When I was asked to speak at your commencement, my first thought was WOW! What an honor! And I also realized, I get to visit Greece — a place that I have always wanted to see.
Then . . . my more serious side took over and I wondered:
How can I deliver a meaningful speech that will be memorable to each of you and leave you with some information and tools that will truly serve you in your journey through life?
So, I decided first to share my life story with you.
You will find that my story is NOT your typical academic journey to the university presidency. In fact . . . it couldn’t be more the opposite.
While I am now at a very different point in my life, I have been just where you sit and, although it was 40-plus years ago, I remember my own high school graduation like it was yesterday.
It was in May of 1965 and the Vietnam War was really starting to ramp up. That world event touched my life directly and profoundly colored the experience of my entire generation.
In the area of “high technology,” color televisions were still rarely found in homes (and there were certainly no computers, iPads, iPhones . . . or, i-anythings!).
Motown music filled the airways in those days and the Beatles were at the peak of their worldwide popularity and all we had to listen to were AM radio and vinyl records.
I sat in the audience wondering when the speaker was going to be finished, so I could get to the graduation party that we were having that night.
I certainly wasn’t giving a lot of thought to the next step in my life, although, in retrospect, I should have, given what I did over the next several years.
You see, although I took college preparatory courses throughout my high school years, I never thought seriously about attending a college or university. Higher education simply wasn’t a household topic or expectation in my family.
My focus at the time was going to work at the local DuPont factory, where my father, grandfather, uncles and just about everyone else in my small New Jersey town worked. Getting that job was my top priority, so I could get what was REALLY important to me, a cool car.
I was raised in a blue collar family with five children (I was the second child), a father who worked as an electrician, and a mom who stayed at home.
We weren’t poor . . . but we certainly weren’t wealthy. My parents just managed to make ends meet.
But home is where I learned the value of a dollar, the value of family and the value of public service (my father was also a politician). There I also learned the values of hard work, honor, perseverance, integrity, being organized, treating others with respect and how to generally just be a nice person.
So off to the DuPont Company I went, where I worked for about a year before I joined the U.S. Army.
I was sent for a tour in Germany while my other friends were being sent to Vietnam.
My ego couldn’t stand the fact that I would be the only one who didn’t go to war, so I volunteered to go to Vietnam, where I stayed for the next 14 months during the height of the conflict.
Once discharged from the Army, I returned to my job at DuPont, but that didn’t last long.
I chose to leave DuPont and took on a number of jobs in construction. I eventually found myself pumping gas on the New Jersey Turnpike. Yes, I was a full-time gas station attendant who, along the way, had also gotten married and had a child.
One cold, rainy day in November, when my hands were so numb that it took both of them to pry off gas caps, I had an epiphany . . . surely there was something better I could do with my life! So, at that very moment, I decided that I was somehow going to college.
I quit my job as a gas station attendant and enrolled in college. I worked hard and earned my bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Then, I went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration.
I worked several jobs while in college, as I had a family to support. This is not a path that I would recommend for all, but I must admit that it allowed me to demonstrate my personal determination and perseverance, and to take pride in accomplishing an extreme amount of hard work.
During my undergraduate years, I somehow impressed the university’s president, who took an interest in me and suggested that I come to work for the institution after I graduated. My first job was working as a student activities coordinator, planning large student events.
I have now worked in higher education for more than 30 years.
I have held positions in various colleges and universities and in state and national higher education associations. I have worked in capacities such as chief financial officer, vice president and executive vice president for administration and finance at two institutions . . . and now, president of one of America’s highly regarded public universities.
Honestly, those many years ago when I graduated from high school, I never could have dreamed that one day I would be standing here — in Athens, Greece . . . addressing such an outstanding group of students, as a university president.
I tell my story to you today because I want to share some life lessons and describe some of the characteristics that have served me well. I want you to realize that you never know where life will lead you and that you, too, may achieve heights that you’ve never yet imagined.