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Commencement Speeches

May 10, 2009

One of the duties of the faculty senate president, I recently discovered, is to go to commencement ceremonies. Over the years, I have been to lots of commencement ceremonies as a faculty member seeing off graduate students who had finally completed their theses or dissertations and also as a proud parent thrilled that one of my children had graduated and hopefully was now qualified for some kind of job.  (The latter was always in doubt because all of them got degrees in either psychology or sociology.  You don’t see a lot of ads in help wanted sections for BAs in either field.)  I don’t recall much about any of these commencements.  I skipped most of mine.  Needless to say, I don’t remember much about those either.

Because it is commencement season, The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 8, 2009) ran a short piece, “6 ways to make a commencement speech soar,” by a couple of professional speech writers.  Having just sat through both graduate and undergraduate commencement ceremonies, I must say that the two commencement speakers did a commendable job.  The undergraduate commencement speaker, a NASA astronaut, gave a speech that,  if it did not soar, was, as the president joked, at least out of this world.  It contained a running joke about pooping in space that the students certainly enjoyed.   While listening to these speeches, I began to wonder what I would say if I was asked to be a commencement speaker.  Fortunately for me, our graduating students, and their parents, this is never going to happen.

With the advice of the professional speech writers in mind, I did began to put together an imaginary commencement speech as the announcers read out the innumerable and largely unintelligible names of those who had just received their BAs in psychology, sociology, anthropology, etc.  As recommended by the pros, my speech will be brief, straightforward, and witty.  It  will be organized around several stories from my life journey, just like those legendary commencement speeches that Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey gave at Stanford.

Based on my recent sample of two speeches, it appears that one of the main life lessons that every commencement speaker tries to make is that you need to set a goal and then do everything needed to achieve it.  For example, the astronaut at our undergraduate commencement said that his life’s goal was to become an astronaut.  Becoming an astronaut, however, is not easy.  He had to apply 15 times before he was accepted to the astronaut program by NASA.  The lesson to be learned was to persevere and you will eventually reach your goal.

I never had much of a goal in life.  I never set out to be what I am today.  My life has been more like a random walk.  My guess is that a random walk will describe the life journeys of most of the imaginary graduates to whom I will be speaking.  Nevertheless, I think that here are three lessons that can be learned from my life journey.  Here they are.

One. Don’t smoke.  I never smoked, and I think that this has stood me in good stead.  My house doesn’t smell.  I am still alive.  Besides this is a life lesson that is based on more than just my say-so; it is a medical fact and endorsed by the American Medical Association.  Again, don’t smoke.

Two.  If your goal is to become rich, don’t become a university professor.  If you want to end up on a list of the world’s richest people along with Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and their ilk, don’t follow my example and become a university professor. I can’t stress this point enough. This life lesson is based again on more than just my own personal experience; just have a look at the annual salary report of the American Association of University Professors. I  can guarantee you that a PhD in ecology will not make you rich.

Nevertheless, because I do not want to make this speech too much of a downer –something that the professional speech writers explicitly say to avoid — I will need to point out that a few university professors have become rich.  Although they are not in the same league or on the same lists as Jobs, Gates, and Winfrey, they are a lot richer than me.  The two that come to mind are Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice.  If you want to become rich and a university professor, my advice is get a PhD in political science (specializing in foreign relations), become secretary of state, and, when your boss is thrown or voted out of office, set up a consulting firm.

Three, make the best of what comes along.  When I was starting graduate school, my thesis project was to document changes in algal (microscopic plant) production in ponds of different ages.  (I am not going to try to explain why this topic is the least bit important or interesting to anyone but me.) In the fall of my first year, I found a series of oxbow lakes of different ages that seemed to be ideal for this study.  Over the winter, I worked out a research plan and gathered together all the equipment that I would need to carry it out the following summer.  When I finally began my field work, I discovered that the oxbows were full of aquatic plants, or sea weeds as they are commonly called.  These plants made algal sampling impossible.  Rather than drop my project, I decided to study aquatic plant production in oxbows of different ages.  I got the necessary gear together in a week or so and completed my field research that summer.  Unknown to me, I had just made the most important career choice of my life.  I had become a wetland ecologist.  The only hitch was that this discipline did not yet exist.

Eventually I was hired as an assistant professor because I had worked on aquatic plants.  I had very few competitors for the job.  Today, wetland ecology is an established discipline with its own scientific journals, societies, and national and international conferences.  Because I was one of the first researchers in this new field, nearly everything that my colleagues and I did was novel.  Believe me, it is much easier to make a name for yourself in a newly developing discipline.  Thirty years later,  I was elected a fellow of the major international society of wetland scientists and won their major research award.  As I said, my life has largely been a random walk, but there is a distinct advantage to such a meandering path: you are much more likely to run across something interesting and exciting along the way.  Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path and make the best of what you find along the way. This seems to be another common commencement speech cliché, but it is one of the sounder ones based on my experience.

It is evidently obligatory to close commencement speeches with the observation that the graduates’ parents played a large role in making it possible for them to get their degrees.  By this, speakers evidently do not mean to point out the obvious, that if it was not for their parents, the graduates would literally not be there at all.  Instead,  it is the unflinching and unselfish support and love of their parents, not to mention their money, that the graduates need to remember and acknowledge when they meet up with their parents after the commencement ceremony.  My parents certainly sacrificed to make it possible for me to go eventually to university.  They both had only a grade school education and worked all their lives at low paying service jobs.  This is also one of those commencement speech clichés that is worth including and emphasizing.  Although my parents are both long gone, thanks mom and dad, wherever you are.

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