

The second student is Itto Outini. Some of you may be familiar with her from some interviews she did on UATV and KUAF. Itto was born in Morocco. When she was a child, her mother died and her father abandoned her to relatives. For the next ten year she was shuttled between extended family members, working as domestic help, until she was physically assaulted by an aunt, who blinded her. She was homeless for a time after that, eventually enrolling in a school for the blind at the age of 17. Prior to that, she was illiterate.

After she graduated high school, she went on to college, where she studied English. While there, someone told her about the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange, which facilitated academic exchange between the US and Morocco. Itto ended up coming to Arkansas on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2017, in large part because the University of Arkansas was the university of J. William Fulbright.

In a blog post the Fulbright Scholars Program, FulbrightMENA, she wrote: “I feel like I am motivated to leave a legacy behind me just as Senator J. William Fulbright did. Many people know that he died more than 22 years ago, but in my opinion, he is still alive and will never die. Thinking about him and what he has done will never fade away.” Speaking of her time here, she went on to say, “It was hard for someone like me who was neglected to believe that love and friendship exist, but I know it does because of my friends and family in Arkansas.”

Itto’s childhood dream was to study English and become a journalist. Today, she took another huge step toward furthering those dreams as she earned a master’s in journalism. She plans to enter a PhD program sometime in the future, and perhaps work for an NGO until then. As she said, “she wants to be a voice for the voiceless.”

So congratulations to you, Itto. Both you and Raymond underscore the virtues of perseverance through difficulty – and you have my utmost respect.