In 20 Years as a Speaker, This Was my Greatest Honor

Posted on: May 22, 2019

Categories: College, Living the Dream

PHOTO: (L-R) Trustee Lev Kubiak, President Michael Victor, Curtis Zimmerman, Cole Prots, Taylor Cavaretta, Rachel Hull and Maddie Weitz.


Last fall, the phone rang in my office. I was greeted on the other end of the line by the ever-sunny Sarah Allen. She’s the Director of Campus Involvement at Mercyhurst University, where I’ve been speaking at new student Welcome Week for several years.

On our call she said she had good news for me—but it wasn’t that they were bringing me in for the seventh year in a row (even though they are.)

She was calling to tell me about something I never could have imagined.


This past month, Mercyhurst University rolled out a brand-new scholarship. This scholarship, Sarah said, was pitched by four students from the senior class as their parting gift to Mercyhurst. Instead of donating a bench or basketball court like seniors had given for a gift in the past, these students wanted to leave behind something that was more lasting.

So last fall, a group of seniors stood in front of the dean and pitched a grant that would allow a rising junior or senior to work as an intern in their dream career anywhere in the world without having to worry about expenses—even if it was unpaid.

And get this: They called it The Living the Dream Scholarship after my keynote presentation that they saw at Welcome Week their freshman year (four years earlier!)

To say I was floored, shocked and humbled is an understatement. Of all the awards all the speaker designations and all the Fortune 100 companies I’ve worked with, this is the biggest honor of my career.

The next thing I did was book a trip to Erie, Pennsylvania where Mercyhurst is located so that I could meet these amazing students and be there for the presentation ceremony of the scholarship.


For a little backstory, about fifteen years ago, I started telling people I was “Living the Dream” when they asked how I was doing. When I noticed how much it stuck with people, it became a central part of my keynote message.

I don’t say I’m Living the Dream because my life is perfect—it’s not. And I don’t say it out of blind optimism, either. I say it because it’s a constant reminder to myself and to my audiences to be grateful for the amazing opportunities and blessings in our lives—and to write those amazing opportunities into our life’s script, too.


So, on Saturday afternoon, before the presentation ceremony, I had lunch with the group of seniors who had pitched the scholarship, along with some members of student government.

In the picture below, I’m signing copies of my book Life at Performance Level for each of the students—and of course, they also got a Living the Dream wristband to commemorate the occasion.

They all went around the table and the students shared their major and their dream job. They were future cybersecurity lawyers, advertisers, special education teachers, non-profit workers, and local government leaders.

Then, I asked them how they got the idea to name their senior class gift after Living the Dream. Cole Prots, who helped present the scholarship spoke up.

“‘Living the Dream’ was an overarching message that all seniors could resonate with because we all experienced your speech. Bringing in the internship component—being at college is about finding the dream job. And the only way to get the dream job is through internships,” Cole said.

Some of these seniors were already well on their way to living their own dreams through amazing internships, like Cole, who interned at his dream company—L’Oréal in New York City—and was offered a full-time job following graduation.

I was honored by what he said next.

“Our accomplishments and our summer [internships] were reflections of the message you gave us our freshman year. We jumped off the cliff, hoped for the best and it really paid off. So we wanted to give homage to you and the inspiration that you gave us,” Cole said.

(Wow. Now you know why this was a highlight of my career.)

Part of the reason Cole and his peers felt like they were “jumping off the cliff” with their summer opportunities was due to the financial strain of out-of-town internships. That’s what inspired them to pave the way for other Mercyhurst students to work in their dream internship without sacrificing financially.


I got to hear countless examples of how the “Living the Dream” mentality doesn’t just help to inspire students to get internships in the summer—it also helps them to understand the privilege of a college education.

Vince Marrazzo, the president of student government shared:

The overall message of ‘Living the Dream’ really sticks because going to university is a privilege that only a small percentage of the world gets. I have so many friends who embodied that in their character and life as a mantra.”

Lindsay Frank, the director of alumni engagement and a Mercyhurst alumna herself also shared an amazing story about when she heard my keynote her freshman year —eleven years ago!

“I was sitting next to a young man from the Sudan who had gone to an inner-city high school. I had gone to a private school and it never in my entire life occurred to me that college wasn’t an option or wasn’t possible. Everyone in my high school class went to college!” Lindsay said. “He looked so moved by the message, and it made me appreciate that I was so lucky to be here.”


But the gratitude my keynote inspired wasn’t even the most amazing thing to me: It was the lasting impact it has on students for years after they first heard me speak.

Maddie shared that she had seen my talk four times because she was an orientation leader and how she loved watching first-year students go from slouching in their seats to giving a standing ovation by the end of my presentation.

Then she told me about the personal impact my speech had on her:

“The point that always stuck with me is that you’re writing your own script and you get to choose who’s in it and what you want to do. I had baggage from high school, and I didn’t want to bring that. Now I know that I do get to make my own path. I’ve stuck with that mentality all 4 years here.”

And get this: I actually heard from a few seniors around the table that they sneaked back in to the auditorium during Welcome Week this past year to listen to my program again because they loved it so much their freshman year.


On May 10, 2019 I was honored to attend the Senior Gift Presentation, where the scholarship was made official.

And this blew me away: Each year, alumnus and trustee Lev Kubiak matches scholarship funds with a grant up to $10,000—so the scholarship that was originally going to be $15K (which, amazingly, was entirely raised by students)  is now $25K thanks to his generosity.

So, who’s getting this scholarship? It won’t be awarded until next school year, and because the funds will keep growing, it may go to multiple students—and it won’t just depend on their GPA.

“If people are capable of getting the job done and proving their work through what they do—grades shouldn’t be the finite determining factor of whether people achieve [the scholarship],” Cole explained.

To me, this is HUGE—a kid like me could get this scholarship. (You know I didn’t graduate at the top of my class!) I have come to believe that passion supersedes natural ability, so I’m all for the scholarship going to students who are passionate, not just the ones who graduate Summa Cum Laude.

When I got up to speak at the presentation ceremony, I shared that living the dream isn’t just about being grateful for the opportunities we have: It’s about making sure everyone has those opportunities so that they can live their dream, too.

And that’s exactly what these Mercyhurst students are doing.

Congratulations on changing lives, Class of 2019! I am humbled that my message is playing a small part in the big difference you’re making.

Curtis Zimmerman is a keynote speaker for Fortune 100 companies who has also spoken to half a million college students at new student orientations. If you’d like for him to help your people live the dream, contact his team here.

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