Patrick Schilling, who spoke recently at his N.C. State graduation ceremony, is told he sounds like he's from Ohio, where natives speak with neutral diction and cadence. Schilling might talk like a typical Midwesterner, but there's nothing typical about him.
For one, Schilling, 23, is from southern Germany and has spent only the last two years in the United States as he earned his business degree from NCSU. He sometimes whips out his German identification card to show skeptical Americans that although he might speak like a Midwesterner, he's not.
His country of origin isn't all that made him distinctive on the NCSU campus. He has dysmelia, the malformation of limbs caused by a disturbance in embryonic development. His legs are shorter than that of the typical man (he's about 4-foot-10) and his arms end at the elbow.
He's also a polished, persuasive and powerful public speaker who grabbed the crowd of 12,000 at the PNC Center and held it to the end.
"He just stood up there and nailed it," Chancellor Randy Woodson, who was sitting a few feet away as Schilling spoke, told me this week. "He’s a phenomenal young man (who) has overcome a lot of obstacles to pursue higher education. I'm proud he chose to come to N.C. State."
No offense to the other speakers, including the distinguished child advocate Marian Wright Edelman, who gave the commencement address, but Schilling stole the show. When he finished, he received a standing ovation and was embraced by Edelman, honorary degree recipient Temple Grandin (a pioneering animal welfare expert and an inspirational story in her own right) and other bigwigs on the stage.
"I put everything I had — all my experiences, all my vision — into that speech," Schilling told me.
Schilling walks shorter distances — when he's indoors, for example — but uses a wheelchair for longer distances. He told his fellow graduates of his first night at State. He was exploring campus and was at the Bell Tower when both of his wheelchair batteries gave out. It was late. There was no one on nearby Hillsborough Street. He was in a foreign country more than 4,000 miles from home.
A single tear ran down his face.
We've all had that dark moment of doubt, he said, but it's in those times that we are reminded of the strength of our will.
He climbed out of his wheelchair. Then, for two difficult hours, he pushed it one mile along Hillsborough Street to his room at University Towers.
"Each and every one of you," he said, "has a personal story like that."
Schilling is driven to lead (he's founded and headed seven social or political organizations) and is relentlessly upbeat. He says he once had "some severe social adjustment" but now he embraces his role as an ambassador for inclusion. He enjoys public speaking and excels at it. He was chosen to speak by an NCSU committee that selects the student graduation speaker.
"I strongly believe that if you have a story that has the potential to inspire other people, you should go out there and share it and bring other people with you," he said. "You should be the spark that excites other people."
After graduation, Schilling traveled along the Outer Banks with his father, then met some friends for a few days in Chicago. Soon he'll move to Ireland where he'll work as an associate account strategist at Google's European headquarters.
He's most proud of his work advocating for people with disabilities, and is glad to share his story. "I've always perceived it as an opportunity to inspire people," he said. There were 12,000 people at his graduation who would say he succeeded.