University of St. Thomas: 2009 Winter Commencement

December 18, 2009
Andrea J. Lee, IHM

Father President Dease; leaders of the St. Thomas community; members of the class of 2009 and your families and friends. Greetings and thank you for this significant honor, and for the privilege of speaking with you today. You, my friends, are about to graduate from a wonderful institution, one that's prepared you for a future of accomplishment, contribution, and engagement — the University of St. Thomas, alma mater of good friends and respected colleagues.

When Father Dease invited me to speak, he flattered me immensely and took a big risk. After all, I'm a competitor CEO, one known for speeches that feature tap dancing, Broadway tunes, and annual parodies poking affectionate fun at St. Thomas.

Father Dease knows this — I came close once to pulling him into an improvised dance at the corner of Summit and Cleveland — and still, he invited me to come today. Not to worry, Father, my tap shoes are home. I'm not going to sing or poke fun at St. Thomas; I'm just going to spend a few minutes with your graduates.

Graduates, you're probably feeling appropriately confident and accomplished, and well you should, but at some point perhaps you didn't. Maybe:

  • Your first day in Brady or Dowling when major roommate misgivings had your inner scream crying, "I'm outta here;"
  • When you wondered — on the wrong side of the add/drop deadline — "Whatever made me think biochemistry was a good idea?"
  • When you procrastinated or partied a few too many nights before realizing the paper due on Monday would fall woefully short of standards;
  • When a professor's probing question evoked major personal discomfort, imminent breakthrough learning notwithstanding;
  • When, game after game, the soccer coach benched you, even though you were a starting midfielder in high school;
  • When you realized your major was not a good fit, and following your passion would mean another year of classes ... and tuition;
  • When you felt isolated, overwhelmed and pretty inadequate.

Actually, those experiences were also part of an education designed to stretch and challenge you. In the future, you may well work with people you don't like; encounter overwhelming problems; face personal challenges; miss deadlines; make mistakes; fall short of standards and expectations.

You understand that, always and everywhere, the inherent dignity of a human person trumps everything ..."

You may face these on occasion ... but most often you won't. After all, you're graduating from a first class university, one steeped in enduring values — Catholic values, ones shared by intelligent, compassionate people the world over. You understand that, always and everywhere, the inherent dignity of a human person trumps everything. You know there is loving, creative power beyond what you can see, understand or reason your way through. You know how to learn; to think, write, speak, integrate, and to appreciate art and culture. Your major is important, but not nearly as important as these fundamental skills. Your individual abilities count, but they expand exponentially when combined with those of others. Career and professional success matter, but the choicest fruits of your St. Thomas education — wisdom, and moral and ethical strength — always carry the day.

You're bright, accomplished and ready, even if the perfect job hasn't found you. Get another one; or volunteer."

"OK, I get that," you say, "but I need a job, and what if I don't get one?" Well, you will. You're bright, accomplished and ready, even if the perfect job hasn't found you. Get another one; or volunteer. You'll find your way, and it might turn out better than you imagined. However, I caution you that today is the last time you can be caught sitting around in your robe at 3 in the afternoon.

Today is the eighth day of Hanukkah, the festival of lights, so here are a few ideas or sparks — my graduation gifts for you.

First spark: There's Always More to the Song.

When you processed today, the band played Pomp and Circumstance — or part of it. To be exact, eight bars, repeated once with another four-bar tag at the end. Over and over. Nice tune. So, if hearing it once is emotionally stirring and good, hearing it 50 times must be fantastic. Right? There's more to the piece. The part we know in the United States is actually the middle of Sir Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance #1. It's kind of boring after a while, BUT, travel to England, and this composition generates electricity. On the last night of what's called the Proms (check it out on YouTube) normally staid Englishmen in a great concert hall rhythmically bop up and down during the beginning theme and then, belt out words to Land of Hope and Glory, England's kind of number two national anthem. Flags waving, staid British bopping, everyone singing, "hope" a two syllable word — truly a sight and sound to stir the soul!

I thought about writing new lyrics as my speech today, but gave up when I couldn't find anything to rhyme with "Thomas," and was fairly sure Father Dease would not bop up and down. OK, I'll leave that alone, but remember — there's "always more to the song."

Second spark: Individual competence is good; the ability to COLLABORATE — almost always better.

In its annual 100 best ideas edition, the New York Times Magazine ran a small article about a brilliant mathematician who put a complex and unsolved math problem on the Internet, then invited the world to collaborate in solving it. The world did so — faster and better than even the greatest mind on the planet could do alone. Another researcher examined academic performance in a calculus class of Asian, African American and Caucasian students — wondering why Asian kids almost always outperformed the other two groups, even though they entered Berkeley with similar GPA'S, SAT and AP scores.

The distinguishing variable: Asian kids almost always studied in groups and that created the measurable difference. Think about that, and learn to play on the team.

Third spark: COMMUNICATE — well, often and personally.

Tweet and text all you want, it will never replace a long talk with a good friend. Zip off e-mails or memos by the gigabyte, they'll never replace a thoughtfully constructed letter. Talking through lawyers, mediators, intermediaries, third parties or cyberspace does work, but never as effectively as face-to-face conversation, problem solving around a table, and asking for or granting forgiveness while looking someone straight in the eye. There is e-mail, texting, Facebook and Twitter, but nothing beats a package from home, dinner together, a personal letter or a late night phone call when trouble hits. We can't do that right now.

So, let's try this: Raise your hand if you're texting now or have done so since you entered this room. OK, let's play the Carol Bruess' six-word statement game. Here's my cell number ###-####. Before the ceremony ends, text me in exactly six words and I'll send a prize to the person who best captures his or her "right now" idea, thought, wish or emotion. Here are a few examples to get you going ...

Tweet and text all you want, it will never replace a long talk with a good friend."

  • "I wish she would end this."
  • "35 minutes and we're outta here."
  • "I wish I majored in theology."
  • "This hat is ruining my hair."
  • "Tuition not paid.
  • Can't get transcript"
  • "Lines of communication open."

Text me. Let's move on.

Fourth spark: Liberal arts really matter.

Those classes in history, theology and philosophy, language, literature, and social science weren't just about the "who cares about this stuff anyway" content. True, you can look-up stuff about Kant, see the movie rather than read the book, use the Google translator and so on. The fact is that it's not about the content; it's about the impact of the whole. The point is that you become a free, integrated, flexible, whole adaptive, caring human person who lives in, and contributes to, an amazingly diverse world. All of this is important because of spark five.

Fifth spark: What you think you'll be doing is probably not what you'll end up doing.

The estimate is 10–14 jobs before you're 40, and many don't even exist yet. That's why your liberal education is so important. You're ready for whatever comes, because you've learned to adapt, adjust and reinvent yourself.

The estimate is 10–14 jobs before you're 40, and many don't even exist yet. That's why your liberal education is so important. You're ready for whatever comes..."

My life is an example of that. When I began college, I thought I'd be a high school Spanish or Latin teacher. I switched to Italian, was sent to study music and got an elementary school license along the way. In grad school, I prepared to be a school principal and ended up doing half my work in the business school, supervising student teachers and writing grants to pay my living expenses. I've been in higher education ever since — 20 years in Detroit as a Dean, chief financial officer then chief operating officer. None of it in my career forecast. And now, in Minnesota, president of a women's university — not part of my life plan either. Go figure. Even the fact that none of my jobs were planned or imagined, nothing trumped my utter surprise at becoming a mother at 45; which brings up the sixth spark.

Sixth spark: RISK.

Get on that airplane, open the door, take the risk — especially when human beings and love are concerned."

My son literally dropped into my life when he was 11 — an orphan from Haiti, seriously sick, malnourished, and non-English speaking. Like most kids in Haiti, he couldn't read or write Creole, his principally oral language. His ability to risk was stunning. He stepped off a plane alone, into an American school the next day, and into my life forever. As for me, I'd been a nun for 27 years; nuns didn't adopt kids, and how would I handle parenting him with my job responsibilities anyway?

Without doubt, he's been the best gift, the best surprise, the best blessing of my life. Now he's married, the father of two beautiful sons and a St. Thomas graduate. So, think through implications, of course. But trust your gut. More often than not, it's right. Get on that airplane, open the door, take the risk — especially when human beings and love are concerned.

Spark seven: Occam's razor – the simplest solution is usually best.

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal carried a story about Iraqi militants using $26 dollar software to intercept data from U.S. drones, thereby posing a potentially major threat to U.S. military operations. If people who are intent on doing harm can find simple, effective and inexpensive means to do so, why can't folks intending to do good find the same — simple, effective and affordable solutions to pervasive social problems like healthcare, housing and poverty. Finally, and most importantly, a big spark. Launch your human browser and ...

Spark eight: CONNECT

Ideas ... nations ... races ... religions ... people. Connect because doing so is good; Intractable problems are solved; Things "get right;" conflict deflates; Options and possibilities emerge; and Life is better, happier, and decidedly more interesting.

Connect well and often because at some point, it may be difficult to imagine yourself in any other place of the heart than where you find yourself."

Connect well and often because at some point, it may be difficult to imagine yourself in any other place of the heart than where you find yourself. This may come from a ruptured relationship, a professional dream dashed, deep disappointment in a child or spouse, the death of someone you love or the wrenching pain of betrayal. You go to bed one night and awake to find your world shattered and yourself tripping on needs too deep for words.

Here's the spark: When you connect well and often, you know you are strong and good; you have friends who care deeply about you; you have a degree from a fine university. You can pick yourself up and get going. Expend whatever it takes to do that by relying on your own determination; the hand of someone who loves you; or the needs of someone who depends on you. When you can stand strong and simultaneously admit weakness, then you are free to offer the world your intellect, talent and energy — immeasurably valuable gifts. Janie Victoria Ward describes such people as "emotionally strong, socially smart and spiritually connected."

All eight sparks are good. Together they can ignite a pretty big and illuminating fire. They embody the powerful gestalt we happily celebrate this afternoon; they are what education at St. Thomas is about. These sparks help you become a courageous architect of good, a lifter of spirits, a community builder; a creator and wise leader, one whose presence sweetens the world, and anoints it with imagination that things can be something other than they are.

Look around. You're surrounded by the people in the world who love you most. Take strength from them as you make your way. P.S. Be nice to your parents — today is a happy, but bittersweet, day for them. After all, not so long ago they were reading Good Night Moon or teaching you to ride a two-wheeler. This time will be behind you soon enough.

For now, savor each moment and then, "Go bother the world," as Bernice Johnson Regan says. Repair what's broken; create what's needed. Be what the ancient mystics called "redeeming sparks." Our dimly lit world desperately needs the light you will bring.