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Dr. Larson's Commencement Address - May 18, 2008

Chairman Michaud, Members of the Board of Trustees, Chairman Mills, Distinguished Guests, Faculty, Staff, Family and Friends, and [most importantly] Graduates:

Congratulations, graduates of the Class of 2008, to each and every one of you. The more than 700 of you in this class are part of more than 10 million American community college students, or 50% of all undergraduates in the United States. The idea of the American community college is moving throughout the world. The mission is the same - to inspire, to develop and hone skills, and to increase knowledge, understanding, and experience. In the community college, you find teachers focused on students and learning, on helping students to achieve their goals. Each of you has a story to tell about working toward this day. We celebrate each of those stories today. We are so very proud of you, and of all that has brought you to this point. We look forward to your next steps, be they further education and training, or a new job, or another goal. Commencement is just the start. You may think today that everything is finished, but indeed this is the beginning. It is now my opportunity to offer you a few words as you think about those next steps.

Cayuga is unique, notable for the remarkable breadth and depth of talent and ability found in its faculty and staff. The dedication of individuals to the mission and vision of this College occurs not just by happenstance. The professionalism and sense of collegiality are among its strengths. This academic community values the learning experiences of all who come to it, ranging from preparation for transfer to four-year colleges and universities to upgrading job skills to taking a course or seminar just for the enjoyment of doing so. The recognition and value of a liberal education, with all of its qualities and attributes, coupled with an emphasis on career-technical programs provide a balance that result in this College. We are involved in education and training, with their parallel influence upon workforce and economic development. Moreover, the beauty of the Finger Lakes region, even with the season of cold and snow, makes for a most attractive environment. And yet, the real potential is found in the people here. They are the ones who make it all work, and who will make it all work in the future.

Let me share a couple of things with you. Although Marianne and I spent 20 years in Kansas City during the glory years of George Brett and the Kansas City Royals, and several subsequent years in St. Louis as fans of the great St. Louis Cardinals, our roots run even deeper in New York State. We are thrilled to be back in central New York. Now, I am not going to spend any time talking about the respective attributes, much less the opportunities, of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Mets, or the New York Yankees, or provide any predictions about who might be in what standings this Fall. However, I will share this story. In 1937, a New York Yankees baseball player named Lou Gehrig was in Chicago to play the White Sox. While there, he visited 10-year-old Tim, who had polio. Tim had refused therapy to walk again. Lou Gehrig was his hero, and the hope was that Lou's visit would encourage him to try the therapy so he could walk again. Tim was amazed to meet his hero Lou Gehrig. He promised that if Lou hit a home run that day, he would learn to walk again. We can well imagine how Lou felt on his way to the ballpark - a sense of obligation and even concern whether he could deliver on his promise. If you ever have stood at that plate waiting for the pitcher to throw the ball, you know what I mean. Well, that day Lou did not hit a home run - he had two!

A couple of years later, on July 4, when Lou was dealing with the dread muscular disease that even today bears his name, all of New York celebrated Lou Gehrig Day at Yankee Stadium. Along with the governor and mayor, more than 80,000 fans honored this great American athlete. Just before he spoke to the audience, Tim, now twelve years old, came out of the dugout, dropped his crutches, and with leg braces walked to home plate to hug Lou. That is what Lou Gehrig meant when he exclaimed those immortal words: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Today, many of you are among the luckiest people on earth for a similar kind of achievement. There are those here who have helped to inspire you to do you best and to accomplish your goals, even when you thought that impossible. We recognize and honor your family and friends who are here today. And, we recognize and honor your instructors and the staff who have worked with you to reach this day. These important people have helped you in your journey to this day, and they share in your celebration.

Oftentimes, predictions are part of commencement exercises like this one. They are dangerous to make, as in the words of the immortal Casey Stengel, "I never make predictions - at least, not about the future." Consider the following. In 1876, a Western Union memo states, "The 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value." Perhaps some of us even today subscribe to that notion, but for far different reasons. The president of the British Royal Society, in 1895, predicts, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." In 1899, the chief of the U.S. Patent Office announces, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." In 1920, associates of NBC leader David Sarnoff state, "The wireless music box [that is, the radio] has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?" In 1927, the head of Warner Brothers asks, "Who ... wants to hear actors talk?" Indeed, we sometimes may ask some of these same questions today. In 1943, IBM president Thomas Watson states, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." In 1949, the Popular Mechanics magazine forecast the relentless march of science, "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." In 1977, the president of Digital Equipment Corp. stated, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." There are days that we may feel the same. And, finally, in 1981, Bill Gates says, "640k ought to be enough for anyone." Who would ever believe that one today!

So, this is a day to talk about the future. My crystal-ball prediction is that the future will bring things not imagined today. Yes, we live in a time of great change. Twenty-five years ago, people were perfecting the computer; fifty years ago, the television; seventy-five years ago, the radio; and, one hundred years ago, the automobile. Each of these revolutionary products, upon introduction, was reserved only for those with the means to afford them. Today, all are mainstream, owned by virtually every American household and hundreds of millions throughout the world. Each created a fundamental culture change that moved far beyond what was envisioned. Now, project those inventions out another one hundred years, to things we cannot even imagine. You graduates will see and participate in many of those new inventions. The same is true in education, with two things - technology and an expanded understanding of just how people actually do learn - driving it through tremendous change. The field is being transformed, and educators increasingly are challenged to work in an environment they did not create and do not recognize. Today, we help students become effective learners, more self-directed as they manage their own learning. The challenge is that our society demands that everything be quick, fast, accessible, and accurate, compliments of technology. However, true knowledge and understanding, true learning, do not come quite that quickly or that easily. Nor are there any real economies of scale. Each student must learn individually, and each must be taught individually, be it in a class of thirty or one-on-one. As a Chinese proverb puts it, "One does not make the grass grow by pulling on it." So it is with education and learning. One does not make education grow by pulling on it. But, we can nurture and help to sustain it.

At Cayuga, we help to prepare students today for a tomorrow in which those who do predict the future say that 75% of all jobs will require post-secondary training or education, and that students today will have 5 or 6 different careers, not just jobs, in their lifetimes. We see ever more clearly that training and education are keys to a successful future, to be self-sustaining, to be entrepreneurial, and to provide for yourself and your family. Education and training are the keys that open and change people's lives. Cayuga provides that opportunity, be it in Auburn, Fulton, online, or elsewhere throughout the region. Success is a watchword of this College.

However, what exactly is success? As the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson defined it: "To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded." Perhaps Albert Einstein said it best: "Try not to become a [person] of success. Rather, become a [person] of value." Even better, in the words of Indira Ghandi, the late prime minister of India: "My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition." Indeed, part of my message today is that you try to be in the first group: those who do the work. The reward and satisfaction for doing the work is all the greater!

Your instructors have taught you well, leading you progressively from knowledge and comprehension, through application and analysis, and reaching synthesis and evaluation. They have taught you through their own love of and dedication for students and learning, and you have learned not only for the immediate requirements of tests, grades, and projects but also for the goals you have set. Think, for a moment, of those broader goals that are part of being an educated person, of being a productive citizen in this global society. Learning, fundamentally, is about making and maintaining connections. It is an active, entrepreneurial search for meaning that leads to measurable change. Your teachers have been a major part of that process. As Nobel Prize winner and microbiologist J. Michael Bishop said, "The purpose and priorities of teaching are first, to inspire. Second, to challenge. Third, and only third, to impart information." Learning is the goal, and teaching is the means. Cayuga is unique in its climate and culture, for the energy and professionalism set by this academic community. In these times and due to your Cayuga experience, you are better equipped to deal with a world that continues to change rapidly and in which you will be the leaders. The challenge is to be all that you possibly can be. It requires that you continue to learn throughout your own lives, that you continue to be open to new ideas, and to test them and validate them based upon your own education and experience. It requires that you connect with others who may be different from you in outlook, background, experience, heritage, and perspective. The richness of the human experience is one not to be missed. I encourage you to seek it out actively, to search for those opportunities that will encourage you to continue growing.

Let me put all of this to you more clearly through the following story, timeless in its message and impact. It is written from the perspective of a college student, an athlete, who knows someone named Rose.

The first day of class, our professor introduced himself and challenged us to get to know someone we did not already know. I stood up to look around when a gentle hand touched my shoulder. I turned around to find a wrinkled little old lady beaming up at me with a smile that lit up her entire being. She said, "Hi, handsome; my name is Rose and I'm 87 years old. Can I give you a hug?" I laughed and enthusiastically responded, "Of course you may!" So, she gave me a giant squeeze. "Why are you in college at such a young, innocent age?" I asked. She replied with a twinkle in her eye, "I'm here to meet a rich husband, get married, have a couple of children, and then retire and travel." "No, seriously," I asked, curious about what may have motivated her to take on this challenge at her age. "I always dreamed of having a college education and now I'm getting one!" she told me. After class, we walked to the student union building and shared a chocolate milkshake. We became instant friends. For the next three months, we would leave class together and talk nonstop. I was mesmerized listening to this "time machine" as she shared her wisdom and experience with me. Over the course of the year, Rose became a campus icon, and she easily made friends wherever she went. She loved to dress up, and she reveled in the attention bestowed upon her by the other students. She was "living it up!"

At the end of the semester, we invited Rose to speak at our athletic banquet. I will never forget what she taught us. As she began her speech, she dropped her note cards. Frustrated and embarrassed, she leaned into the microphone and simply said, "I'm sorry I am so jittery. I'll never get my speech back in order, so let me just tell you what I know." She began, "We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing. There are only four secrets to staying young, being happy, and achieving success. And, when all is said and done, this is the message for you graduates today:

  1. You have to laugh and find humor every day.
  2. You have to have a dream - when you lose your dreams, you die. There is a huge difference between growing up and just growing older.
  3. Anybody can grow older - that does not take any talent or ability. The idea is to grow up by always finding the opportunity to change.
  4. Have no regrets - the elderly usually do not have regrets for what we did, but rather for things we did not do. The only people who fear death are those with regrets.

She concluded her speech by singing an old song, "The Rose," and then challenged us to live the lyrics in our daily lives. At year-end, Rose finished the college degree she had begun all those years ago. A week after graduation, we learned that she died peacefully in her sleep. More than 2,000 college students attended her funeral in tribute to the wonderful woman who taught by her own example that it is never too late to be all that you possibly can be. Remember, growing older does happen to all of us; growing up, however, is optional. You need to become and to be all that you possibly can be.

Now, graduation is a time to celebrate your achievement and to acknowledge that you have completed another step toward even greater goals. I commend you for your diligence and for not giving up. Those next goals, however, depend upon you yourself, the things you set to accomplish, and the way that you accomplish them. This is one principle that applies to each of us, no matter what our circumstances may be. As Rose showed by her own life, it never is too late to be all that you possibly can be. That is my challenge and my hope for you today. Again, congratulations to you, and best wishes in those goals that will lead you now even to greater success, to be all that you possibly can be. Let the celebration begin!