For Eric Winins and more than 1,600 graduates, Saturday marked the culmination of their education as they took part in the 146th commencement exercises for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at the Cajundome.

“I worked at it and stayed at it, and this really means a lot,” said Winins, who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and decided to embark on a journey he said he never previously imagined for himself.

“Katrina was a blessing in disguise,” said Winins, 27. “I had no plans of going to school. I finished high school with a 1.8 gpa. I always knew I was capable. I was always a studious person. I did well on tests, but I just didn’t apply myself in the classes.”

Winins said he earned a 3.8 grade-point average his first semester at UL-Lafayette, while working full time and going to school at night. He calls his experience “grind time to shine time.”

“You have to grind so you can shine,” he said. “It was either going to make me or break me. It made me.”

UL-Lafayette President E. Joseph Savoie called the class of 2014 a special one.

“This is the largest single-semester graduating class in the history of this university,” Savoie said. “The university has worked hard to provide you with the necessary skills to be successful in your chosen profession. We are very confident in your abilities and as you move forward in the next phase of your life.”

Former UL football standout and current Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman gave the commencement speech. The 2002 UL-Lafayette graduate spoke of his experiences as a new graduate and the possibility of what his words could mean.

“You ever stop to think how important words are?” Tillman asked. “Words lift us up, and they tear us down. Words create worlds. What a blessing it would be today in some small way if my words today would help create a new world.

“I learned a mantra in 2003 when the Bears made me and the other rookies take a trip to Champaign, Illinois. I was bored, and I hated the trip, but it was one of the best life lessons I could have ever had. The mantra is: ‘Learning is the beginning of health, wealth, future and fortune.’ ”

Tillman urged graduates to not be afraid of taking a chance and to strive to leave a lasting legacy.

“I take great pride in knowing that I learn something every year I am in the NFL,” Tillman said. “I want you all to make your mark. Be bold. Take risks. Stand out. Don’t be afraid.”

Savoie asked graduates to remember the people who helped them get to this point and to do the same for others.

Winins said he majored in education in order to become a teacher to fulfill his goal of helping others.

“I want to help people,” Winins said. “I want to make a difference. That starts with children. A lot of people treat graduation as an end, or a culmination, and it’s true. It is the culmination of my education, but this is only the beginning. I strive to make a difference in as many people’s lives as I can.”