ECC graduate shares story of inspiration
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org December 16, 2012 8:54PM
12/14/2012 Elgin Bryan Lantz (right) 21, of Elgin, takes hold of the Academic Mace from Student Trustee Peter Ulbert 20, of Elgin, before the start of the Elgin Community College Commencement Exercises at the college on Friday, December 14, 2012. Lantz later gave the congratulatory remarks during the ceremony and will attend Judson University in Elgin to study Sociology. | Michael Jarecki ~ For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 18, 2013 6:10AM
ELGIN — Bryan Lantz, 21, hadn’t been dealt the winningest hand in the game of life.
Lantz had grown up in a low-income household here in Elgin, in which his family scraped by on both his parents’ disability checks each month. And then, starting when he was in high school, his mom was struck with cancer. Again and again and again.
But, he said, “My mom was one of my biggest supporters of education.”
And with her inspiration, Lantz was able to overcome the adversity he faced. An example of that was Friday night when he gave the commencement speech at Elgin Community College’s fall graduation ceremony. After completing his two-year degree at ECC, he plans to pursue a doctorate and a career in education.
When he first was asked to speak at commencement, he said, he was surprised. He didn’t think he had a story to tell. Plus, he said, “I kind of thought, ‘Who wants to hear a sob story?’”
“What I want all the students to take away from my commencement speech is that hard work and motivation can help them accomplish anything. I don’t want to stand up there and talk about myself. I want to stand up there and tell them they can do what they want to do,” he said in an interview before the speech.
A total 665 students were scheduled to receive two-year degrees or certificates at the end of the fall semester, according to the community college. Of those, about 200 were expected to attend commencement, it said.
Lantz’s dad had gone straight to work when he was 14 or 15, and his mom dropped out of college when she became pregnant with his sister, nearly 20 years older than he and his brother.
Statistically, that made it less likely he would go on to college. A 2001 report by the National Center for Education Statistics found 82 percent of students whose parents held at least a bachelor’s degree enrolled in college immediately after finishing high school in 1999. That number was much lower for students whose parents only had completed high school (54 percent) and had not completed high school (36 percent).
But Lantz’s parents always told him education was important, something he needed to focus on. So he did, he said. He was a straight-A student at Harriet Gifford Elementary School in Elgin, and he graduated in 2010 in the top 10 percent of his class at Larkin High School, where he also played football.
“That was something we were told every day — that education was really important,” he said.
“One of the things that made it was obvious was when we did well in school everybody in the family was happy. So that was one thing that definitely motivated me to do good at school — because it made everyone happy.”
But that wasn’t always easy, he said, mostly because of his family’s income, which again, statistically, stacked the cards against him. A report this year by Postsecondary Education Opportunity found 79 percent of students born into the top income quartile in the U.S. obtain bachelor’s degrees; among students from bottom-quartile families, that’s only 11 percent.
When Lantz was in third or fourth grade, his dad went on disability with elbow problems so severe lifting a fork to eat dinner hurt him. He not only lost his job, he lost the car he had used to drive his sons to school.
When he was in high school, his mom was diagnosed with lung cancer, which she overcame twice. Then when he was in college, she was diagnosed with brain cancer — again, not once, but twice.
And when he looked at going to college after he was accepted at Southern Illinois University, he said, “At the last minute, I was looking at financials, and there was no way to pay for SIU.”
But to Lantz and his brother, knowing the statistics, knowing other people doubted they would succeed, “was nothing but motivation.”
“Statistically speaking, we weren’t set out to do too good. But in the game of college, you might have a horrible history, but you just have to have a strategy,” he said.
Lantz walked to school with his brother. He received the free and reduced lunches there. And he joined Upward Bound, a program through ECC that offers after-school tutoring, activities, workshops and advising for students in grades 9 to 12 who come from low-income families or whose parents did not attend college.
With the knowledge about college, financial aid and scholarships, he then received from the community college, going to ECC became “a no-brainer,” he said.
And his mom’s fight through four rounds of two cancers “motivated me even more,” he said.
“I’m going back to school, and I can’t stop because my mom didn’t. She just kept going.”
His mom now is in assisted living, but he said he knows she’s proud of him. And she lets him know how much she loves him.
Lantz now is taking a semester to study his first love, music, at ECC, and deciding between Western Illinois University and Judson University to pursue his bachelor’s degree. He hopes to become a college president someday, he said.
And he hopes his story will inspire and motivate his classmates, he said before walking the stage with his diploma Friday night.
“Me and my brother can be a perfect example of even when things are completely horrible and you don’t think they’re going to work, hard work and motivation can make things happen,” he said.