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Commencement Addresses

The Power and Magic of a Driving Dream

  • Date: 05/12/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (p.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Many of you have heard me say that The University of Akron is a place where you can dream, and dare, and do the things that it takes to change the world.

    And I say that, because that is what the magic of education is all about;

    That is the magic of what a university is all about.

    Yet, today you are poised to leave this place and to move on to others, each with its own magic, each with its own role to play out in your life.

    Only you can know what new place will have that special calling, but I can tell you that all of us are drawn, as if by magic, to some unique place - to some unique adventure.

    "We all have our own White South," wrote Sir Ernest Shackleton - the great Antarctic explorer of the early 1900s, when he referred to the ability some places have ". . . to snare the collective imagination . . ."
    (Caroline Alexander, The Lure of the 'White South,' Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2001)

    Even today, the Antarctic captures attention as few other places do.

    Only space, some mountains and the oceans rival the lure of the Polar Regions.

    Indeed, it seems ". . . that we cannot exist without those big, dangerous, unimaginable frontiers; if we conquer one, we will have to look for others."
    (Caroline Alexander, The Lure of the 'White South,' Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2001)

    I, for one, have long dreamed of voyaging in a small sailing vessel across the oceans and around the world.

    That dream led my wife and me to build a sailing vessel over a period of 15 years, which we christened "Apogee" and currently sail on Lake Erie.

    Obviously, our dream of voyaging across oceans has been deferred, while we pursue other dreams! So let me tell you about another sailor.

    Great Britain's Ellen MacArthur is someone who is passionate about oceans.

    At age 24, she is the youngest sailor and only the second woman ever to finish the grueling Vendee Globe - an around-the-world, single-handed sailboat race that most sailors are content to finish, never mind whether they win, or even place.

    Ellen MacArthur grew up in England, yet her name and sailing vessel, Kingfisher, are more widely celebrated in France, where they follow the Vendee Globe as closely as Americans follow basketball or golf.

    With the same fervor that we Americans celebrate Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods, the French celebrate Ellen MacArthur, "La Petite Anglaise," as they call her, because she is 5'2".

    Six years ago, she had never sailed across an ocean, but she was driven by a dream. She wanted to participate in that great sailboat race she had only read about - the Vendee Globe.

    It is a 28,000-mile journey that begins off the west coast of France, proceeds down the length of the Atlantic and into the 'Roaring 40's' of the Southern Ocean, turning west under the African continent. It then goes around Antarctica, coming almost full circle at Cape Horn off the tip of South America, and finally turning north and back to France.
    (Kate Laird, "Icebergs, Blazing Heat and One Tough Woman," The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2001, p A24)

    Sailing crews race in teams of one, which means that each boat is single-handed by a crew of one. Each competitor must do everything - 24-hours a day, 7-days a week - stealing sleep when they can get it and pushing their vessels by sometimes more than 400 nautical miles a day.

    Though not as experienced as her competitors, Ellen MacArthur led the race at one point and might have won had her boat not collided with an object in the water.

    She glanced aft, only to see part of her rudder, dagger board, and chances of a first place finish drift away. "It was a gut-wrenching moment," she said.

    Faced with comparable accidents, other competitors dropped out of the race, but Ellen MacArthur kept her cool and made emergency repairs.

    She summed up her situation this way: ". . .my mind went into overdrive. Nothing is ever an impossible situation; if I'd thought like that I would have been defeated instantly. I always see the solutions, not the problems."
    (Ellen MacArthur, First Person: "Vendee sweetheart recalls tough race," Soundings, June 2001, p 20-21)

    The first-place finisher, Frenchman Mich Desjoyeaux, was suitably greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of about 200,000 people. After all, he broke the world record and became the first single-handed sailor to circumnavigate the globe in less than 100 days (he did it in 93 days).

    But just the following night, ". . . the crowd (grew) a bit bigger, a bit more excited, as it waited for second-place Ellen MacArthur to cross the finish line . . ."
    (Kate Laird, "Icebergs, Blazing Heat and One Tough Woman," The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2001, p A24)

    You see, winners, like Ellen, don't always finish first.

    "At the press conference. . . she asserted, 'If you really have a dream, you can make it happen.'"
    (Kate Laird, "Icebergs, Blazing Heat and One Tough Woman," The Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2001, p A24)

    Within you is that inner spark that helped you earn your degree at The University of Akron and the privilege to walk across this stage.

    As you now move on toward your own special place, your own special dream, please understand that not everything in life will be "smooth sailing."

    There will be obstacles and "gut-wrenching moments."

    Remember, however, that setbacks are only a means to an end. They have much to teach you.

    When all is said and done, you won't be judged by whether the race was won, but rather by how the race was run.

    My hope for you is that you will pursue your special places and your special dreams as diligently as you have pursued getting to this day of commencement.

    Indeed, in the words of Goethe:

    "Whatever you do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic to it."

    "Begin it now!"

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