2016 Fall Commencement Address to Graduates


Delivered by Matthew J. Wilson, president of The University of Akron, at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall on Dec. 16-17, 2016

Mr. Bauer and fellow trustees, distinguished faculty and administrators, guests, proud parents, family and friends, and of course my dear graduates, the Class of 2016. Congratulations to you! And thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.

Graduation is often referred to as one of life’s “milestones.” Not only does graduation constitute a ceremony marking the conferral of a university degree, but it is also an event from which we consider how far we have come. The second way of looking at this graduation ceremony relates to its common name -- “Commencement.” Symbolically, this indicates the start of a new journey and indicates that you still need to go much further.

There is also a third way to look at a milestone --- one that I strongly urge you to adopt today: for the moment, I urge you to ignore the past and future. Instead, I invite you to focus on the present, and appreciate where you are right now.

By that I mean this very moment, sitting in this performance hall, wearing a cap and gown, something many of you will never, ever do again.

And please note that I did not say “observe where you are now.” I said “appreciate where you are now.”

Today you become college graduates, or master’s graduates or even Ph.Ds. Think about how truly rare that is.

Less than half of all adult Americans have an associate degree or higher.1 Worldwide, it is estimated only 7% of the population holds a college degree.2

If you think that sounds exclusive, put it in the perspective of time.

The first university was founded in Morocco in 859.3 So if you factor in all humans who have ever lived over these past 1,127 years, and how tiny a fraction of that total held a college degree…

… I think you will begin to realize that you have earned your way into a very, very, very exclusive club equipped to make a difference and assist others in so many respects.

That should make you feel accomplished. It should make you feel confident. More than anything, I deeply hope it makes you feel profoundly grateful because philosophers, saints and sages from nearly every culture and in nearly every age have reminded us that happiness begins with a sense of gratitude.

Today is truly a day for gratitude. Gratitude that you made it. Gratitude for the lessons learned, the knowledge gained, and the skills developed. Gratitude for those who supported you through the process – possibly your family, your friends, your professors, staff members, mentors, or maybe just that simple someone. Hopefully you have much gratitude for this great university. I certainly do. In fact, the great Roman senator and philosopher Cicero once said that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”4 Through your gratitude, you can build up your university in conversation and support it in action going forward. As I expend significant efforts and energy telling the world about the greatness of our institution, I invite you to do the same. Building up The University of Akron in conversation will not only enhance the reputation of the University, but it will also give added value to your degree. We are all vested in the University.

As graduates of this great University, you now possess a combination of knowledge, education, capabilities and opportunities unavailable and inaccessible to the vast majority of people on this planet.

So what are you going to do with this potent combination beyond showing appreciation?

The responsible thing, the moral thing, the right thing to do is to put them to use. Not only for your own benefit, but for the benefit of society in general.

How best to do that? Let me give you four tips.

First and foremost, recognize that each day will bring choices that shape the person and professional you will become. Some choices will be momentous forks in the road. However, most will be small and simple decisions that relate to how you conduct yourself, how you carry out your responsibilities, and how you interact with others. Choose to show respect, tolerance, compassion and hope. Choose to act ethically, responsibly and consistently. You will find that the choices you make not only shape who you are, but also your profession and to a degree, even society. As graduates of The University of Akron, 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.

Second, make sure that you do not approach your future career simply as another job. We all hold valuable roles in society. Through your education at The University of Akron, your role is likely enhanced as you will have greater potential and more opportunities.

Keep in mind that your future profession not only benefits you, but somehow contributes to the greater good. (If it doesn’t, it probably isn’t legal because all legitimate professions do.) With that realization comes a responsibility to maximize your contribution to the best of your ability. Said more simply, because what we do affects others, we carry a moral duty to do our best. In fact, I hope that your experience here at The University of Akron taught you to do your best, work hard, and always contribute.

The third piece of advice that I want to share with you today is that you should always “take the high road.” Respect the rights and opinions of others, especially when they differ substantially from your own. Look to understand other viewpoints, and seek ways to build bridges. As a college graduate, you should be uniquely positioned to understand, assess, analyze, advocate, and discover creative solutions. Life should never be a zero sum game.  

Despite its many benefits, technology has enabled and even encouraged the creation of personal echo chambers. Often times, we see only news that interests us, where we hear only the views that support our own, and where we experience only art and culture we are accustomed to. We can and should reverse the current rise in discord and dissension by appreciating that individuals who hold different opinions are not necessarily evil, nor are they necessarily wrong. Two people can observe the same event and honestly draw different conclusions. There is far more common ground among us than we realize.

My fourth and final piece of advice is to follow your dreams with the realization that dreams often change. If you don’t achieve your dream immediately, whatever it is right now, see it as a delay or detour, but never a dead end.
Know that it takes more than simple ambition to fulfill your dreams. Work hard. Remember who you are. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and who encourage you. Form relationships and nurture them. In your most difficult times the people who love you – your family and friends – will sustain you. This certainly includes the friends you have made here.

Finally, pursue a dream worth having. See that it includes the giving of your time, talents, and treasures to other people and great causes. These will be sources of genuine and lasting joy. If your life is lived solely for money or position, you risk wasting it in a shallow and unfulfilling pursuit of shadows. 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.

By seizing your opportunities, putting in the effort and enduring the sacrifices, you have earned the right to be counted among that tiny fraction of people who enjoy the opportunities and benefits of being college graduates.

Celebrate this day, and tomorrow turn to the world with confidence, gratitude and the resolve to make the most of what you now possess.

Good luck and godspeed, graduates.