Commencement Speech

Commencement Speech

This blog post is based on a speech I gave at Cave Springs ToastMasters Club in St. Charles, Missouri in May of 2014.

 

FELLOW CLASSMATES, FAMILY, AND FRIENDS,

College is coming to an end. While our academic careers may be over, our time on this planet has just started. Dear graduates: College is not the end. It’s the beginning. We’re just starting out.

There’s a lot of talk about how college is supposed to prepare you for the real world. “The real world is waiting for me”, many of us say, like college was some fake parallel universe. I say: We shouldn’t wait for graduation day to go out into the world and get our hands on something that is “real”, something hands-on – something that matters. College is not only about learning how to find information and how to work scientifically. It is not just a place you go to get a degree.

It is so much more than that.

College is the time to get busy

College is a luxury, really. To all you future students out there: take as much advantage of this time it as possible. Eat it up, suck it up. Get as much as you can of every different discipline. Start a campus club. Look at something you had never thought of. Get involved in something outside school, such as Toastmasters. Reality is that we’ll probably change jobs every few years and reinvent ourselves several times before we retire, which is by no means a guarantee in this day and age. We have no idea now what we will be doing in ten or even five years, let alone what we’ll need to be successful. We will probably be working in industries and have jobs that don’t even exist yet. So the more and different things we know, the better we are going to be able to make the world up. Get as many diverse experiences as possible. Build your identity capital. Get busy.

After all, college is a time of great risk and great opportunity. Our brain’s plasticity is never greater than during our twenties – neither before nor after it. We will never have the same opportunity to learn new things so quickly. It will never again be so easy to pick up a new language, to regulate our emotions, to acquire the technical, sophisticated skills necessary in today’s rapidly globalizing world. It will never again be so easy to become the people we hope to be. The neurons we DON’T use are disposed of – the ones we do use are preserved and quickened. We literally become what we hear and see – or not.

The mark of a good education

Fellow graduates, I sincerely hope that all of you have or developed the intrinsic motivation to learn and attend different events. There is too much at stake and, frankly, it is too darn expensive, to just go to classes because we get credit for it. Don’t go because you have to. Go because you want to. That’s the mark of a good education. It makes you curious. It makes you self-motivated.

One of the most important things college instilled in me is curiosity – an insatiable thirst for knowledge. After all, learning doesn’t stop when we graduate. It’s where it starts. College should prepare and motivate us for life-long learning. It should give you a degree of autonomy, and consequently, the power to decide on our own destinies.

The last seven years have shown me how much is out there I want to learn and know. The more I learned and acquired, the more curious I became, for the more diverse our experiences, the more dots we can connect and the more fun learning becomes.

I truly believe that to be successful, you don’t need to know a lot, you just need to be inquisitive and willing to learn. And college is the perfect place for that.
Remember: being a student is only the beginning. Don’t think it doesn’t get any better. If we did it right, college will be a springboard that catapults us into new heights. I hope our education is and will continue to make us aspire to more instead of resting on our laurels. It should make us strive, not settle.

College is what happens outside the classroom

Fellow graduates, an education is supposed to make the world come alive. I’ve found that the most animating kind of learning happens out in the world. It is the kind of learning that goes under your skin. The kind that resonates with you. That’s why I took so much away from my Semester At Sea journey: because it allowed me to apply what I learned in the context. Experimenting with what works and what doesn’t, I saw fist-hand that learning is most effective when we associate an experience or an emotion with it. Instead of discussing abstract case studies, I tackled real-world problems by working with people directly in their environment, gaining empathy for their needs.

I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

For me, it was events and organizations like my study abroad experiences, panel discussions, guest lecturers and Toastmasters that made going to college worthwhile for me, because they spurred my curiosity. It was the things I did voluntarily during college I got the most out of. Those events were not only intellectually stimulating and enriching, but they induced such a tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm in me that I wanted to share it with the whole world. I hope you had similar experiences.

Again, an institute of higher education can be so much more than just a place you go to get a degree and a hopefully a good job. If you look beyond what’s required of you, you will find many opportunities that allow you to grow intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Education can be enthralling, we just have to embrace it.

Lessons learned

During our college career, we came across a plethora of different notions and theories and opinions. Personally, I believe that higher education is not so much about finding that one theory we resonate most strongly with. Rather, it is to show us that most of the time, there is not one definite answer. There are many different perspectives and ways to go about things that are equally valid.

Aristotle said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I hope you can truthfully say that you acquired this way of thinking.

I also hope college taught you to be skeptical. Not cynical, but skeptical. Simple answers usually don’t tell the whole story. Mistrust clarity, it is mostly a lie. Life is seldom simple. Get used to doubt.

Fellow graduates, it is easy to get used to things and take them for granted. I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that our time here passed by unexpectedly fast. Maybe not in the next weeks, but in the long run I guarantee you we will all miss it dearly. Even mediocre cafeteria food. Never again will we have so much freedom and time, and as life will only get more complicated as we get older, we will inevitably reminisce about college and remember it as a time of opportunity. An opportunity to try new things and apply ourselves.

I have been very fortunate to get a long, solid education without having to worry about finishing as quickly as possible. I had the luxury to study for 14 semesters, go abroad on three different occasions and attend six different universities. And no matter what happened during the last seven years, there was always one person whose support I could always count on, and she’s sitting right there. Mom, thanks for always being there when I needed you and being as reliable as anybody could ever hope for.

The most important lesson of all

Fellow graduates, I have talked a lot about what I and hopefully many of you learned from college. However, what I want most for all of us is that our education will not only empower but motivate us to apply what we have learned. College shouldn’t just lead to the ability to criticize or the ability to appreciate or to feel autonomous. It should encourage you to take what you have learned to instigate change.

Yes, pure intellectual, textbook learning has its place – it is the foundation we all stand on – but at the end of the day, it is useless if we don’t utilize it.
Applied learning, on the other hand, is the type of learning we do on behalf of humanity. I am talking about things that have never been discovered before. That kind of learning is extremely powerful. It means expanding a sphere for our civilization. It means doing and getting yourself out there. It is the kind of learning that fosters creativity and curiosity. It can lead you to change the world.

Remember: this is just the beginning!

Our personalities change more during our twenties than at any time before or after. 80 percent of our lives’ most significant events will take place by age 35. Two-thirds of our life-time wage-growth will happen in the first ten years of our careers. College and the rest of our twenties is the best time for change, because we are poised for transformation NOW.

To a great extent, our lives are decided by far-reaching twentysomething moments we probably don’t realize are happening at all. Like this one right now.

Fellow graduates: now that this chapter of our lives is in the books, I urge you to treat it as exactly that: a chapter. Nothing more, and nothing less. Now is not the time to put the book of life away, because there are many chapters you still need to write. I hope that over the years, your book will become thick with rich experiences and happiness, and that this particular chapter that just ended will lead you to embark on many new journeys and adventures you can fill your book with. The more you write, the better.

So how did YOU fill your college pages? And what do YOU want the next chapters to look like? What do YOU want to do with your education?

Whatever you decide to do, remember the future isn’t written in the stars. There are no guarantees. So leave your comfort zone often. Don’t take anything for granted. Be intentional. Get to work. Dream big. Be skeptical. Read the classics, watch silent movies. Travel often. Collect new ways of thinking. Be a lifelong learner. Make your own certainty. Instigate change. And don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do.

Dear fellow graduates: If you do that, the best pages are yet to be written.

Add a comment

*Please complete all fields correctly

Related Blogs

Posted by benjamin | March 31, 2017
Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start writing!
Posted by benjamin | December 2, 2015
Humanitarian action is supposed to improve the wellbeing of others. Unfortunately, in many cases government-channeled aid is relatively ineffective. In fact, it is often harmful, because it can fuel corruption,...
Posted by benjamin | August 2, 2015
[View the story “JCI Symposium on Social Equality recap” on Storify]