2017 Spring Commencement Address to Graduates


Delivered by Matthew J. Wilson, president of The University of Akron, at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall on May 12-14, 2017

Mr. Bauer and fellow trustees, distinguished faculty and administrators, guests, proud parents, family and friends, and of course my dear graduates, the Class of 2017 -- Welcome. Even more significantly, congratulations to all of our graduates!

Graduates, make no mistake about it; what you have achieved is truly remarkable. You all made it through your classes, hundreds of assignments and tests, tough grading, and so many other things. So, now we are here to celebrate you and your graduation from The University of Akron. As we celebrate, it is my honor to share a few thoughts and insights with you.

About two weeks ago, I set off on a journey to six different universities in Asia including three in China, two in Japan, and one in South Korea. During my trip, I also drove by ageless city walls, towering pagodas, and ancient temples. I observed and interacted with people from three distinctly different cultures. I even had the opportunity of kicking off the 13th Annual National Ballroom Dancing Championships in China with a few remarks in English and two sentences I learned in Chinese about 15 minutes before my speech.

In any event, as I traveled around Asia, I was struck by the high regard that others have for The University of Akron and value of our degrees. Looking from the outside, the world sees how UA embraces excellence in academics, research, experiential learning, sports, arts, and so many, many other things.

The world realizes that UA empowers lives – including yours. Personally, I am grateful for UA and its positive impact on our city, region and world. Hopefully you, too, have much gratitude this great university. You can show your gratitude simply by expressing Akron pride during conversations and by supporting us going forward. Never take your degree for granted, and always stand proud of your achievements.

So today, you have arrived at your graduation ceremony. Or as we like to call it, commencement.

Informally we use the terms “graduation” and “commencement” interchangeably. As a point of fact, they do not mean the same thing. You could even say they point in opposite directions.

To graduate means to advance to a new level, to leave a current status or condition and rise to a new one. And to commence…well, you know the meaning of that word – at least you should if you’re wearing a cap and gown today.

But in a more symbolic sense, graduation looks back at who you have been and how far you have come. It is way of raising your hand and saying in the words of the Sound of Music movie, “So long. Farewell. Auf Wiedersehen . . . I hate to go and leave this pretty sight.” 1 Or more simply, “it’s been great, thanks for the memories.” Your impending graduation should enable you to reflect on the successes, accomplishments, and growth that you have experienced while studying here at UA.

But commencement has a different connotation. Commencement spins you around 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It prompts you to put a foot forward and say, “Here I come.” Commencement should be a time to focus on where you are headed in the future, what you will accomplish next, and how you will best continue to learn and grow.

That is why we refer to this ceremony as a commencement, not a graduation. We feel it our duty as your alma mater to, in the midst of this celebration, gently tap you on the shoulder, point to the horizon and say, “Go, full speed ahead.”

Speaking on behalf of your alma mater, I want to pause here for a brief moment to consider that interesting term. “Alma mater” is Latin for “nourishing or bountiful mother.” That is what we, the faculty, staff and administrators of the University of Akron, have tried to do for you – create a nourishing and rich environment and experience. In fact, as your alma mater, we hope that we can continue to do the same and serve as your nourishing mother.

In the movie “Parenthood,” there is a poignant, bittersweet moment when the patriarch character played by Jason Robard discusses the responsibilities of parenthood with his son, Steve Martin. Robard says of parenting, “It never ends….There is no end zone. You never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance. Never.” 2

The parents seated in the balcony here know exactly what I mean. The parents sitting among you in cap and gown who are graduating know it as well. Parenthood is a lifelong responsibility, privilege, and joy. We feel the same attachment with you.

So today we say to you, “Commence.” But before you leave, like any good parent – we want to check and make sure you have what you need before you go out the door. As you stand at this threshold, I know you are eager or anxious for your next adventure. But I have been a dad too long to let you go without first offering some advice on behalf of your university family.

Stephen R. Covey was one of the world’s foremost leadership authorities, organizational experts, and thought leaders. His most popular book was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There Mr. Covey advocated that when we try to decide what we want to do in life, that we should begin with the end in mind.3 Set the goal and then work toward it, keeping in mind that the pathway might not always be straight.

Your own presence at this ceremony should be proof to you of the validity of that advice. This moment, seated here in cap and gown – wishing that I would stop talking so you could come up and get your degree – this is what you had in mind when you enrolled as freshmen. You set a goal, and now you are on the verge of reaching that goal.

How you got to this commencement ceremony is as varied as the faces in this crowd. Maybe you changed majors once…or twice…or three times. Maybe you stuck to a program and sliced right through.

Maybe you are graduating in two years, or four, or six. Maybe life intervened and you deferred college or even graduation. Maybe you returned for an advanced degree, or have put in the years and effort to earn the title “doctor.”

Regardless as to whether your path to this moment was a straight line or a meandering wobble, you knew where you wanted it to lead. Then, you did the work, took the steps, and you arrived here today. You persevered and never gave up.

Going forward, remember this advice and replicate this process. There is enormous power in knowing what your goal is. Success also demands effort and grit and commitment and sacrifice…but it starts – it starts – with knowing what you want and where you want to go. Pursue your goals now! If you are still not sure about your goal, redouble your efforts to develop one.

My second piece of advice is to run hard towards your goal, run fast, and excel while paying attention to what really matters in life. True happiness is not measured in zeros on a paycheck or bank account. It is rather measured in relationships. Value existing relationships and develop new ones. Always, be grateful. In fact, make sure to express gratitude to those who have supported you as you have obtained your degree. Enjoy the journey.

If wealth is your only or even your primary goal, you run the risk of a life that lacks genuine happiness or fulfillment. During my lifetime, it seems the average home has increased in size, while the average family has decreased. We have many more time-saving devices, but families spend less time together. Or, when they do, their attention is buried in their electronic devices. Affluence is up, but happiness seems to be down. Why doesn’t more money buy greater happiness?

Professor Covey, whom I mentioned earlier, also said this: “Life is not about accumulation. Life is about contribution.” 4,5 The real wealth in life is in your friendships, your family, fulfillment in your work, the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles, your relationship with your God, and in what you have contributed to others.

And that relates to my last piece of advice. Always keep in mind that, like it or not, you represent more than just yourself. You are connected to others and your decisions and actions will affect them.

I learned this lesson one summer day when I was supposed to cut my family’s lawn. I must have been 12 or 13 at the time. Yard work and other chores felt like the banes of my existence. It probably didn’t help that I was the oldest of six kids and sometimes felt like all of the responsibilities were excessively heaped on my shoulders.

One day, I was cutting the lawn when some friends stopped by to see if I could join them for a game of basketball. At the time, I had done only half of the front lawn and still had the backyard to cut. But I figured that I deserved a break, the grass wasn’t going anywhere, and I could get back to the lawn later. It wasn’t a big deal.

Several hours passed and I returned only to see my father, sweat dripping from his brow after a long day at work, bringing the last bag of grass clippings out from our backyard to the curb.

My heart sank – certainly I was doomed. I was sure my father would be furious with me and braced myself for the worst. I rushed to his side to apologize and complete the very last portion of MY task.

Instead of yelling, my father expressed his disappointment and then posed a simple question to me. Specifically, he asked what does it say about you and our family if you start a task only to leave it half way done? Your efforts are there for the entire world to see.

He said if you start something you need to promptly finish it, doing so with both care and excellence. Never give only half of an effort, and never leave anything half done.

I still reflect upon that experience from 35 years ago. It taught me many valuable lessons, and perhaps one of the strongest centers around his words -- “What does it say about you and our family” if you don’t act with excellence.

With this graduation you are forever a part of The University of Akron family. Our institutional reputation reflects on you, and your individual reputation reflects back on us.

So my advice to you is always complete the task at hand with excellence. Step up. Be proactive. Do your UA family proud! Constantly think about how to best contribute. Keep in mind that your future profession not only benefits you, but somehow contributes to the greater good. See that your activities include the giving of your time, talents, and treasures to other people and great causes. These will be sources of genuine and lasting joy.

Additionally, remember that each day will bring choices that shape the person and professional you will become. Choose to show respect, tolerance, compassion and hope. Choose to act ethically, responsibly and consistently. The choices you make not only shape who you are, but also your profession and to a degree, even society. As Akron graduates, you are destined to become leaders in your families, your communities, your professions, and in society as a whole. Keep that in mind when making small decisions as well as great ones.

I hope that your experience here at your alma mater has taught you to do your best, to work hard, and always contribute. Celebrate your graduation today. Then, continue this commencement tomorrow and the next day and each day after, by engaging this world with confidence, gratitude and resolve.

It is time to go out into the world, graduates. Make your family proud.

Good luck and Godspeed.