SHERIDAN — A rattlesnake bit Shelby Fortik when she was 5 years old. The poisonous venom nearly took her life, but Fortik ultimately survived. However, she pondered what her legacy would have been had she died from that bite as a young child.
“If I die today, what would I leave behind?” she recalled thinking.
The question propelled Fortik through the rest of her life, which included graduating Saturday from Sheridan College. Fortik graduated from the dual culinary arts and hospitality management program and was one of about 300 graduates to receive a diploma during the 69th Sheridan College commencement in the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome.
Stephen Woody, former publisher of The Sheridan Press, gave the commencement address. Woody shared some of his background, noting that he finished one semester shy of his college degree, which has left him “a peculiar emptiness for 43 years.”
He also elaborated on several near-death experiences, including being involved in a car accident at age 17 when a drunk driver hit his car; a rare blood disease in 2003; surgery complications in 2008; and septic pneumonia that put him in intensive care for 24 days a few years ago.
Woody focused on the idea of planning throughout his speech, explaining that his life changed in 1975 when he didn’t have any plans. On a lark, he drove to Wyoming and asked for a job with several newspapers in the state, ultimately landing an advertising job with the paper in Lander.
Woody mentioned a few things for graduates to remember, including the importance of in-person conversations; complimenting others; not settling for “good enough;” and honesty.
“It’s not a tactic,” Woody said of telling the truth. “It’s a way of being.”
After Woody’s speech, Sheridan College President Paul Young presented him with a few gifts related to Woody’s love of jazz music. The gifts included several albums and a framed photograph of Benny Carter, a jazz musician who was active from the 1920s to the 1990s before his death in 2007.
Young concluded the ceremony by congratulating the graduates and reminding them that “the highest calling is in service to others.”
The message is something Fortik plans to act on going forward. She took the idea of service for others to heart during a 10-day spring break trip this March to Nicaragua. Fortik went with nine other students and several TRIO staff members to help build a water system. She said the experience changed her outlook on her career goals and mission in life.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Fortik said. “It affected my thoughts of what I was going to do after college. Before I left I was just hoping to get a job and be successful, but after I left, it made me realize that with everything that people have done for me, it was time for me to pay it forward.”
Fortik will attend the University of Wyoming in the fall and study business management with a concentration in entrepreneurship and a minor in international business. She hopes to ultimately receive her Master’s of Business Administration and help people outside of the country in any way she can.
Fortik was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, and moved to the small town of Chugwater in the southeastern part of Wyoming. She always liked to bake and cook since about age 11 because it helped bring people together and served as stress relief.
“Whenever I was having a rough day or anything, just going into the kitchen and baking everything I could think of,” Fortik said. “I can still remember Christmases where I made so much food we had to call the neighbors over (because) we didn’t have enough people to eat it all.”
Fortik was part of the college’s TRIO program because she comes from a low-income background. She also interned for a year and a half at the Downtown Sheridan Association. Fortik had to use what little money she received from her internship to support her family.
Fortik credited the Sheridan College faculty and staff with helping her graduate.
“There were times when I was a little bit uncertain,” Fortik said. “But after a while it became clear to me that people aren’t just there to get a paycheck. They’re there to help me. They’re there because they care for me. They genuinely want me to succeed.”
Before the trip to Central America, Fortik was unsure about her future. Now she has a clearer sense of her goal.
“I’m hoping that one day I can work at a place where I can impact people’s lives in a positive way,” Fortik said. “Every night I still go to bed thinking, ‘If I die today, what would I leave behind?’ That Nicaragua trip really gave me peace of mind after I went, because now I know that even if I died today, I helped create a water system that brings clean drinking water to generations of people. This is something that is going to outlive me.”
Fortik was only one of the Sheridan College graduates, but her story illustrated the themes presented by both Woody and Young during Saturday’s ceremony.