Prepared text of remarks by Tom Sloane, senior associate dean of students at West Virginia University, at the December Graduates Convocation on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2009:
Mr. President, faculty and staff, graduates and families of the graduates, who have sacrificed so much for this day to happen. Congratulations! Mr. President, thank you for this opportunity to speak to the Class of 2009. I am honored and very grateful to be here with you today.
I brought with me today what I had to wear when I was a freshman, the freshman beanie. It’s shrunk a bit over the years. We wore it until the first home football game where we ran around the perimeter of Old Mountaineer Field and then flung our hats high into the air. Obviously I omitted that latter part.
I really have been a Mountaineer all my life, born in Morgantown, a first-generation college student from a family where both parents worked and who wanted for their child what they did not have – an education beyond high school. It was always expected I would go to West Virginia University; it was my first choice and I really always knew I would come here. I didn’t know, though, that I would stay for 47 years. So, WVU is in my blood. It has been my life, first as a student and then as a person who has worked here first as a teacher and then in student services. And the people I’ve known and worked with these many years have been my family.
Let me speak to you today as a fellow Mountaineer. I bleed Old Gold and Blue. I know you do, too. Let me share with you what I hope we have in common as Mountaineers. What I hope you’ve experienced, what I know I experienced here.
Today is a scrapbook day, a memory day, a Facebook day, a day to Tweet about. A day I hope you will take time to remember forever. I’ve had three graduations since high school, and I went to every one of them. Every one of them my family was there with me; I feel so fortunate for that.
Because today is a day to not only honor you as a graduate but to honor your family, your friends, your closest allies, for all they’ve done to make today happen. So I’m so happy you’ve chosen to come today. Can you please give a huge round of applause to show your appreciation to all those who have helped you along the way? Thank you!
I’ve thought a lot about what to say to you today. I want to share my experiences with you with the wish that somehow we can find a common ground of what has happened during these past four or five years. There are several experiences I want to mention that to me were” defining moments,” “signature experiences,” as the sportscasters said of our great win two weeks ago against Pitt.
Let’s start with athletics. I have had the opportunity over these years to interview hundreds of outstanding candidates for various honors and awards, including Mr. and Ms. Mountaineer, Homecoming King and Queen, the Order of Augusta and WVU Foundation Outstanding Seniors. These folks are the top 50 students graduating from WVU, in the case of Augusta – the top 8.
When asked to speak of what gave them goose bumps, to name a defining moment, many have answered over the years, seeing the Pride of West Virginia marching band come out of that tunnel in Mountaineer Field, hearing the WVU Fight Song, and of course Country Roads. Whether you heard that at Mylan Puskar Stadium or as I did, the Old Mountaineer Field, down in the Loop near Life Sciences Building, we can share that experience. Or when Jonnie West has a great game as he did recently. Or when I remember seeing his Dad, Jerry West, score 40 points in a game at WVU in the Old Field House, now Stansbury Hall. Or when Tyler Bitancurt kicks the winning field goal to give us a 19-16 win over that school up north. There was a sophomore from Warwood, West Virginia, named Bill McKenzie who kicked a 38-yard field goal in 1975 to beat, guess who, Pitt, and it was also with no time on the clock. Check it out on YouTube. History does repeat itself. I was there; I still get goose bumps thinking of it, and chills up my spine. That’s a Mountaineer feeling, now and then, and that is something for us to cherish forever together.
There are moments to cherish in the classroom as well. I know the value of a liberal arts education; I had one of the best, right here at WVU. I loved my major, English literature, and I fell in love with Shakespeare because of a single person, Professor Gordon Pitts. He was an iconoclast, he stretched my mind and I thought of literature and life in a way I had never dreamed I could. He could and would recite an entire scene from King Henry the Fourth Part I or Othello, or a refrain from Gilbert and Sullivan. He changed my life and my way of viewing my world. I hope you’ve had that experience here at WVU, where I believe our faculty stand up to any faculty anywhere in the country, the Ruth Kershners, the Carolyn Atkins, the Lisa DiBartolomeos and the Jeff Petersens.
You’ve told me over the years how faculty have changed your lives. And I can share that WVU experience with you.
Staff, and people in my field, student affairs, too. They’ve been memory makers. My first job in this field was with a person who was my mentor, Dean Betty Boyd, who hired me to be an RA in 1969, and with whom I had the pleasure to work for the next nearly 20 years. She was an imposing person, and one who I so admired. She taught me the value of devoting one’s life to serving students and families. And the value of an education, of treating people with respect and of so many of life’s lessons. I’m forever in debt to her as my mentor. I hope you have had a special someone here at WVU, a Betty Boyd who has guided you, who has taken you under his or her wing, and led you across some of the difficult bumps you’ve faced. Many of you have told me you’ve had those special people here: advisors, departmental secretaries, people in Student Life, the veterans’ office and residence halls. WVU is so lucky; we’re all so fortunate to have caring and dedicated people here. Friendly, helping, caring – those are all adjectives the students I’ve talked to use to describe their WVU experience.
I hope you’ve had the experience of being involved with at least one student organization. As a commuting student, I really didn’t do that. That is so important. I was a GDI. Do you know that term, a Gosh Darn Independent, at least when it came to fraternities. So when I was invited to be a faculty adviser to a fraternity in 1991, at the age of 53, I was skeptical. I told them I would do that if they would allow me to go through pledge education, initiation and whatever fraternities did before you became a member. So I became the oldest pledge in the history of our local chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, FIJI. I studied our pledge manual, took the tests with the brothers, all 18 or so years old, and I wasn’t hazed. Of course, I was assistant dean of Student Conduct at the time. It was an experience I would not change in all the world; I gained a new perspective on the values of brotherhood and I was an active member for one year, had a big and little brother and participated in all the brothers’ meetings and events, at least I think I did. I’m still their adviser, I’m still very proud of that affiliation, and it illustrated for me the value of having social involvement. The possibilities to learn about leadership, to make decisions, to belong. That can be done in any student group from the Paintball Club to Alpha Phi Omega to the Hockey Club. I hope all of you have had that experience along the way; joining a group, socialization – it’s part of being a Mountaineer.
Another experience I did not have as a student but certainly have had recently, but I hope you have had is travel, study abroad. To me it was a luxury in the ‘60s and ‘70s; I couldn’t afford it. The farthest I’d been from home was Detroit, Michigan on a bus with my aunt. I hadn’t been in an airplane until I was at least teaching college for two years. Lately, I’ve been blessed with having a job that allows me to travel far and wide, from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur to almost all of the countries in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, even to Kazakhstan. I’m helping recruit new international students to WVU and reconnect our international alumni to their alma mater. What an experience that has been. I’ve seen our alumni wearing the flying WV Nike coaches shirts in Thailand before they were available at the Morgantown Mall, other alums in Bahrain hold up the horrible hankey, their ‘70s answer to the Terrible Towel, with the flying WV on it. They gather in Tokyo for Mountaineer football and basketball at midnight to see the games on satellite. What a thrill it has been to meet people I knew as students, leaders in our student organizations, who are now the captains of industry, the leaders of foreign governments. Shun Nakasone served as a translator for former Mets Coach Bobby Valentine in Japan. Tawfiq Al-Zamil and his brothers Fahad and Walid head up one of the most successful business corporations in the entire Middle East; they and another brother are all WVU graduates.
Mountaineers are all over the world. They have vivid memories of Morgantown; they still love their alma mater. To see the Flying WV flag flying over our Medical College in Oman is another signature moment, a goose bump moment. I am so pleased that so many of you have studied abroad, in St. Petersburg and Prague, in Guanajuato, Mexico, our sister city, and in Korea and Japan, to name just a few. Learning cultures and languages is so important; that enriches you and changes you forever. It’s a Mountaineer thing to do, and I’m so glad many of you can do it and will continue to be world citizens in the future.
Finally, let me end by mentioning what many have mentioned before at commencements. But it bears repeating. I remember the venerable Coach Woody Hayes, who spoke shortly before his death to the graduating class of the Ohio State University, my other alma mater, about paying forward. By the way, we don’t need to put the article in front of West Virginia University, because everyone knows we’re one of a kind, unique, the best. Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, he said about all the people who have helped us along the way, your family, your teachers, your mentors, you can never pay them back, because they may not be around any longer, or because many times they don’t expect repayment. Emerson says, in his essay on compensation, “You can pay back only seldom, but you can pay forward and you must pay forward line for line, deed for deed, and cent for cent.”
We’re counting on you to provide opportunities for the next generation, greater than you had, to be more successful than you will be, to better their stead, to make the world a better place. As Mountaineers, I know you can do that. We’re counting on you. West Virginia University is counting on you.
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