When I graduated from college in the fall of 2010, I was asked to speak at commencement. I was very honored but even more terrified, and I kind of froze up and only half-remembered what I wanted to say about inspiration and gratitude and intelligence and blah blah blah. So what I got five minutes to say, I instead said in about three.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, and now that I don’t even really remember what I did say, I think back and know that even if I stuck perfectly to my scripted statement, it would not have been the right thing to say.
This is what I should have said in that commencement speech.
Congratulations! You’ve just spent four years of your life at an institution of higher learning. As you walk across the stage today, you receive an empty shell where your diploma will go. Most likely, you’re already thinking about what kind of frame you want. The business majors will go with something black that will match the decor of their high-efficiency offices; School of Arts and Sciences graduates probably want mahogany or cherry wood; art students are thinking about salvaging driftwood from the beach after graduation to make something truly meaningful; and the journalism kids are just hoping they have money to buy a frame.
So now that you’re going out into the world to face a merciless economy thick with unemployment, you have your degree and the special skills you learned in your time in college, and you’re certain that you can beat the other candidates out for the one job you want.
Here is my concern for you: Are you really prepared? How much did you really learn? When you sit at the desk on your first day on the job, how much training do you need? Will your new boss play along, or will he not even hire you, sensing your inexperience?
It is my concern that fewer students are really being challenged in the university system. It is happening everywhere, and it is the same sort of failure of students that elementary school teachers experience when they find themselves preparing only for standardized testing and not for actual, real world experience. Professors’ success is based on the success of their students. So if their students do not succeed, it reflects poorly on them.
Now let me ask this: If you were to look back at how much time you spent with friends, how much time you spent doing compulsory volunteer work and how much time you spent studying (not including the time you spent in class), where do you feel most of your time was allocated? In every instance of you turning in work, did you really put in as much time as you possibly could?
Students, including myself, are so focused now on everything going on around us that we very rarely take time for our work. We see our friends going on trips, going to the mall, watching TV shows and movies, volunteering at every opportunity, participating in extracurricular clubs, playing guitar, learning how to skateboard and surf, and taking advantage of just about every opportunity to procrastinate. And let’s admit it: There are a lot of those opportunities, even on a small campus like PBA.
Back to the problem of passing: How many of us really feel like we did the work to justify the diplomas we will receive today? With the myriad distractions, it’s a miracle any of us are ready to hit the workplace. Very few employers care about the volunteer work you did, unless it is directly related to your field of work. They don’t want to hear about how you can surf, and how you learned how to skateboard, and how you and your roommate built your own longboards.
They want to know where you interned. Coming fresh out of college, they may ask for a copy of your transcripts. They are going to look at the classes you took and the grades you received. Some employers may want to see a professor or two for references. If you can provide those things with confidence, good for you. You join the league of students who perhaps did the work required of them with the appropriate amount of effort.
I say perhaps because I still have this nagging feeling that too much of the pressure is placed on professors to succeed and that pressure is not properly relayed to students. We slack off, and when a professor demands the best from us, we give them horrible evaluations that can reflect so poorly on them, they may be fired. Is that fair, to put the onus upon the professors? When did students, regardless of age, stop holding themselves accountable for their education? Why do we blame the professors every time we don’t do well?
Moving out into the workplace, you should know that kind of mentality will not fly. You cannot blame your superiors when you don’t do well. You have to accept responsibility for your successes and failures.
I know, without any doubt at all, I can do this. The question you have to ask yourself: Am I ready to be responsible, or do I still need someone to blame? Can I take my life into my own hands, or must I find a scapegoat to bear the burden of my defeat?
So when you receive your hollow shell where your diploma will go, think about the shell of your life and what you have filled it with up until this point.
Hopefully, when you hold that shell to your ear, you won’t only hear the lonely echo of the ocean. Hopefully, you will hear your future self congratulating you on your decisions.