Before beginning my remarks, I would like to thank my alma mater for this wonderful honor and salute Dan and Ann Sullivan for their fine leadership at St. Lawrence.
As part of this celebration of accomplishment I have been asked to share some words of advice with the Class of 2009. I’m going to begin by quoting some speech givers from the past in the hope that one of these memorable phrases will stay with you.
Mark Twain, who was never at a loss for words, is said to have told a nervous friend who was about to address a large audience, “just remember, they don’t expect much.” As I stand here with all your diplomas behind me, and you, your family and friends in front of me with cameras at the ready, I understand the perils of being long winded. I will be brief and I’ll try to exceed your less than lofty expectations.
Two other famous men were exceptionally to the point. Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, give up” and then sat down. Bob Hope, when asked what advice he would give to graduates about to enter the world, said simply, “Don’t go!”
And John Gardner, in his fine book, NO EASY VICTORIES, said there is a tendency at commencements to focus on the value of something impossible to share adequately with you-the virtues of lifelong learning. But I still will succumb to the temptation of sharing a few thoughts about what I have learned and offer you a challenge.
I want to challenge all the graduates today to aim to become “extraordinary persons.” I would like to have you keep two thoughts in mind. Life is filled with “taking things in” and “giving things back.” Everything you do will relate to one or the other. The trick will be maintaining a balance between them. Thus far, illustrations of your “taking in” probably include: any and all the lectures you sat through, art exhibits, concerts, plays, all campus events of any sort, lessons learned through extracurricular activities, or an internship, an international experience, or research project The “giving back” examples so far may be: taking on a service learning commitment, participating in a charity fund-raiser, tutoring special education students, assisting the elderly, clearing a mountain trail, or volunteering at a local church, museum or school.
Here are some personal reflections that might be useful in helping you with the “giving back” phase ahead.
I have learned that exercising one’s intellectual muscles is challenging. One grows by reading a lot, by listening carefully and by responding in a way that makes clear where you stand and why.
The key to personal growth is your ability to learn from your experiences and adapt to change you can’t foresee or control. This leads you forward, but the push back from others with their own goals will humble you and slow you down. What should your response be? Keep moving ahead and don’t give up.
You must understand that learning never stops for a person who seeks to be extraordinary. After today the learning process will take a different course. Your education, without the comforts and support of this academic community, will become more of a “solo” flight. You will become the pilot of your own adventure-seeking aircraft. You will control your intellectual destiny and where you ultimately will land. It is your curiosity and motivation to be successful that will drive you.
You will look beyond entitlements and comfort zones. You can make our world a better place through your daily actions, large and small. The extraordinary person has passion and perseverance. These traits never go out of style.
Finally, I rely on the words of author Henry James. He said, “True happiness comes from getting outside one’s self. But to get out, you must stay out, and to stay out you must have an absorbing errand.”
I suggest your absorbing errand be a commitment to lifelong learning. How do you do this? Resolve to be an active, involved citizen. Be a person who is kind to others. Look for the chance to work with passionate persons you admire and trust. Learn from them by writing down the good ideas you hear and the principles they espouse. Expect peaks and valleys. Use your failures and your setbacks as learning experiences. Age wisely. Turn challenges into opportunities. Maintain your integrity in all that you do. Believe in yourself, and your goals. Pursue them.
You have had the luxury of taking in more than you have given out in the last four years. Try it the other way around. The outcome should not surprise you.
Be extraordinary and give back.
Congratulations Class of 2009 and God bless you always.