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Graduation Advice (May 2009 Commencement Address #2, Saturday Morning)

  • Date: 05/09/2009
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall, The University of Akron
  • Today's lesson is one in practicality.

    In a few moments, we will honor Akron Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic and FirstEnergy President and CEO Anthony J. Alexander - two distinguished individuals who once sat at the very crossroads where you are today, contemplating their futures as University of Akron graduates. 

    You will hear more about our honorees a bit later, but I will tell you now that both of them excel in leadership roles, and they do so by achieving practical solutions to massive and complex challenges....one of them in regard to guiding a major city; the other concerned with serving 4.5 million customers in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey through the nation's fifth-largest, investor-owned electric system. 

    They are very practical in their approach to their jobs as well as their lives, and it has brought them much success.  So, in their honor, it is fitting that our soon-to-be graduates receive the best practical advice I might offer. 

    So, I remembered a recent article about commencement speeches considered to be among the most memorable over the past few decades.

    For example:

    • Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Russell Baker's speech to Connecticut College in 1995: "10  Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World Any Worse Than It Already Is."  (His best advice to graduates on going out into the world?  "Don't do it.  I have been out there.  It is a mess.")1
    • Gloria Steinem's 1987 address to Tufts University, given under the general heading: "What I know now that I wish I'd known then."2
    • Or Steve Jobs "Three Stories" speech at Stanford University just four years ago, in which he reflected: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."3

    But my favorite example of practical advice is the June 1997 newspaper column by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune, in which she compiled a "Guide to Life for Graduates."4

    Many of you may have heard it, I am sure, since it was recorded two years later and aired by many radio stations, but whether or not you have heard it, it is worth repeating. 

    So, with one minor revision to reflect the current year, her goes:

    "...Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of (2009):  Wear sunscreen." 

    "If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.  The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience.  I will dispense this advice now."

    "Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth.  Oh, never mind.  You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded.  But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.  You are not as fat as you imagine."

    "Don't worry about the future.  Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum.  The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindsided you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday."

    "Do one thing every day that scares you."


    "Don't be reckless with other people's hearts.  Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours."


    "Don't waste your time on jealousy.  Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind.  The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself."

    "Remember compliments you receive.  Forget the insults.  If you succeed in doing this, tell me how."

    "Keep your old love letters.  Throw away your old bank statements."


    "Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life.  The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives.  Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't."

    (And if you really want to know, I am still wondering what the future may hold for me when I grow up!)

    "Get plenty of calcium.  Be kind to your knees.  You'll miss them when they're gone."

    "Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't.  Maybe you'll have children.  Maybe you won't.  Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the Funky Chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary. Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.  Your choices are half chance.  So are everybody else's."

    "Enjoy your body.  Use it every way you can.  Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it.  It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own."

    "Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but in your living room."

    "Read the directions, even if you don't follow them."

    "Do not read beauty magazines.  They will only make you feel ugly."

    "Get to know your parents.  You never know when they'll be gone for good.  Be nice to your siblings.  They're your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future."

    "Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on.  Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young."

    "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.  Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft." 


    "Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise.  Politicians will philander.  You, too, will get old.  And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders."

    "Respect your elders."

    "Don't expect anyone else to support you.  Maybe you have a trust fund.  Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse.  But you never know when either one might run out."

    "Don't mess too much with your hair, or by the time you're 40 it will look 85." 

    "Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.  Advice is a form of nostalgia.  Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth."

    "But trust me on the sunscreen."

    Your education at The University of Akron has gotten you started.  Life's experiences will take care of the rest. 

    * * *


    1. LaFleur, Vinca and Jeff Nussbaum, "6 Ways to Make a Commencement Speech Soar," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 23, 2009, A99
    2. LaFleur, Vinca and Jeff Nussbaum, "6 Ways to Make a Commencement Speech Soar," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 23, 2009, A99
    3. LaFleur, Vinca and Jeff Nussbaum, "6 Ways to Make a Commencement Speech Soar," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 23, 2009, A99
    4. Based on the 1999 CD, "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," lyrics taken from Chicago Tribune column, "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young",  by columnist Mary Schmich, June 1, 1997


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