Detoured Student Offers Inspiration to Fellow Grads

Ellen Caminiti at an exhibit her student group organized
Student graduation speaker Ellen Caminiti, who discovered her love for photography and the environment during her studies, at the first exhibit hosted by the group she founded, Art and the Oceans. (Greg Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Editor’s note: Media are welcome to attend the commencement rehearsal at 12:30 p.m. Friday (Dec. 13). For access to the Saturday ceremony (Dec. 14), please contact Julia Ann Easley, below.

Ellen Caminiti had a speech impediment as a child, was painfully shy when she started at the University of California, Davis, wandered in her studies and was dismissed for poor academic performance.

But the 24-year-old will stand center stage to share her journey and message of encouragement with more than 800 fellow graduates and thousands of guests at fall commencement at 10 a.m. this Saturday (Dec. 14) in The Pavilion at the ARC.

‘Every experience … makes you, you’

“Every experience — good or bad — and every attempt at a goal, whether you succeeded or completely botched it, makes you, you,” the student speaker said in her audition presentation. “These things that you experience just help you in becoming the person you were meant to become.”

Born in San Luis Obispo, California, and raised in Meridian, Idaho, Caminiti attended a community college before transferring to UC Davis in 2016. After a successful first quarter, she stopped applying herself and floundered for more than a year.

Nevertheless, through her struggles, good things were happening. Participating in the campus gymnastics club, she met some of her closest friends. “They helped me to come out of my shell and realize that it was okay to be myself,” she said.

Also, Caminiti was distancing herself from the speech impediment that had once made some pronunciations difficult, caused occasional stuttering and contributed to her shy nature. As a head lifeguard on campus, she helped supervise and train dozens of others.

A helpful detour

Dismissed in winter 2018, Caminiti followed the suggestion of her academic advisor to use the time off from school to write and think about her passions.

“Even though I was completely disappointed in myself for a little bit, this low point in my story eventually led me to shift my perspective on life,” she said. “I learned that it is important to stop doing the things that don’t make you happy — and to use the things that do make you happy to change the world in some way.”

During that time, Caminiti came to love photography. “I wouldn’t have discovered photography if it wasn’t for this detour,” she said. “Now, I plan to use it in my career.”

In summer 2018, she enrolled in courses, including one in photography, to earn her way back into good academic standing for the fall quarter.

Purpose and direction

That same summer on a solo trip to Costa Rica, she watched sea turtles hatch and — in what could be a personal metaphor — realized just how determined they are in their quest to reach the ocean. “If they make it out of the shell and get to the ocean, it makes it all worthwhile,” she said. “They just keep going.”

“I had that ah-ha moment,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to dedicate my career to.”

Steps from the turtle nests, Caminiti used her cellphone and spotty Wi-Fi to explore UC Davis majors that would prepare her to work for the good of the environment. She has since taken courses at the university’s Bodega Marine Laboratory and founded Art and the Oceans, which sheds light on how we are affecting the oceans. The student organization just concluded an exhibit at a campus gallery. 

Her message to fellow grads? “Find and pursue your passion, and take risks,” she said. “Passion is everything. It can change the world.”

Caminiti will be awarded a degree in international relations with an emphasis in global environment, health and natural resources, and minors in psychology and global disease biology. Already with news writing experience from a student job, she is now pursuing a career as an investigative journalist and activist for the environment. After graduation, she will be interning at the Environmental Investigation Agency, which investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuse. 

Media Resources

Ellen Caminiti (ka-mi-NEE-tee), mobile number available,

Julia Ann Easley, 530-752-8248,

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