WestConn Commencement May 22, 2005

What a glorious day it is here at WestConn!

Commencements are a time to look both backward and forward.

They are a time to celebrate and reflect on where you’ve been, as well as to think about where you are going.

A good metaphor for this is mountain climbing.

Imagine you’ve reached the top of a mountain ridge that has long been your goal—you look back and can see the trail you took, the places where the climb was easy, the places where the footing was difficult, even dangerous, the places where you thought about quitting, the place where you got a clear view of the summit for the first time. Now you’ve made it, and you can look back with a sense of accomplishment, for this climb was not easy.

You’ve learned, as the Chinese sage Confucius observed: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling down, but in rising every time we fall.”

As you reflect, you will also remember that you didn’t make this climb alone. You had parents, spouses, family, friends and classmates who lent you their love and support. Let’s recognize all those who helped. Graduates, join me!

And you also had skilled, wise guides on this journey. So please join me in thanking the WestConn faculty and staff who led, encouraged and inspired you along the way!

Now you turn the other way and look out at the mountain valleys and ridges that lie ahead. And what do you see there?

You see the future. The future, about which the American auto inventor Charles Kettering once said:
“I don’t understand why people worry about the future. I am going to live the rest of my life there.”

And so will you live the rest of your life there—in the future.

What will that future look like? And how can you use what you’ve gained during your years at WestConn to flourish in it?

First of all, that future will certainly be GLOBAL

  • Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman notes that in 1985 the “global economic world” (i.e. those involved in commerce) included North America, Western Europe, Japan and chunks of other continents; it included about 2.5 billion people.
    Since 2000, the fall of the Soviet Union, the opening up of India’s economy, and China’s transformation to market capitalism have contributed to overall population growth to increase the “global economic world” to 6 billion participants, a more than 200% increase.
  • And many of these new participants, especially in places like India and Eastern Europe, have strong educations and marketable skills. They will be your competition; and they won’t be pushovers.
  • Past performance will not be the key ingredient to success, but rather knowledge and the concentration of the intellectual efforts of educated, hard working people.
    • New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman has recently written that “The World is Flat,” and by that he means that, thanks to technology, our economic and cultural lives are interconnected as never before. For example, surgeons in Baltimore, Maryland, send CAT-scan results to Bangalore, India, for analysis. And get the answers overnight. Boeing contracts with Russian engineers, the guys we allegedly beat in the Cold War, to build their planes. That’s Friedman’s “Flat World.”
  • The arena in which your lives and careers will play out will not be Danbury, Fairfield County, the Tri-State area, or even the US. It will be the entire world. And you must prepare for that.

To do so, you must continue to learn, to develop your skills, to be able change jobs and careers if necessary, to be (as Friedman says) untouchable. And by that he means continually developing the skills and talents to insulate yourself from the vagaries of the world economy. Re-inventing yourself if necessary.

To do that, I suggest you continue to apply the strategies you used in succeeding academically here at WestConn. The challenges will be different, but the learning process is the same.

In his song, “Forever Young”, Bob Dylan wrote, “May you hands always be busy, may your feet always be swift, may you have a firm foundation, when the winds of change do shift.” You’ve received a firm foundation on how to be a life long learner here at WestConn. Trust in this foundation and use it.

Because those winds of change WILL shift, especially because of TECHNOLOGY.

  • Consider the speed and reach of the development of the Internet. Currently more than a billion people are on line; millions Google every day. And consider too that the Internet did not really exist when Bill Clinton was first elected president just 12 years ago. What will the next 12 years bring?

To succeed in this future, just crunching the numbers, just aggregating more information, just learning the latest software aren’t, I submit, enough. What’s really required is the ability to know how to ask the right questions as well as provide the right answers. To be skilled in what social scientists call “framing the question;” to identify what’s really important.

And this work of successful question framing and answering will involve more teamwork than ever before.

We have great examples of such teamwork here at WestConn.

Consider two of our most successful student organizations: The Roger Sherman Debate Society and the WCSU Rugby Club. After just two years in existence, our debaters routinely defeat teams from Ivy League universities and have become a power in Eastern debate circles. Our Rugby Club won the New England Rugby Union and Northeast Championships and finished third in the nation, losing a heartbreaker to Duke before beating Lehigh in the consolation game.

What do these two groups have in common? They are student-organized, grassroots organizations. We in the administration or faculty did not create them. Their members did. And it’s that kind of self-motivation, initiative, creativity and dedication that will serve all of you. Use it as a model.

In addition, because of the future’s global nature, teambuilding MUST include people who are different from you in terms of gender, age, race, religion, nationality, sexual preference, you name it. They may even be Red Sox fans!

How will you accommodate to that? Let me suggest that one way is to remember some of the lessons you learned here at WestConn about dealing with different kinds of people. I include what you learned in classes, but also what you learned in student organizations, residence halls, athletic fields and just hanging around the Student Center.

You might take as an inspiration the comments I heard WCSU student Amy Bogert make at the Black Student Alliance dinner last February.

Amy described arriving here from rural, non-diverse Brooklyn, CT, and having her horizons expanded dramatically by the African-American friends she made. These friendships changed her life and helped make her the student leader she is today. And I’ll bet when Amy makes new friends are Chinese or Brazilian or Pakistani, she’ll learn from them, too.

I suggest you emulate her.

In the end, it will be your understanding of the impacts of globalization and technology, your ability to frame the right questions, and your skill in working collaboratively in diverse teams that will make the most difference in the years ahead for what management guru Tom Peters terms “that brand called you.”

And while it may be crass to refer to ourselves as brands, there is wisdom in Peters’ observation. Like Nike, Pepsi or Sony, we all stand for something and are recognized by others for the composite of characteristics that make up our values, personalities and the roles we play in our work, in society and in our private lives.

And so now a Western Connecticut State University degree has become part of your brand—and you have become part of ours. That promises to be a great example of what marketers call cross branding!

For we are in it together now. Your academic degree is more enduring than jobs, places of residence, even marriages. You are a WestConn grad, and as we continue to elevate the reputation and accomplishments of the university you will benefit. And likewise, we will share in and take pride and joy in your accomplishments. Every success you enjoy will reflect favorably on us—and vice versa. It’s a virtuous cycle.

But I would also remind that despite all that will happen the future, that brand called you begins with you, with the internal values, principles and faith that you have.

William Shakespeare put it well in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Or as another favorite poet of mine, Bruce Springsteen, said, ”It’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin and can’t stand the company.”

More than anything else, it’s those values, principles and faith that brought you to the summit of accomplishment upon which you stand today.

Breath in the crisp air of success!

Enjoy the view!

Let it inspire you as you continue the journey of your career and your life!

And, in the words of the old Irish blessing:

“May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine upon your face
The rains fall softly upon your fields
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand,
And may you be in heaven half an hour
Before the Devil knows you are dead.”

Congratulations, Graduates!!

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