Dr. Donna Dudney, Associate Professor of Finance, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on May 3, 2013.
Recess, Study Hall and the Teacher’s Lounge
Chancellor Perlman, colleagues, graduates, and guests…
It seems that every commencement speaker has pearls of knowledge to pass on to those gathered in attendance. I’m no exception, although I’m not calling mine “Pearls of Knowledge” because I know Chancellor Perlman has already cornered that market on YouTube and probably has trademarked the phrase. I thought about Pearls of Wisdom, but the advice I’m going to give you might not be high enough grade to actually qualify as wisdom. So instead, I’ve decided to go the “catchy title” route and relate my advice to three mainstays of primary and secondary education: Recess, Study Hall and the Teacher’s Lounge. For those of you educated outside of the United States, recess is a short break, usually around lunchtime, where students in elementary school go outside to play before returning to classes, while Study Hall is a time during the school day where students work on homework or study for tests.
Remember the carefree feeling of recess – that well-deserved break after a morning spent memorizing multiplication tables and learning how to spell tricky words like potatoes? Most of you have just ended an extremely stressful semester finishing your classes, completing a thesis or final exams, or defending a dissertation. Most of you will hopefully be starting a new job or advancing in your current job, so you will quickly transition from school to work. Don’t forget to go to recess – to take a break to enjoy and celebrate your accomplishment.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 8% of U.S. workers age 25 or older have a master’s degree and only 4% have a doctorate degree. Today you join the ranks of a very select club. No doubt your family and friends have sacrificed along with you so that you could reach this day. My husband claims that he was as stressed out as I was during my graduate work, because like clockwork, at about 2:00 a.m. on the night before an exam, I would sit bolt-upright in bed and begin reciting formulas and facts I had memorized for the exam. There are also documented cases of me, in my sleep, taking all the pictures off of the walls in our bedroom and stacking them neatly at the end of the bed, and an isolated incident during an especially stressful week where I locked my keys in my car twice in one day. I’m sure you have similar stories of strange behavior brought on by the stress associated with a graduate program. Because you’ve been putting your studies first, you’ve probably had to put your family and friends second or even third on the priority list. Now that you’ve attained your goal, take a mental break and restore the balance in your life. Savor the moment, and enjoy your accomplishment with those who have helped you along the way.
I love the concept of recess, but I also fondly recall study hall (although the parts that I most fondly recall are not related to actually studying in study hall). Right now, I’m guessing you are pretty sick of studying and have, at least for the moment, lost much of your desire to continue the hard task of gaining knowledge. But, as religious leader and author Gordon B. Hinckley says, “There are few things more pathetic than those who have lost their curiosity and sense of adventure, and who no longer care to learn.” My advice to you is to go back to study hall as soon as you can. Don’t be the person who quits being intellectually challenged and mentally engaged as soon as the diploma is in hand or tenure is attained. The trick is to find something that both interests and challenges you – that gives you that exciting butterfly feeling in your stomach, but doesn’t cross over into giving you a hole in the lining of your stomach.
After four hectic years of serving as an Assistant Dean in the College of Business Administration, I decided I was crossing the fine line between butterflies and ulcers. I got my doctorate degree because I love teaching finance, so I decided to return to the classroom. Honestly, I was also looking forward to a little peace and quiet. However, things got a little too quiet. I have always loved teaching and I enjoyed that as much as ever, but my job had stopped being exciting and challenging.
Then, late last March, I was approached by Donde Plowman, Dean of the College of Business Administration, and asked to be the director of a new unique honors program for high-ability business students called the CBA Honors Academy. When Donde approached me about starting the Academy, I was reluctant, but if you know Donde you know she can be very persuasive. The experience has been harder than I ever imagined, but I am loving the intellectual challenge of creating an educational experience that will equip the best and brightest business students with the knowledge and skills needed to become tomorrow’s leaders. I would encourage you to continue to learn and to accept new challenges – to do the work equivalent of getting on a roller coaster ride every once in a while.
So we go from Recess, to Study Hall, to my last bit of advice – the Teacher’s Lounge. For those of you planning to pursue an academic career, your interactions with co-workers may literally occur in the teacher’s lounge. For the rest of you, think of the teacher’s lounge figuratively as the place where you interact with others in your workplace. Don’t underestimate the value of connecting socially with your co-workers. Having colleagues as friends makes work so much more enjoyable and can provide you with a support system to help you through difficult challenges.
Also realize that when you step into the Teacher’s Lounge, you are likely to be simultaneously the smartest and the dumbest person in the room. You have hopefully learned the latest theories in your field, and have a head full of ideas to change things for the better at your workplace. Remember that as smart as you may be, unless you’ve been with an organization for a long time, you are likely to be clueless about the series of decisions that generated the issues you now want to fix. Few problems are as black-and-white as they appear in textbooks, and often the historical context is vital to understanding why organizations do certain things that on the surface may seem irrational. Don’t get me wrong – some past decisions made by an organization may simply be bad decisions, but take time to find out why things are done the way they are done before charging in to fix things. As Fritzyll said ““When you sense that something is wrong, instead of letting everybody know about it, first figure out what it is.” Understand why coworkers are reluctant to change, and look for creative solutions to solve problems and change behavior. Small steps in the right direction may be better than giant leaps that entrench opposition, and often the simpler solution is better. I’d like to share a story that illustrates this point:
When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that the astronauts’ pens didn't work at zero gravity as ink would not flow down to the writing surface. To solve this problem, the Fischer Pen Company spent about a million dollars to develop a space pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees Celsius.
And what did the Russians do...?? They used a pencil.
We often get caught up in processes instead of focusing on outcomes. As you look back on your graduate studies, instead of recalling the group projects, case studies and term papers that were part of the process of obtaining your degree, hopefully you will also reflect on the outcome - on how your graduate program has helped you to see the world differently and approach problems more critically.
So that’s my advice – go to recess, return to study hall as soon as recess is over, and win friends and influence people in the Teacher’s Lounge.
Congratulations on your academic achievement and best wishes to each of you for happiness, fulfillment, and success in your endeavors.