Commencement and Convocation Speeches

My last posting on inspiration generated more interest than expected. By a significant margin that blog post was accessed more times than any other for the last year. In addition, several colleagues shared the link on their Facebook pages, posted public comments and also sent me private notes. Of all the notes received, I was most humbled by the notes from my current and former students. After all, it is because of the opportunity to work with these kind souls and creative minds that I decided to join academia, and the University of Washington. I cherish and value my time with students. Several of my students asked me, albeit in different ways, what might I advice them as they graduate?

What better issue to think about on my flight back from England to the USA. As I reflect on various speeches that I have heard at graduation ceremonies, the best ones, not surprisingly the ones I remember,  met the 4S criteria – sticky, simple, short, and sweet. Sticky is because they contained a powerful story that stays with you. Most of the time the story is one of a personal struggle, either experienced or witnessed by the individual; Simple in that the speech did not try to convey too many ideas or lessons, but focused on delivering one significant message; Short speeches are better than long ones (remember, most of the time you are standing in between the students and their celebrations with family and friends); and finally, speeches that are sweet and not sour have a greater chance of being well-received by audience (I once heard a speech where all the speaker did was to complain about how the students, like myself, were the ‘lost generation’ and did not care about anything else but themselves. While the message had truth in it, the method of delivery did not go over well, and students even booed the speaker, and applauded multiple times in the hopes that he would end his speech!)

Given my criteria, here is what I would say to my graduating students:

Each of you is talented, special, valuable, and have a vital role to play in the advancement of our society. Today, is your day, your day to celebrate your accomplishments. Do nothing else but celebrate, and if possible, celebrate with the people who helped you reach this day, whether it is your parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and the faculty and staff at the Information School of the University of Washington. I take pride in all your achievements and am expecting nothing but the best from each of you as you pursue your professional and personal achievements.

The one message that I want you to consider today is that as you leave this University, you do not have to leave behind the bonds with your faculty.  Academia thrives on the bond between students and their professors, even after a course of study is completed. Let me share with you my own experience. Recently, I celebrated one of the most important days of my life, my wedding! Now, why talk about the wedding? One of the most important tasks when you get married is to choose the significant individuals who you want to standup with you. In thinking of my best men, the choice was easy and not surprising, all of them came from academia – my best man, was my first doctoral student, my two groomsmen, where former professors who are now best friends of mine. For brevity, let me share a bit on how Dr. George D. Kraft, a former professor of mine, has forever influenced my life. I met Dr. Kraft in 2000 while completing my MBA at the Illinois Institute of Technology. I enrolled in his, Knowledge Management and Decision Support Systems class and we got into a heated argument a few weeks into the course. To be honest, I do not remember the substance of the argument, but I do remember making a statement like - “you are wrong, data warehouses do not work out you are describing or as noted in the book…I am working on two data warehousing efforts and know better…” He smiled, gave the class a break, and then asked me to join him for a coffee at the lounge. Needless to say, I soon realized that I was in a lot of trouble. But, he kindly and graciously, encouraged me to write-up my idea. I looked shocked and puzzled (and of course, was thinking about what was his ulterior motive). His next set of words were some of the most powerful that I have heard, “a lot of people have ideas and want to change the world, there are only a few, very few, who take the time and energy to see your ideas from concept to implementation.” I remember not sleeping for more than a few hours the next week, and working on the paper. I have never worked on a paper harder in my life; little did I know that this paper would eventually lead me to doing my doctoral studies, my first book, my first research fellowship, and the eventual move into academia. Over the past 10 years, I have had numerous such episodes where the generosity and kindness of this individual, who I originally thought would only be a professor, has had a profound influence on my life. What is surprising is that while no individual would come close to the impact Dr. Kraft has made on my life, there are several other professors who have helped me achieve professional and personal achievements.

My advice to you is quite simple, if you need help, all you need to do is contact your professors. Our doors are open for you.

The world needs you to exploit your talents towards positive change. To this end, you should never fear doing the right thing and making difficult calls. We, in academia, look at you as the future change agents and game changers. We are here to support you. Let me share with you another small story. When I was teaching in South Africa, I had a chance to meet a young lad. This 19-yr old always had a smile on his face, was one of the most pleasant people to deal with, and never complained. During one of our conversations, I asked him – “what makes you so happy?” He said, the people I serve make me happy. I was taken aback a bit, and asked for details. He went on to explain about how he spent about 25 hrs a week working with people who either 1) did not have anyone, mostly orphans, or 2) were HIV-positive. This youngster had created a complete volunteer organization to address the needs of these communities. He recruited his buddies from college, worked with local high-schools, and even got business establishments to donate food and other supplies. As he described his project, he did not do so in a tired way, but did so with hope and optimism. I have to say that this was one of those moments where no matter how much one has achieved in life, you are quickly struck by how much more is possible.  I think about this young lad regularly, and when I think about how difficult things get, I am reminded that he the word ‘difficult’ does not exist in his vocabulary.

We need people like this youngster. We need people like each of you. You are fearless and we have great hopes for the world. You need to view setbacks as opportunities for change, not as reasons for quitting. Simply think about how many times this young lad could have had a reason to quit. He did not, and today, his program helps about 350 people per year! He has made a difference to the betterment of this world, and we need to build on his energy and others like him.

I thank each of you for giving me the opportunity to get to know you as individuals. At times we have butted heads and even disagreed, at times we could have been more patient with each other, and maybe there are situations we wish we could take back in hindsight. For anytime that I have made your life difficult or unpleasant, you have my sincere apology and promise that I will work harder in the future. As you embark on the next steps on your career, remember that my doors are always open to each of you. You are welcome to stop by all my offices (yes, even my Irish Office), should you need help or just need to someone to talk with. I hope you will keep me abreast of the developments in your life.

In closing, thank you for everything and best wishes for all your future endeavors!

Today is your day, take time to enjoy it and celebrate your achievements!

Cheers, Cheers, Cheers!!!

(FYI: The Information School will hold their convocation on June 10, and the University of Washington will celebrate commencement exercises on June 12)

3 replies
  1. Fr Denzil Lobo SJ
    Fr Denzil Lobo SJ says:

    Thanks Kevin. It is a wonderful speech. I wish many followed your example of 4 S's. As you have said the speech shoud be short and memorable....with personal anecdotes...thta will keep the audience spell bound...and the message will go home and wil be remembered.

    Thanks

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