Spring 2017 Commencement Address

"Take the education we gave you and make it count."

We’re celebrating transformations this year and commencement is an appropriate time for that. While most of our time today will be spent applauding the educational accomplishments of our graduates, I wanted to take a moment to mark another milestone for UWF.

On February 1, two very special friends of UWF decided to give back to the community by making a transformational gift in excess of $5 million to one of our colleges. That gift led to the second named college in our history, the Usha Kundu MD College of Health.

A named college distinguishes it as one that has been given private resources that allow it to achieve excellence and expand its programs. Thank you to Dr. Usha and Mahadeb Kundu for their generous support of UWF.

Now, if you would please join me in recognizing our platform party – first would the members of UWF’s Board of Trustees please stand? And then our Leadership Team headed by Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. George Ellenberg.

It is a pleasure to see you all here today, and in the case of some of you, I must say, it’s a delightful surprise. And look at you – all tricked out in silken robes and finery with colorful accessories and trinkets adorning you from head to toe. The faculty and staff join me in saying we are pleased as punch to see you here today because, like all craftsmen who love their finished products, we love you. And we hope, just maybe, you love us a little in return.

This is the last time we’re going to meet like this because today marks an interesting turn of events. After four years or so of this university influencing a large portion of your lives, you are now moving into a sector in which you will be influencing ours. But more about that later.

Today, it is too late for me to encourage you to study hard, to keep up with your reading, and to organize your time well. 

And it is probably too soon for me to ask you for money. I certainly will not urge you to continue to be a lifelong lover of learning because if I have to do that at this late date, I would be admitting that we failed you – and that would be too much of a downer for today.

Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1967, the University of West Florida opened its doors and classes began. About 1,200 students made up the first class. We graduated 58 students that first year. After today, that number will have grown to more than 81,000.

A 50-year anniversary is kind of a big deal for a university. At this point in our development, we have seen a lot of change – changes in leadership, changes in programming, changes in governance, and changes in funding structures. We have seen good times; we have seen not so good times…but mostly we have seen great progress.

So we are celebrating it all with you today.

Our 50th anniversary theme is Sea Change, and I think that is aptly named. By definition, a Sea Change is a time of transformation and growth.

By this point in your lives, you have experienced a number of transformations. You have transformed physically from a child to an adult. You may have become adept at a skill, like playing a musical instrument or a sport, or you may have become a parent. But at the end of this ceremony, you will experience a different transformation. Today, you all will become alumni of the University of West Florida. 

The Latin noun alumnus means foster child or pupil and is derived from the verb alere “to nourish.” That closely describes the relationship we have had with you – as quasi-parents providing the nourishment of thought and knowledge.

Unlike some other changes in your life, this one from student to alum is permanent. You and this university are from this day forth inextricably bound to each other. You can change your address, you can change your name, you can change your marital status and you can change your hair color, but you can never change your alma mater. For as long as you have a resume, we will be there.

So what does this mean? It means in many ways our fortunes are tied to one another. If the university thrives and earns positive attention, that will reflect well on you as a product of the university. If you do well and attract positive attention, it reflects well on the university. It’s that simple. 

So how does this new-found indelible relationship work?

Like any relationship, it’s a two-way street. For our part, UWF has a responsibility for continuous improvement. Our academic programs should be superior in every way with up-to-date curriculum and top faculty who have the right tools to do their work. Our graduates should be well received in the workplace because of the abilities honed throughout the educational process. They should be a cut above others because of the high impact programming they benefitted from. Every care should be taken to ensure their money is well-invested and not a single day or dollar is wasted. Most of all, our students (alumni to be) should feel like they are part of something big and that they are important members of the UWF community of learners.

As for you, our newly anointed alumni, your task is simple: 

Take the education we gave you here and make it count. 

As alumni, you are part of a powerful lobby. The Argo nation has a voice, and as it grows, that voice will become louder and more influential. As people with an indelible interest in the university, you can shape attitudes, programming, funding, and the future of the institution. 

Keep in mind, the university’s reputation is your reputation. Support your alma mater in any way you can. Specifically, give back to the department that houses your chosen field, to ensure the quality of people who will call themselves your peers.

Stay networked with us through social media such as LinkedIn. The goodwill you generate as a supporter not just of UWF but of its graduates – people like you – has the power to lift us all.

Give back. As products of a public university, you have received your education on the backs of people who never had the chance. You are standing on the shoulders of people who wanted better for their children. You received scholarships from strangers who care about education. You worked in labs donated by businesses that care about the future of your profession. There is a debt to be paid. Pay it forward as freely and as generously as it was given to you.

So, a good commencement address isn’t complete without a bit of advice, and here is mine: As you move through a rapidly changing world, you will make countless decisions that will have an immediate impact on your life and the lives of others. Some will turn out well. Some won’t. Make decisions based on the best information you can find. Use the brain God gave you and the education you have earned. That is all any of us can do. The answers are almost never clear, and self-doubt can be paralyzing. Do your best then. Press on. 

I’ll close by slightly paraphrasing the words of E.L. Doctorow: [Life is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” 

Enjoy the ride, graduates. And Go Argos!