Continuing your journey of discovery: accomplishment as the foundation for opportunity
Graduates, regents, administrators, fellow faculty, families, and friends. I am honored to be with you today. This ceremony has meaning for me at a number of levels. As a UNL faculty member, I have enjoyed seeing advisees receive graduate degrees and begin independent careers; my twenty-seventh advisee will graduate with a PhD this August. As a parent with a daughter who will attend graduate school this fall after an excellent UNL undergraduate education (and my thanks to any in the audience who played a part in that education) I am looking forward to the day when I get to attend a similar ceremony as a proud parent. Finally, as the incoming Dean of Graduate Studies, I note that this ceremony is not only a celebration of the remarkable achievements of this individual group of graduates — something I'll be addressing in more detail — but is also part of a continuing saga of excellence in graduate studies at Nebraska, a saga which began in the 1880s.
Today, I would like to direct my remarks to the graduates around three themes: First, the relationship between your accomplishments, which we can see or hear or feel, and the changes in you. Second, how the changes in you have prepared you to seize yet unforeseen opportunities. Third, opportunities you will encounter to help others follow the path you've found so rewarding.
Let's start with accomplishment. Today, you are receiving an advanced degree, an achievement that places you in a very select group. When we talk about graduate degrees, it is tempting to focus on the scholarly or creative output that can be seen or touched or heard. These accomplishments are something we should celebrate and honor, and I will return to this towards the end of my remarks. However, I will point out that it is you, the graduates, who are the most important product of your graduate education. This is something that families and friends and (usually) advisors understand instinctively, but that graduates themselves sometimes don't. Few, if any, of you have remained unchanged by your graduate experience. You've been involved in a journey of discovery. Regardless of the nature of your discovery, the journey has changed you. Clearly, you have gained the intellectual and technical expertise to master complex challenges. However, I would suggest that you have become more, insightful — you've learned how to see not only the immediate problems but also the big picture. You are probably more resourceful — you've learned that solving problems may require a multitude of resources and likely some teamwork. You have probably learned that you could work longer, harder, and more efficiently than you previously thought possible — and you learned the benefits of persevering past the point when you once might have despaired. All of these characteristics that will serve you well as you tackle future challenges.
My second theme is how the change in you has prepared you for future opportunities and challenges, many of which are not even visible yet. You are headed out into a world full of uncertainty. However, uncertainty goes hand in hand with opportunity and that that we need to honestly face the roles of preparation and chance in our lives in order to be ready for opportunities. This honest appraisal of the role of random chance does not come naturally for most of us. When we look back at our education, our careers and our lives, many of us reconstruct history in such as way as to make our decisions orderly and rational. However, most of us have made important decisions based upon "hunches" and unforeseen opportunities. For example, my choice to focus on organic chemistry, a path that led me to this podium today, can be traced to my junior year of college when a brilliant and charismatic new faculty member took me on as a researcher — only after I was turned down by his office neighbor, a better known and more senior colleague.
I'm not suggesting that you should or will wander through life without any goals or plans. There is no need — and little chance — of that. Your studies, and the changes in you that occurred during those studies, have given you an incredible degree of grounding — order or preparation — that provides you a tool with which to grasp opportunities. In the history I mentioned above, chance led me to my new advisor's lab; preparation and hard work allowed me to succeed once I was there. What I'm saying is that the world continues to spin; the opportunities and challenges you see now are different from those when you entered graduate school; they will be different again in five or ten years. You are now an expert in a field of research or an area creative activity; you have both technical expertise and intellectual awareness of this field that few people will ever know in any area. As you go forward into a changing world, use this preparation like a seafaring explorer used a ship — a means of taking you to a particular harbor while you pursue opportunities — your "treasure." However, remember than an anchor can always be pulled up. View your preparation as giving you the strength and confidence to move on to new opportunities.
My final theme is about opportunity and responsibility, or "duty". You are all rightfully proud of your accomplishments. However, for most of us there were many others — parents, friends, teachers, advisors — involved in getting us where we are. Some of this assistance was brief and informal; some may have been very substantial. As you move on in your studies or career, you will encounter opportunities to play a positive role in helping others move onto the path of higher education, a path you have found rewarding. You alone will know when the time is right. However, when that time comes, I hope you will respond; I can guarantee you will find the experience rewarding.
Finally, I do want to return to your achievements. You may have created materials, compositions, or works of art that did not previously exist. You may have observed something not previously seen. You may have explained or proved something that had been a mystery. Regardless of the nature of the discovery, you have done something that few will do in life: created something enduring where there was nothing. Today we honor you. My congratulations on your successes and my best wishes on your continuing studies and careers.