Dr. Chris Calkins, Nebraska Beef Industry Professor of Animal Science, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on December 14, 2012.
Why Are You Here?
Graduates, Chancellor Perlman, administration and faculty, and distinguished guests:
In my youth, I was a very active member of the Future Farmers of America – the FFA. During the opening ceremony of every FFA meeting the question was asked “Future Farmers, why are we here?” There was a scripted answer. At the end of the ceremony, the President said “May we accomplish our purposes.” Can you imagine what it would be like if we started every meeting, every gathering with the questions “Why are we here?”
Why are you here? Why did you get up every morning, come to campus, and exert untold amounts of energy and thought on your chosen degree? What drove you to be here? There is no scripted answer.
Presumably you got here with intention. You had an end in mind. Or you were captivated by the possibilities – the creative process or understanding how things worked. Perhaps you had a specific career in mind and recognized graduate school as a way to get there. Or maybe this was the next logical step and you didn’t really have a clear vision of what came next. That’s what happened to me. I finished my undergraduate and graduate training in 8 years – B.S., M.S., Ph.D. I was working here on the faculty when I was 25 years old. For those 8 years of higher education I had three goals – get the degree, get the degree, get the degree. Then I got the degree, got this great job here at UNL and found myself looking at a vast open field of possibilities - with no focus. I felt like I had all the tools and no direction. Like one of our former students asked after he graduated and started his first job – “What’s my motivation?”
A few years ago I had a freshman advisee who was struggling in her first semester. She had always gotten good grades in high school and was trying to figure out how to translate that into college success. On her own, she became a student of being a student. We would meet every few weeks and she would tell me of all the different things she tried to figure out how she best learned, how to manage her time, how to study. I’d summarize that by saying she did things with INTENTION. When you do things with awareness of what you are learning, who you are meeting, and how you can apply the experiences to your career you are in a position to get much more out of it.
Of course, you can gain experience without being so aware – a sort of accidental education. For example, I am now an entrepreneur. Together with other faculty we started a business to commercialize some of our research findings. I was practicing my salesmanship when I sold squirt guns in grade school and the great squirt gun battle of 1966 is long past. I also learned from selling marbles and cinnamon toothpicks to my fellow students. In my current business role, I’m finding that the people I met along the way, the knowledge I gained, and the skills I developed have all contributed to my success.
You’ve no doubt heard people say that you can do anything you want, that you are the future and that you are destined for greatness. Here’s my take – all of those statements can be true if – and I emphasize if – you focus. If you commit to a field of expertise. Fail to focus and you fail to progress. To paraphrase the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland “If you don’t know where you’re going, it really doesn’t matter which way you go.”
You have worked and earned a great opportunity. Do not let this moment pass by losing focus on your larger reason for being here in the first place.
When I left home for college I had a poster in my bedroom. It showed a little barefoot boy in overalls walking down a weedy, rutted dirt road. The poster said “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” At that moment in my life, I didn’t know where I would end up. Only that I was taking the next step on an adventurous journey. Now I realize my accomplishments have occurred in part because I focused early on a career, creating an area of expertise. If you haven’t made the commitment to yourself to pursue excellence in a particular field, do it now.
After getting this job, I learned my next lesson. The job description is not a recipe for success, it simply identifies what subjects I am to address and broadly proscribes my activities. It does not tell me how to accomplish those things. Life is like that. You get a job description but it’s up to you to figure out how to succeed. No one can do that for you. Even the military, where the well-known mantra is to follow orders – need people to think for themselves. Up to now, most of you have worked under the guidance of a major professor who had a significant impact on what you did and how you did it. Along the way you acquired skills and knowledge that will help you as you move ahead in your careers. You know how to learn. The trick, then, is to continue learning – to intentionally focus on how to succeed in your chosen career. You have the tools. You have the knowledge. You have the skills.
As faculty, we stand behind you. We look forward to watching you grow. Remember us. Keep in touch. And finally - give back. Give back to your community. Pay it forward. Mentor others along their path. Remember the opportunities you had while you were here and support your alma mater.
Graduates - Congratulations on your success! May you accomplish your purposes.