Students, as you prepare to graduate, I salute you for your hard work and perseverance in pursuing your goals. Youve spent long nights over textbooks and logged hours in the library. Youve discovered new ideas and new abilities. Youve gained marketable skills, mentors, lifelong friends and enduring memories. Youve started something here at West Virginia University, and now youre ready to begin a new adventure.
All who have helped you get to this dayyour families, your teachers, your friendswill sit back today and watch you walk across this stage and off into your future.
All of us on stagefaculty, board members, administratorsare honored to note that you have achieved this significant milestone under the banner of West Virginia University. The deans of our colleges, the members of our governing boards and the leaders of our faculty are here with us.
Why? Because this occasion is more than a personal achievement for each of youit also commemorates the reason this University exists. It is to hold wide its doors to all who seek to improve themselves, to advance knowledge and to serve our state, nation and world. Everyone on this platform has given their time, energy and intellect to achieve the mission of WVU .
Id like to ask the representatives of the Board of Governors, the Higher Education Policy Commission and the University faculty and administrationincluding those of you in the audienceto stand and be recognized.
Please join me in thanking them with your applause.
Anyone who has given or sat through a commencement speechand I have been both victimizer and victimknows they are tough. They are tough because of two false expectations. Either too much is expected of the speechthat it will inspire and motivate the graduates in some unbelievably dramatic fashion so that they dash out of the ceremony animated for life, going forth to conquer and reform the world. Lets relax. I have no intention, much less the oratorical skills, to deliver a message that guarantees you will reform the world.
There is a second false expectation: too little is expected. Everyoneexcept the speakerexpects little from commencement speeches. Too many are hackneyed, boring and too long for graduates that have far more important things on their minds.
Yet expecting too little is just as wrong as expecting too much. Too often in life we have unbalanced expectations. We expect too much, or we expect too little. Instead, we should have dreams and ideals tempered by realistic expectations. Put another way, the smartest approach to life and its challenges is to seek the good and the attainable instead of losing our way in an endless, frustrating search for the totally perfect. We ought to be grateful for what we have and what we can have.
In the spirit of my suggestion for moderate expectations, both for life and certainly for commencement occasions, I share with you five modest lessons I have learned. One or two of these may be moderately useful as you continue your life journey.
LESSON I :
In life, make up your own mind and above all, avoid the status trap. Because we are human, we are constantly bombarded with advice about what we should do, what is really important and what we should value to be a successful man or woman. Too often the advice and expectations with which we are bombarded is based on false or artificial values.
Years ago as a professor at a prestigious Ivy League university, I was invited to come to the University of Nebraska as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. I was enthralled, eager, ambitious and greatly excited about the opportunity.
As I left what I sometimes refer to as theeffete eastfor the rugged and robust plains of America, a colleague at Brown University came to me andwith a smile on his facesaid in words that I will never forget:Oh, Peter, thats wonderful. You are going to go to Nebraska.
And he laughed,Nebraska, thats great; they will pay you $5,000 a year and all the corn you can eat.
My friend was wrong. The salary was better than that, and he did not know that there can be gold in that corn. But beyond that, he did not understand what I had quickly learned. Land-grant universities, such as the University of Nebraska and West Virginia University, are marvelous educational enterprises that do exceptionally good things for their students and the services they provide to their state. My friend did not understand that universities such as Nebraska and WVU are just as good, exciting and valuable to this world as prestigious Ivy League universities.
In fact, the university you are graduating from is one of the many truly good American universities. Consider a few reminders that you may take for granted.
WVU has a vigorous research program focusing on issues that matter to West Virginians, including neurosciences, cancer cell biology and national security. WVU recently became the Federal Bureau of Investigations lead academic partner in biometrics research, providing students with an academic opportunity unmatched at any other institution in the United States. We also have many academic programsincluding engineering, psychology, political science and rural medicinethat have received national recognition for excellence. Many WVU students have received prestigious national and international scholarships.
This is a university with multiple missions, but one mission that is first and foremost is the promotion of learning through outstanding teaching for all studentswhether undergraduates, graduates or in professional schools. And so in some kind of a status trap sense, somebody might say that this is a nice, useful university, but its not Harvard or Stanford. Ladies and gentlemen, that is a status trap. To avoid, follow your own instincts and insights and make up your own mind about what really countswhat is really valuableand avoid being entrapped by values and false status rankings that others project upon us.
LESSON II :
In your life, be yourself. This one sounds easy, but in fact, it can be difficult. Again, others often try to push us to think and see the world as they do, wanting us to fulfill their notion of what is important and what counts. But if you act like yourself and you marchto quote the phraseto your own internal drummer and not try to imitate or be something that you think others want you to be, life is both simpler and frankly a lot more fun. Moreover, what is the meaning and value of life if you go through it acting like someone elses image of what you should be?
Here are two personal examples. Years ago, as an Army officer, I applied for a regular Army commission equivalent perhaps to tenure in the academic profession. I was a young, scared second lieutenant, and I interviewed before a panel of 15 intimidating officers of high rank. I went into the interview with a mental attitude that said,Look, I want to get this opportunity, but my life does not depend on it, and if it does not come to me, that is OK.I was asked a tough question as to how if I were a commanding officer, I would fulfill a quota to make sure that all of the soldiers under my command contributed to a voluntary fundraising drive.
I had been around enough to know the kind of pressures that go with fundraising drives, particularly in a military setting, but decided that I would be myself and say what I really thought. I responded that while the cause was worthy, as a commanding officer, I would ask the soldiers to contribute. But if it were to be truly voluntary, I would not go beyond that, much less check on who contributed and who did not and pressure them. I guessed this would do me in. It did not, and I was offered a regular Army commission, which I subsequently declined because I simply could not turn away from an opportunity to go to graduate school and become a professor. I had been myself. It felt comfortable, and it worked.
LESSON III :
In life, do not take your family and closest friends for granted. I can make this one simple and suspect we can all recognize ourselves in it. Too often we have time for everyone else that crosses our path, are kind, generous, polite and solicitous of strangerspeople whom we really do not know intimately. And yet, we act casually or indifferentlysometimes even cruellyto those we love the most and whom we see in our most intimate moments.
Of course, we should be kind and decent and polite, as much as humanly possible, to all who cross our paths. But we ought to save some of that for those whom we too often treat casually. We often take them for granted because they are our wives, husbands, sons, daughters or brothers and sisters, and we know that they love us. It is nice that we can be more relaxed, more ourselves, with those with whom we are most intimate. But never forget the valueand the rewardsthat flow from giving in kindness, understanding and gentleness to those to whom we are closest.
LESSON IV :
In life, live within limits. I mean this, and it goes back to my comment about commencement speechesexpect neither too much nor too little. Instead, strive for balance and the attainable. Living within limits really does mean thinking for yourself, avoiding the status trap and being yourself. It means giving something, though not everything, to others. It means a balance between the world of work and the world of family, intimacy and friendship. And it means setting limits to the impositions that are always placed upon us and finding some time for yourself.
Living with limits means also, I think, enjoying the good things and the good moments, savoring and being thankful for that which we have.
There is a quotation from Goethe, the great German author, that speaks to this beautifully:
To live within limits, to want one thing
or a very few things very much and love
them dearly, cling to them, survey them
from every angle, become one with them
that is what makes the poet, the artist,
the human being.
Each and every one of you, regardless of your life so far and your circumstances, has much to savoran excellent education at a wonderful American university. You have an opportunity in the journey of life to enjoy it, to contribute to humanity and to harvest the richness of being a balanced human being within limits.
LESSON V :
In life, give something to others, to the common humanity and world of which we are all a part. Its OK to look after oneself and to seek compensation for the work and efforts of life, and to enjoy the fruits one has earned. This is not a matter of being selfish and narrow; it is really a matter of being a human being with needs for recognition and fulfillment. But our humanity is diminished and our enjoyment of life is atrophied if we do not also in ways commensurate to our skills and circumstances, give something of ourselves to others. How one does this is as varied and personal as we all are as individuals.
Let me give you an example that made a deep impression on me. I was visiting Israel in fall 1977 and spent some time in the northern border town of Kiryat Shmoneh, a city near the Golan Heights and Lebanon. It was then virtually under siege because of the Arab-Israeli conflict that has tormented the Middle East and sadly still does.
Kiryat Shmoneh is a tough and harsh place to live and work in, certainly lacking the amenities and sophistication that go with living in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. One evening I heard a lecture by a young and idealisticand yet also pragmaticIsraeli who ran the youth center.
With his wife, he had left the comforts of Jerusalem so that both could work in this frontier town and provide servicehe to youth, she to the local government. He explained why he had done this, saying that he felt he could be more influential and receive more legitimate gratifications in that smaller pond of Kiryet Shmoneh than in the large environment of Jerusalem. He went on to say that on a scale from 1-10, few of us give everything to public service and to humanity; indeed, few of us ever split it 50/50 between service to others and looking out for our own personal needs. The difference, he said, was that some of us do not look out only for ourselves, but perhaps we devote six or seven to our needs and gratifications, and give three or four to society. It was a hot, dusty and memorable evening. I have never forgotten that young couple. They had learned a lesson of life and in a moderate, pragmatic way were taking care of themselves, but also giving something to others. It is a good lesson.
We all now live in a globalized environment. For better and for worse, nations still matter, but the world economy and our communication capabilities link us together in incredible ways. You graduate today from an excellent state university, but live in a globalized world. Just because we are here physically in Morgantown, W.Va., does not change the fact that in all kinds of ways, we are interconnected with what is going on in, say, London, Lisbon or Lahore, Pakistan.
International engagements and involvements, both for West Virginia University and for you as individuals, are as significant as your involvements in West Virginia and all the rest of America. Not only are these international involvements economically significant, they also provide opportunities to serve the world of which we are all a part.
And so for reasons both practical and idealistic, I urge you to accept international opportunities for work, for cultural broadening and for service in ways appropriate to your individual talents and interests. As with that Israeli couple, you can both enjoy a successful life, but also contribute to others.
More than you may now appreciate, you have received an outstanding education. You have earned it, but it has also been given to you by caring professors, staff and loving parents and families. Before you is the journal of life in which these invaluable educational experiences will fulfill you as men and women, but it is also an opportunity, having received some wonderful fruits, to give to your brothers and sisters, not only in the United States, but in our larger world.
I believe you will do good things both for our world and for yourself, and I warmly congratulate you on a happy day of celebration and graduation from this very special West Virginia University.