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Spring 2000 Commencement
Kogod School of Business and School of Public Affairs
May 14, 2000
President Ladner, Chairman, and members of the Board of Trustees, Administration, Faculty and Staff, family members and guests, and, above all, graduates of the business school and graduates of the School of Public Affairs.
It is with a sense of great pride that I accept this honorary degree from my alma mater, American University. In preparing my thoughts for this occasion I have chosen not to succumb to the temptation of trying to enlighten you with all my worldly wisdom, much of which is probably of dubious value, but instead to share with you briefly some thoughts regarding your university experience, and to provide you with five personal insights, and then let you take possession of your hard-earned diplomas and go celebrate.
You are graduating from a truly fine university, and you have received an excellent education. But equally important, in my opinion, you have lived and studied in an environment of great diversity. Hopefully, this has given you an understanding and appreciation of difference, and a sensitivity to tolerance and pluralism.
As we enter the new millennium with its widespread dispersion of information, and its increasing globalization, your experience at AU, with its diverse national, ethnic, racial, and cultural communities, is of great benefit to you. Not only has it taught you how to make room for others, but it has offered you an opportunity for business and professional relationships, as well as for life-long friendships.
And now, I offer my five insights for your consideration.
First insight…Know yourself. Take time to learn about yourself. Self knowledge regarding your personality and characteristics will help you become a happier and a more successful human being. It took me many years to understand this, and only then could I stop competing on so many levels, having come to terms with myself by recognizing my own strengths and weaknesses and recognizing the different strengths in others. There are many areas in which others are more competent or more talented than I, and I learned to let other people do those things. I realized that this did not make me any less of a person. At the same time, life is about continuous growth. It is about reaching your full potential. The two thoughts are not mutually exclusive. You can know who you are and still aspire to be much more.
My second point is to seek out mentors. As you move forward with employment opportunities, think not only in terms of compensation and benefits, or job fulfillment and career paths, but also think of who will be available to mentor you. Seek out persons of more knowledge and experience who will take an interest in you. They will greatly enhance and facilitate your growth. In this respect, I have been extremely fortunate. Among my mentors, head and shoulders above them all, was my father-in-law, Charles E. Smith. He was truly a remarkable human being. For decades, he, his son Bob, and I had lunch together almost every day. As we talked about our business and our family, his wisdom and clarity helped to shape our perception of what was possible in the many aspects of our lives. He contributed so much to our development and encouraged our independence. At lunch one day in 1967, he said to us, “Boys, after lunch today, you’re on your own.” At that moment, he gave us complete control of the companies and devoted the remainder of his life to philanthropy and to community. He has been a model and inspiration to both of us, as well as to so many others of our generation who have become the leaders of our community and feel greatly indebted to him.
I will continue to do my best to follow this example and also hope that each of you find worthy mentors.
Number three…Maintain balance in your life. I’m confident that professionally, you will gain success because you are so motivated and well educated. It will take a lot of hard work, including nights and weekends, but it can be done. The real trick is to maintain a larger perspective, and not to forget what makes you a complete human being. In my case, success in my profession has provided me with a real sense of accomplishment and pride, as well as economic security and well being. At the same time, my participation in educational, cultural, civic, and spiritual activities, has been so very enriching that there is no question that this has profoundly contributed to the quality of my life’s experience.
For example, my wife, Arlene, and I developed an understanding and appreciation for the arts, which has literally changed the way we see and enjoy the world.
My fourth insight is to be mindful of your reputation. It will always be with you. Set standards for yourself. Here, the keyword is integrity. The most important test of your ability to maintain your reputation will come at moments of adversity. In fact, the most difficult decisions you will face will probably concern how fairly you deal with others. At times such as these, I would ask myself, “How would I feel if I read about it in the Washington Post?” And today, you have the worldwide web out there to follow you, so remember your reputation counts. You should not have to choose between integrity and success: your word does matter.
My last insight is to remember to give back. As you commence this new chapter in your life today, remember from whence you came. Remember your responsibility to give back and support your own community however you define it. Only with this commitment can we together create better universities, better communities, better countries, and a better world.
In closing, I say to you, my fellow alumni, we are American University Eagles. Dream. Lead. And have the courage to soar so very high. Do it with grace and style, with confidence and optimism, and always with humor and joy. My congratulations. My very best to you. I thank you.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
Recent Commencement Speakers