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Video: COE student commencement speaker delivers laughs, tears, truth

Brian Kulaga ’14, who was selected to speak to the Class of 2014 at the College of Education’s spring commencement, possesses a passion for teaching matched only by his desire for community involvement. He said Illinois State was the perfect place for him to pursue both interests.

The minute I had my campus tour and met my Department of Special Education advisor, Janet Caldwell, I knew that Illinois State was where I needed to be,” he said.

Brian on stage

Brian Kulaga ’14 donned a mortarboard decorated with tributes to his mentors in the Department of Special Education—a thank you to the late Joanna Legge, a former instructional assistant professor, and a “sheep” for Clinical Assistant Professor Ree Hartman, who gave the nickname to her students. Several other special education graduates adorned their caps with a sheep in Hartman’s honor. “We did this to recognize Ree and the profound impact she had on all of us and to remind each other that we will always be ‘sheep’ and will have each other for support,” Kulaga said.

Kulaga immediately connected with several of the University’s more than 300 student organizations and programs. In addition to serving as vice president and president of the Student Council for Exceptional Children (SCEC), he was involved with Male Educators; Students Today, Leaders Forever (STLF); the Clef Hangers, Illinois State’s a cappella group; and was selected as the 2013 Homecoming king. Kulaga graduated summa cum laude (with highest honor), and was also an Honors Program student, a Bone Scholar, and the recipient of several academic scholarships.

“My involvement in extracurricular activities is the reason I am who I am today,” Kulaga said. “Because of these activities, I was able to meet people from all different parts of campus, each who taught me something new, either about myself or about life in general. I feel very fortunate to have had such a well-rounded set of extracurricular experiences that helped me to be more aware of how my actions impact others and how to be a better person overall.”

Kulaga’s last official activity as an undergraduate student was to give the student commencement address. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Kulaga said he wanted to open his speech with an icebreaker. So, he sang the lyrics to “Do you want to build a snowman?” from the popular Disney movie Frozen. The talented vocalist’s rendition of the song (and its backstory) drew laughter, but it was his next message that truly moved the audience.

Kulaga took issue with the ill-informed saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” He challenged those words by sharing the inspirational stories of struggle, perseverance, and triumph passed on to him by his fellow education majors, faculty members, and P-12 educators.

It is in the face of these stories of triumph that I came to wonder how a phrase like ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ even exists. Our ability to teach a classroom of children, collaborate with a team of colleagues, communicate with parents, and manage paperwork, while simultaneously showing enthusiasm, innovation, humility, and compassion, is an ability that is unmatched by individuals in any other career field.”

Kulaga explained that the phrase that more accurately describes educators is, “Those who can do, teach.” He reminded the alumni to never forget the lessons they learned at Illinois State in their efforts to lift up the profession by serving those who matter most, their students.

Illinois State University has given us the skills, confidence, and knowledge that we need to become teachers. It is up to us to use those skills to persevere through the stories of struggle, to conquer the stories of doubt, but most importantly, to amplify the stories of triumph to show the world the importance, and the power, of teachers.”

In the coming months, Kulaga and approximately 500 new College of Education alumni will begin the next chapter of their own stories. For Kulaga, this means serving as a special education teacher at Jane Stenson School in Skokie, where he will teach third through fifth grade students with a variety of disabilities.

In reflection of his time at Illinois State, Kulaga said that he would like to thank his friends, family, and the entire Department of Special Education for their support during his four years in Normal. He also would like to thank Professor John Baldwin for the advice he provided in crafting a speech that was reflective of what was in Kulaga’s head and heart.