2017 Commencement Address to National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School


Delivered by Matthew J. Wilson, president of The University of Akron, at Student Union Grand Ballroom on May 17, 2017

Congratulations, graduates! 

Today you have arrived at your graduation ceremony.  Or as your school prefers to call it, “commencement.”

I like that they use that term. You see, I am a lawyer, and my training and experience has taught me to pay very close attention to words and their meanings.

And while the words “graduation” and “commencement” often are used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing.

You could even say they point in opposite directions.

To graduate means to leave a current status or condition and rise to a new one. Graduation – at least symbolically – looks backward at where you have been and how far you have come.

Graduation, in words from the movie, “The Sound of Music,” says “So long. Farewell. Auf Wiedersehen. Good night . . . I hate to go and leave this pretty sight.” 1.

OK, so I’m no John Legend.

But I do know this: while graduation says goodbye, “commence” does the opposite.

That word spins you around 180 degrees to face the future. It gives you a nudge, it prompts you to put a foot forward and say, “I am ready. I am prepared. Look out world, here I come.” 

And while they may shed a tear or two, the faculty and staff have assembled here today to say to you, “Commence.”  And they asked me to give you a little advice about how to do that.

I will tell you what I told about 3,000 graduates of The University of Akron at our commencement ceremonies last weekend. My advice to all of you is this:

Begin with the end in mind.

Now I wish I could say I thought that one up on my own, but I didn’t.

That message comes from Dr. Stephen R. Covey, one of the world’s foremost leadership authorities, organizational experts, and thought leaders.

He wrote the very popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Let me stop right here to say…if you haven’t read that book already, make it your summer reading. Whether you plan to go to college, or start a job, or join the armed forces, this book can assist you on whatever path you choose.

Dr. Covey wrote that when we try to decide what we want to do in life, that we should begin with the end in mind. 2

Why is it so important to begin with the END in MIND?

There is a wonderful quote in his book that, to me, provides a complete and profound answer.

Dr. Covey wrote:

“If your ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step you take gets you to the wrong place faster. 3

Is there anything more frustrating than to put in a lot of work…put in a lot of time…put in a lot of money and at the end, you have something you really don’t want, or arrived at a place you don’t want to be?

How much better do we feel, how happy we are, when at the end of our labors we arrive at the place we intended all along?

There is another reason why it is so important to begin with the end in mind, and again, I’ll let Dr. Covey give the explanation.

He goes on to write that:
“If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.” 4

If you don’t set your own goals, then your life will be decided by other people and chance circumstance.

You realize what he’s saying here, don’t you?  Choosing your goals, and setting yourself to the task of achieving them…is freedom!  

Freedom to build your own future. Freedom to become whatever you want. Freedom to develop your talents and abilities as far as you want.

Some of you might be thinking, what if I don’t have a goal in mind? What if I can’t decide. That’s fine.

Explore, seek guidance and direction, be flexible.   Make sure though that you at least have a destination in mind

Freshmen come to our campus every year with no idea what they want to do for a career…but they know they’ll need a college degree to get one.

There is no rule or law that says whatever you enroll in as a freshman is what you must graduate as.  In fact, it’s quite common for students to change majors two or even three times.

My daughter changed her degree four times (she says it’s only three).

Goal setting and goal achieving is like climbing a mountain. The two most important aspects are deciding where you want to go, and having the grit and determination and commitment to get there.

How you do it is the least-important aspect of climbing that mountain.

You might start up one path and decide it’s too hard…or you might like the scenery on a different path…or more of your friends are following a third path. As long as you are heading up toward the summit of that mountain, it does not matter which path you take.

What does matter is that you keep climbing. At our commencement last week, one of our student speakers read a quote from a man named Will Rogers. He said, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll still get run over if you don’t keep moving. 5

Here at STEM High you had many people who made it part of their job to keep you moving. Remember Dr. Covey’s quote about being careful where you put your ladders.  You and your parents placed your ladder against the STEM High school, and these faculty and staff were the ones holding that ladder, pointing to the next step, encouraging you to keep climbing.

But they couldn’t climb the ladder for you. You did that for yourself.

So today you step off that ladder onto a new height. Today you graduate from the National Inventors Hall of Fame® STEM High School. And you know what’s laying on the ground beside you?  Another ladder.

Now, you don’t have to start climbing it today. Give yourself some time.  Relax and enjoy the view. You earned it.

But remember what today is. We’re not calling it graduation – we’re calling it commencement. After you’ve had a chance to celebrate with friends and families, it’s time to look up with gratitude, and confidence and determination, and to put your foot on rung of the next ladder.

One last point, graduates. I am honored and grateful to learn that so many of you have chosen to lay your ladder of success against the wall of this University, by applying to, and being admitted as, freshmen whom we will see here next fall.

You have my solemn promise…that just like these excellent men and women of STEM High, who have been there for you, holding your ladders and encouraging you and helping you climb to new heights…just like them, the faculty and staff of the University of Akron stand ready and eager to help you.

I will be right there along side them, holding those ladders as you commence…as you begin again, with a new end in mind.

Congratulations graduates.

Good luck and God speed.