Highlights from some of the college commencement speeches around the country this month:
Dom Capers, Green Bay defensive coordinator, University of Mount Union (Ohio)
It’s been 40 years since I was sitting out there, like you, wondering what was next in my life. … Last weekend, we held the NFL Draft. Next weekend, we’ll bring in our new draftees for orientation. Every year, countless hours and millions of dollars are spent on the process. With the technology we have today, there’s a vast amount of information on every prospect. Yet, every year, 50 percent of the prospects in the first round of the draft fail. So, every year, as you go through this and observe this, you realize the biggest and strongest and fastest players are not always the most productive players in the NFL. You begin to realize the intangibles of the player are just as important as the talent.
What I’d like to share with you today is … what I think are critical to success in any profession. Number one, and maybe the most important: Find something you love. Passion creates fuel. It creates the burning desire to do what we love ’til we go to bed at night. A passionate person with a little bit of talent will almost always outperform a passive person with great talent. The second thing is the law of compensation. The more you give, the more you get in return. It’s a simple principle, but it’s amazing how many people never figure it out …
The next thing is what influences success more than anything else. The biggest difference between those who succeed and those who fail lies in the difference of their habits. In the NFL, adversity is as common as the air you breathe. Have the courage when things get tough to stick with your plan.
I’d like to discuss surviving success. In my mind, this is the toughest thing anyone has to deal with. We all know we have to pay a high price, no matter what the process is, to be successful. One of my favorite quotes is this: ‘For every 10 people who can handle adversity, there is only one who can handle success.’ The downside of success is like a virus. It is insidious. It’s the master of the sneak attack. No matter where you are in your career, the worst thing is to feel like you have arrived. There’s someone out there willing to do the little things, ready to take your job.
In a few moments, you will officially become the University of Mount Union graduating class of 2012. You certainly have the smarts. You certainly have the heart. Now, it’s up to you to decide how you want to use your talent. You’re the captain of your own ship.
Martin Sheen, actor, New England Institute of Technology
While acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive. I came through the sixties clinging to the absolute certainty that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, and that nonviolence is the only weapon to fight with … No one has ever made a contribution of any real worth without self-sacrifice, personal suffering and sometimes even death.
E.J. Dionne, Washington Post writer, Allegheny College
The great generations harness the good work done one-on-one, in local communities, to larger movements for change in our nation and in our world. They remember what the philosopher Michael Sandel has taught us, that, “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.” Your generation has a chance to get us beyond the wreckage of the old culture wars and to sweep aside the debris of prejudice on the grounds of race, gender and sexual preference. Your generation has the opportunity to restore faith in public life and in public action.
Never lose your desire to transform charity into justice, division into civility, selfishness into generosity, cynicism into hope.
Savannah Guthrie, “Today” show co-host and legal analyst, Hobart and William Smith College
The best advice I got was from one of my old professors at the University of Arizona. After I hemmed and hawed in his office for a while, he looked at me and said, “Savannah, think big.”
Deep, right?
Actually, it was. The problem with all of us sometimes is we convince ourselves of all the reasons we can’t do something before we even try. We think small, so that we might succeed at that small dream we set out for ourselves in order to avoid failure. Think of what you might accomplish if you directed all that compelling, forceful energy toward convincing yourself why you can do it. In a nutshell, thinking big means conjuring up a vision for yourself. It means taking time, being reflective, and daring to visualize what it would look like if you could wave a magic wand and be exactly where you wanted to be in five years, even if it seems a little unrealistic at the moment. Look, we live in the real world. I’m not suggesting you … dream big dreams and refuse any situation or opportunity in the meantime that doesn’t live up to that perfect ideal. What I am saying is: Think big for yourself. Dream big. But then, be ready to start small.
In fact, that is exactly how it works. You start small, and you work at the small thing like it is the big thing. That’s how you get the big thing.
Stuart Krieger, Hollywood screenwriter, State University of New York-Brockport
Learn to recognize opportunities when they come at you. In 2001, I was offered the chance to teach a class at the Peter Stark MFA Producing Program at USC. I loved working with the students, got a lot of positive feedback and found incredible joy in the experience at a time when my writing career was slowing down. Jobs were getting harder to come by. I was no longer the new kid in town. I wasn’t the “flavor of the month.” By 2005, I was exhausted. Show business was an endless grind. The thought of battling for jobs for another decade was really depressing.
Something had to change. So it did. One night, after my USC class, my wife said to me “You know, you’re really happy when you’re teaching. Maybe you should be doing more of that.”
I took her words to heart, met with a friend who had turned from producing to teaching and got directed to a job site for aspiring professors. There I found a posting for a tenure-track position in Writing for the Creative Arts at the University of California, Riverside. I decided that was going to be my next job. After an excruciating five-month process, I was hired in May of 2006. I’m now a full tenured professor and, as of April 1, I’m the chairman of the Department of Theatre, Film & Television. And I’m the happiest I think I’ve ever been.
Why? Because I wasn’t afraid to make a change when it was clearly time to shake things up.
Is this the path I ever thought I’d end up on? Nope. Was it part of my original plan? Not even a little bit. But that train went moving by me and I decided to hop on.
Ted Koppel, newsman, University of Massachusetts
More than ever before, we live today in a world of instant reaction, constant judgment and corrosive partisanship. Political debate is a wonderful thing; but partisan shrieking is corrosive and destructive. If we are to find solutions to the challenges we face, we have to relearn the virtues of compromise. If we are going to deal intelligently with the problems we confront, we need time to pause, to consider and reflect. But our media, news and social, are intolerant of anything but an instant response … Rather than using information to illuminate the world, though, we consume it like fuel. The more we burn, the faster we go. The faster we go, the less we see and understand. We slow down only for the accidents along the side of the road; and the biggest accident still lies ahead.
Only, I fear, when that occurs — only when the combined impact of too many unemployed, too many foreclosures, too much debt, exacerbated by two undeclared and unfunded wars; only when the human and social costs of a crumbling education system and a flawed health care system, leave us wondering where and why we lost our footing as a nation, will we come to realize that WHAT is communicated to us is vastly more important than the medium by which it is conveyed.
… One day, most Americans will point at us in the news media and say: “Why didn’t you tell us? Why did you encourage all that bile and venom? Why did you feed us all that trivial crap, when so many terrible things were converging? And no one will be happy with the answer. Least of all, those of us who offer it. “What we gave you,” we will say, “is what you wanted.”
At this critical juncture in your lives, then, let me urge you — no, let me implore you to want more. More substance, more real information about important issues, more fairness, more objectivity, more tolerance for views that differ from your own. You have a truly magical array of media at your disposal. Use them well.
Hank Aaron, Hall of Fame baseball player, Marquette University
I passed by your campus many times, walking to County Stadium in 1954, my rookie year with the Milwaukee Braves. I had no car.
Overcoming struggles is a part of life. You have to grow up, and to have a little adversity never hurt anybody. In good times and bad times, you will be expected to make the most of the educational opportunity you have been given. I challenge you to hold fast to your dreams.
The spring season of the year is the perfect time for the rebirth of dreams. Like nature itself, spring gives us new hope and a new beginning. In baseball, spring training represents a new season of hope and anticipation of a new opportunity to win a championship. Likewise, spring commencements provide new opportunities for you to continue to climb the ladder of success. Your years of hard work and study here at Marquette are cause for celebration.
The ultimate goal of our lives is to develop our full potential and realize our dreams. For most of us the realization of our dream requires a strong unyielding commitment, hard work and determination. The 1921 Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Anatole France, put it this way: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.”
And finally, I got a student’s graduation speech from Boston University. I really liked part of it, the part this student, who is going to be a teacher, addressed to those who taught him (well, I might add) that there will be more to his life than grading papers.
Christopher “Douglas” Bruno, School of Education, Boston University
A few months ago, I had an interview with a consulting firm for international education, an institute that places international students, mostly from China and India, in American high schools. I knew the company was looking for more of a businessman than an educator, so in preparing for the interview, I figured that I would focus on my expertise of the American education system and knowledge of unique types of schools — charter, pilot, magnet, etc. — in order to show how I could be of service to the company.
The first question of the interview was just what I planned for: How could you help the company despite no business background? I discussed my experience tutoring at Boston Arts Academy, a pilot school focused both on rigorous academics as well as different art forms such as acting, dancing, singing and theater. As an employee of the firm, I argued, I wouldn’t just be placing these students aimlessly; I could, instead, work with the students’ interests and better find a charter, pilot, or independent school whose mission connected with the student, giving them a wonderful opportunity to showcase their individual strengths. So many students at Boston Arts Academy loved going to school because it didn’t just focus on academics; it allowed them to pursue their artistic ambitions for half of the day as well. My knowledge of these different types of schools could provide that same individualized, positive connection for dozens of international students, right?
I thought I nailed the answer. The interviewer? Not so much.
“This is a business,” he said. “This is a for-profit organization. There is a bottom line. To be frank, we’re here to make money. We are businessmen, not counselors.”
Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. Reflection led me to recall a quote from the late professor Dan Davis. In our last Social Studies Methods class our junior year, his parting words were: “I know you will all do great in this profession because you all have soul. If you didn’t have soul, you’d be accountants.”
The faculty has a collective understanding that educators need to have this “soul” to foster a productive classroom environment. Teaching, as we have been taught, is much more about relationships with your students and passionately developing them into active citizens than memorization, equations, names, dates, and most of all making money and “the bottom line.” I will leave you in the words of my supervisor for my practicum, faculty member Gerry Murphy: “Some days it will feel like the best profession in the world. Some days you would rather be selling lampshades, but think about it. It’s the only profession in the world that influences every single other profession.”

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