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Undergraduate Commencement Speech 2014

Speech by Edward Asner, Southern Connecticut State University's Undergraduate Commencement speaker on May 16, 2014.

It gives me great pleasure to see you end one chapter of your lives while beginning a new, and to give at least one diploma away to a Charles Edward Asner.

My short speech will be a little different than the one I delivered at my daughter’s ceremony back in 1989 partly because it is SHORT and partly because I am OLDER AND WISER!

I want you all to follow your dreams but want to point out a few things to remember along the way.  If you look up the most successful people in the world, there are common denominators.  Leading the list is –  EDUCATION.  For example, Putin studied Law, Obama attended Columbia University, Xi Jinping earned a Doctor of Laws degree, Pope Francis earned a Masters in Chemistry, Angela Merkel earned a Doctorate as a physical chemist, Gates attended Harvard, Ben Bernanke went to Harvard and then MIT to earn his Ph.D.,  Mario Draghi got his Doctorate at MIT, Michael Duke earned a BS in Industrial Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, and David Cameron received his BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Eton College and first-class honors degree at Oxford.  This covers the top ten most successful in the world.

Now let us look at the most generous individuals in the world!  Leading the list is once again, Bill Gates.  He has given more than 30 billion over the years and his foundation will spend 10 billion on vaccines in the next 10 years.  Warren Buffet, who was number 13 on most successful list, has given away 30 billion – part of this figure going to the creation of “The Giving Pledge”, which encourages 69 of the richest people to give.  George Soros has given 8.3 billion to democracy and human rights causes, Gordon Moore 6.8 billion to science, environment and education.  Carlos Slim Helv – 4 billion for education and research, George Kaiser – 4 billion for schools and medical clinics, Eli Broad – 2.6 billion to research at Harvard and MIT, Azim Premji – 2.1 billion to schools, James Stower – 2 billion for research, and Michael Bloomberg – 1.8 billion to universities.  Why am I sharing this with you?  You are one step there – you are now graduates – go out and change the world for the better!

Some of you attended the university because you wanted to learn and grow as individuals, some had to fulfill requirements in order to work in their chosen profession, some thought it would lead to success, and others went because their parents strongly urged them to.  Whatever the reason may be, you will all be better off because of it.

There are eight more common denominators with the most successful people, listed in a Times article, and will share them with you because you possess each and every one of them.  Let us start with diligence – you had to work hard and focus on what was in front of you for years, even on classes you didn’t think were relevant at the time or had any interest in, because you had to complete it to graduate.  Robert Frost said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”  I was not diligent enough and dropped out.

I know you know how to spell “no” but you also know how to say it.  The most successful people know how to say no so that they can finish what really matters to them.  You have all had to say no to extra-curricular activities or social engagements because of school the next day or because of a pending project or exam.  You knew your limits.  I have always wanted it all and lived limitlessly.  Professionally, I have said “yes” to many jobs that were time consuming and offered little to no pay.  I have a problem saying “no”.

Thirdly, you know who you are, what you are, and what you are good at.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Education is the drawing out (of) the Soul”.  Harvard Professor Gautam Mukunda said, “More than anything else, “know thyself”.  Know what your type is…Think about your own personality…For instance, if you are a classic entrepreneur, you can’t work in an organization…Know that”.  I don’t know myself, for heaven sake I don’t know if I am Lou Grant, Carl Frederickson, or Santa most the time!

You have all started networking, whether it be with clubs, associations, internships, what have you – you know how to network.  Sure, I serve on boards of non-profit organizations and associations and have donated but I can’t say I gained momentum in my career because of it.  Call these memberships hobbies of mine.  Most of you will greatly benefit in life if you network and give time of yourself to devote to causes that are important to you and your career.

Believe it or not, you are creating your own good fortune by being outgoing, optimistic, and opening yourself up to new ideas.  You have had to have been somewhat outgoing during university years, you certainly have exchanged ideas, and you had to stay positive in order to finish your degrees.  My streak of optimism and ability to stick with new ideas is limited.  I might have a bright idea but lack the tenacity to carry it through.

You possess a certain level of grit, which means that if you fall, you don’t take too long getting back on your feet.  If you weren’t selected for something or didn’t do as well as you had hoped on an assignment or test, you learned from it somehow – some way and moved on.  Daniel J. Boorstin said, “Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know”.  I don’t make mistakes, therefore, I have nothing to move on from!  Furthermore, if I fall, I can’t get up at this point.  Experiment a little if you haven’t already.

I don’t mean necessarily at others’ expense but juggle your own ideas around and perhaps try one out.  Even if you fail, you win for trying.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”  If you don’t run with the idea, believe me, someone else will.

Having a mentor keeps you sane and gives you direction.  Find one wherever you land – it enables you to continue to learn and grow.  I had a few mentors but feel I have been more of a mentor to others. 

There are going to be things in life you have control over and others you won’t.  For instance, there are more than 1.6 million students graduating with bachelor’s degrees this year, the national unemployment rate has fallen 10 percent since 2009 and was 6.7 percent in March, some baby boomers are still holding their jobs due to lack of retirement funds or non-existent pensions, those with computer skills, business or healthcare degrees might have an easier time finding jobs, unless they need more schooling, then let’s say art majors.  You have control over your own future by deciding how to live and conduct your professional and personal lives. 

Technology is truly amazing, isn’t it?  Facebook, Twitter, texting, instant messaging, blogging, back channeling, crowdsourcing, email, podcast, Skype, and the list goes on.  As you are conquering the world and being socially interactive with new technologies, please remember this magnifies everything you do.  Just a few months ago, I heard of an employee getting fired at a non-profit organization because of how she conducted herself using social media (Facebook).  I know someone else who won’t even hire someone who has a Facebook page because of the fine line between professionalism and personal lifestyle.  There are employers and staffing companies that say college graduates lack social and communication skills.  Be cautious as to the level of sharing with others via social media - one-on-one and face-to-face is still welcome and encouraged in business today.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, graduates earn more money and usually start out at higher levels than those without degrees.  The Director of Research for the Institute for Higher Education Policy in D.C. takes it a step further by writing that “All of society benefits when more people have college educations”.  Education leads to the following outcomes:

  • Participation in community service
  • Voting in local and national elections
  • Increases an understanding of other racial and ethnic groups
  • Increases awareness and interest in schools, city and county council activities and state and local tax policies
  • Graduates typically are healthier because they have better access to preventative healthcare and retirement plans
  • Graduates, due to higher incomes, have more leisure time and provide better outcomes for their children
  • Graduates tend to have healthy children because of involved parenthood inside and outside of school
  • Graduates are typically healthier so this reduces cost of government spending (unemployment, welfare, food programs, and other social programs, etc…)
  • Graduates make up only a quarter of those incarcerated.

So now that we have established that you have earning power with your degrees, and life-long character traits (remember the common denominators?) – go out and reap the many benefits your degrees will bring you.  As former Maine Senator George Mitchell once said, “If you do the very best you can, the future will take care of itself.”