Commencement Keynote: “You belong in any space you choose,” says Wheelan ’97

Director of El Paso County Public Health Susan Wheelan gives a speech at Fall 2022 Commencement. Photo credit: Jacob Guilez

As director of El Paso County Public Health, Susan Wheelan guided the community through the pandemic. Appointed as director in 2019, she was at the helm of Public Health during COVID-19, helping the community navigate the complexities of the crisis, particularly as they relate to balancing the health of residents and the resilience of businesses, schools, and other critical community organizations. 

Wheelan was named UCCS’s fall Distinguished Alumna Speaker in recognition of her many accomplishments. She credits the development of her adept leadership and communication skills to her time at UCCS as an undergraduate communication student.  

As Wheelan delivered the Fall 2022 Commencement keynote, she addressed nearly 600 graduates and thousands of faculty, staff and family members arrayed throughout Broadmoor World Arena. 

Wheelan spoke of her own complex journey to graduation, one that began when she was a young waitress, chasing down a customer she had been told worked in Financial Aid at UCCS to seek his advice on getting into the university. But throughout her college career, Wheelan continued to struggle with self-doubt. 

“As a young adult, I had absolutely no belief that there was a possibility that I could go to college and earn a degree,” she said. “I had an inner critic that convinced me that I was not good enough, I did not belong, and others were smarter than me.” 

Wheelan silenced that inner critic through hard work, perseverance, and investment by her mentors, graduating from UCCS in 1997 with a degree in Communications. 

“Next thing I knew, I was thriving and had a sense of pride I still carry with me today,” she said. 

Wheelan joined El Paso County Public Health in 1999 and held multiple roles there – but before that, she participated in their supplemental nutrition program as a single mom, learning about nutrition and healthy infant development. 

“I knew nothing about the field of public health,” she said. “I earned an advanced degree in business, and with years of public and environmental health leadership I now serve as the director, coming full circle in the place where I first sought help.” 

“Life can be messy and painful,” she said. “Inevitably, along your path, challenges are waiting for you. Push through and always figure out what lesson you can take away from those periods of your life. Every single experience, positive or negative, provides us with knowledge and growth. It might hurt, and you will shed some tears. And maybe cuss along the way. But you always get back up, and dust yourself off.” 

Wheelan wished the graduating class an adaptive mindset that allows them to overcome any challenges they may face along the journey, as well as a “steadfast belief that you do belong in any space you choose, and that you are better than good enough.” 

Wheelan closed with a Tupac Shakur quote: 

“I know it seems hard sometimes but remember one thing. Through every dark night, there’s a bright day after that. So no matter how hard it gets, stick your chest out, keep your head up and handle it.”

About the UCCS Fall 2022 Commencement Ceremony 

The UCCS fall 2022 Commencement ceremonies will celebrate degrees conferred to more than 1,000 graduates. More than 550 will attend the ceremony at the Broadmoor World Arena on December 16, 2022, along with family and friends. See the full Commencement program online. View the livestreamed ceremony on YouTube.