Roger W. Ferguson Jr. - Remarks to Graduates

May 19, 2013

President Fox, Trustees, distinguished faculty, honored guests, proud families, and members of the class of 2013, I am delighted to join you today.

Thank you for conferring on me an honorary degree.

It is indeed a great honor to be recognized by St. Lawrence University in this way.

The University has a noble mission – and members of the class of 2013, you are the latest embodiment of that mission.

Today, I want to congratulate you on the hard work you’ve done to earn a St. Lawrence degree.

Now, the question you face is: What are you going to do with that?

I’d like to give you five brief pieces of advice that derive from what I’ve learned in my own career thus far.

First, commit to using the human capital you’ve developed at St. Lawrence to have an impact on the world.

I believe there’s no better way to honor the hard work and achievement that got you where you are today.

Moreover, our nation needs you to make this commitment – since you are uniquely qualified to help lead us to more solid ground in a time of economic uncertainty.

Second, if you want to have a real impact, you must see today not as the end of your educational journey but as one milestone in a life of continuous education.

Our world is being reshaped at a relentless pace by globalization, technological advances, demographic trends, economic challenges, and other forces.

To thrive in this environment, you must be a lifelong learner – someone who is continuously growing his or her human capital to align with the way the world is evolving.

Third, I urge you to figure out how to apply your human capital in a way that honors the best in you – and with an outlook that extends beyond just your own self-interest.

Financial rewards should not be your only priority in figuring out how to best put your human capital to use.

For proof of that, look no further than our recent financial crisis.

At its root, the crisis occurred because people – and companies – put the pursuit of profits and their own self-interest first, ahead of what was best for their customers, their long-term shareholders, their employees, and society at large.

I know St. Lawrence has worked hard to inculcate a broader perspective in you, particularly through its focus in areas like sustainability and community service.

Do not forget the lessons you’ve learned here as you strive to make your mark on the world.

Fourth, throw out any notion you have of climbing a – quote/unquote – “career ladder” – which implies a straight and predictable path to ever-higher levels of success.

That concept is outdated in today’s world.

Instead, think of your career as more like a climbing wall.

I speak from experience. I started out practicing law. Then I joined the consulting world, where I led a team responsible for research and information systems. I next entered public service at the Federal Reserve. And since 2006, I have been back in the private sector, leading TIAA-CREF for the past five years.

My career path has been anything but straight.

But I have loved applying my own human capital in a diverse range of positions at different types of organizations.

It has been extremely rewarding to me on both a personal and professional level.

There’s one final piece of advice I’d like to give you, and it comes directly from my experience leading TIAA-CREF.

When my company started out in 1918, we were focused only on retirement.

But over the years, we’ve become one of the nation’s largest financial services firms, and our focus has expanded to helping people achieve financial well-being at all stages of their lives.

We know that if you don’t have financial well-being, it’s much harder to make a substantial impact on the world.

We also know that you can’t really have financial well-being without a healthy level of financial literacy.

So my fifth piece of advice to you is to become financially literate.

Understand the concepts of personal finance. Know how to use credit wisely. Have long-term financial goals even as you are dealing with short-term needs and desires.

If you start saving now, when you’re young, even just a little bit on a regular basis, you can have a huge impact on your financial well-being later in life.

But if you ignore the financial aspects of your life, your energy to make a difference will be severely diluted.

You can’t really change the world if you’re worried about paying off your credit card debt.

So I challenge you to take the time to educate yourself, or to expand on what you already know.

Direct some of your amazing brainpower to your financial life and commit to your own financial well-being.

With that, let me close by once again offering my congratulations.

Your St. Lawrence education has more than prepared you for the challenges you are about to face.

I wish you every success.