My Graduation Speech

When you own your own graduation robe, it means you go to a lot of commencements. I have walked across stages, witnessed my daughters and grandmother receive diplomas and have shaken lots of graduates’ hands.  I have also heard lots of speeches.

It’s a tough crowd.  Graduates have their minds on celebration. They stopped listening last week. Parents want something inspirational and reassuring that will affirm all that money was wisely spent.  The speaker feels an obligation to share some secret of success.  After all, American presidents and celebrities are asked to make graduation speeches, so you want to measure up. If the speech is really good, it might go viral on YouTube or be “retweeted” by your six followers on Twitter. Everyone listening wants it to be short and memorable.  If the attendees can only have one, most will vote for short (The six who find it memorable will appreciate that it’s easy to retweet–everyone wins).

I only remember fragments.  My favorite speech was by a colleague at the University of Iowa who quipped that universities are the storehouses of knowledge and that she could prove it. She noted that each year we take in a group of freshmen who think they know everything and graduate a group of seniors who are pretty sure they don’t know anything at all.  Where does all that knowledge go in four years, she asked?  “Well we keep it!” Knowledge expressed as doubt: It got a good laugh. 

You are the first graduating class from LBS that has been completely in my charge, and since it is my blog and I have never been asked, here goes…

Graduates, you enter a difficult job market during uncertain times. Unemployment and debt are far too high. Housing prices and consumer confidence are far too low. Politicians have sharply different opinions about what to do. Pessimism reigns. Some say America’s best days are behind her; that we are no longer leaders in the world; that our economy, government and society are bankrupt; that you will be the first American generation to have a lower standard of living than your parents; And that we have mortgaged our future to people who live across the sea.

They have said these things before.  They said it during the Great Depression when stocks crashed and unemployment topped 30%. They said it during the dark days of WWII before American built planes ruled the sky, American tanks the battlefield, and American ships the waves. They said it when Sputnik flew over our heads and Neil Armstrong had yet to set foot on the moon.  They said it when OPEC threatened to stall our economy, Japanese cars, steel, and electronics flooded our markets, and the Belgians bought Budweiser (well at least my uncle said it then).  All this before FedEx delivered my iPad so I could check my facts for this blog post on the internet using Google.

Americans have always known that we are in a competition to win the future, not the past.  Challenges and uncertainty, like opportunity and change, are endemic to life. Maybe someday the naysayers will be right.  Maybe someday our problems will overwhelm us. But that day is not today.  No, the people who say this do not know these graduates.   They don’t know Chris Madison an MIS student whose slogan is: “The bigger the dream, the smaller the competition.”  If you’ve met Chris, you know he has little competition. They don’t know Paris Bayardo, who is earning his BSBA in marketing, already owns several businesses and is looking to buy a hospice facility.  Or Cynthia Galvan, an MBA student and budding venture capitalist, who with her engineering colleagues is working to find investors for a product called Smell-o-vision, a synchronized aroma system that may revolutionize movie-going.  These are just three of the hundreds of Lee Business School graduates  who leave today ready to compete in a global marketplace.

Stories like these reassure me that college hasn’t stomped all the youthful confidence out of graduates that my Iowa colleague fondly described years ago. In fact, I hope we have lit a fuse: Born to an imagination that dreams big, tempered by the knowledge to choose wisely, forged by the persistence to stay the course, seasoned with the humanity to help others and focused by a desire to get things done right, Chris, Bayardo and Cynthia prove youthful exuberance is pretty powerful stuff.  These are the things that got all of you ready to cross this stage today and they are the qualities we need to ensure that our finest days still lay before us.  Two thousand years ago, The Roman Poet Virgil knew that “fortune favors the bold.”  You are no longer Rebels in training. It is time to curry fortune.  Be bold.

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