2017 Fall Commencement Address to Graduates


Delivered by Matthew J. Wilson, president of The University of Akron, at E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall on December 16, 2017

Mr. Bauer and fellow trustees, distinguished faculty and administrators, guests, proud parents, family and friends, and of course my dear graduates, the Class of 2017.

Congratulations to you!  And thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. Today is a day for celebration. You have done something worth celebrating. You set a goal to graduate from college and today, you have succeeded.

In terms of a college education, you are a success! It feels good, doesn’t it? Right now your brain is enjoying a dopamine bath and it’s saying, “I like this success stuff – let’s do it more often.”

Well, you know you can. All you have to do is – keep on being successful. Some of you are probably thinking now – I knew there had to be a catch. You have learned that success requires much time, effort, and hard work. The investment can be steep.

If you think about it though --- the recipe for success is not overly complicated. In fact, the recipe can be captured in a two-word phrase -- “distinguish yourself.”

I have long been fascinated by words and language. Maybe it explains why I became an attorney and educator. This fascination has likely been compounded by my study of Japanese over the past 30 years. In fact, you might call me a “word nerd” of sorts. When my children ask “Dad, can I go to the movies,” I almost always respond “if you try hard enough, son, I am sure that you CAN do anything.

If you CAN not go by car, maybe you CAN get there by walking.”

It doesn’t stop there, however. In reflecting on words, I often wonder why we drive on “parkways” yet “park” on driveways. Ponder that for a second. Shouldn’t we drive on driveways and park on parkways? Similarly, have you ever wondered if a fly lost its wings, would we then call this creature a “walk”? Again, you have to think about it. Now you have an idea about what it might be like to live at my house.

Sticking with the theme of words, what does “distinguish” mean? On Dictionary.com you will find a rather poetic and even beautiful definition of the word “distinguished.”[1] It reads: “made conspicuous by excellence.”

“Made conspicuous” – obvious, noticeable, different – “by excellence.”

Now, don’t let the word “excellence” intimidate you, or lull you into a false confidence. Excellence is associated with success and can be applied narrowly or broadly. It is applicable both for the pinnacle of achievement, and for its foundation.

For example, true excellence can be something as impressive as an appearance in the College Cup Final Four. Or for something as simple as excelling in the classroom, in the workplace, or within personal relationships.

So today graduates, before you head out through our doors, I want leave you with some thoughts about making yourself conspicuous by excellence. You already are off to a good start by obtaining a college degree.

Understand and appreciate that you are one of a select few who have earned the privilege to walk across a stage like this to obtain a college degree. You are now more educated than 93 percent of the people on this planet[2], and more educated than 60 percent of the adults in this country.[3] 

Second, note that today really is a “great day of decision” for everyone in the room. It is the commencement of something that will go on for as long as you live. Going forward, decide that you will always look for ways to distinguish yourself. Choose to rise to the higher ground of mental, physical, emotional, ethical, spiritual, and social excellence. As a graduate of UA, you can do it.  Invest in your own excellence. Too many people are content with the status quo, or with settling for the moment. Go above and beyond in all that you do and wherever you are.  In turn, your likelihood of success will increase significantly. 

Third, exude confidence in yourself. Like me, you may not be a genius. Like me, you may be lacking some skills.  However, be confident that you can succeed. Your graduation today is proof of that. 

It is proof that you have acquired a host of skills.

It is proof that you can learn, can overcome and adapt.

It is proof…that you have distinguished yourself.

As research shows, a 4-year degree will help you in terms of landing a job, keeping a job, opening up new doors, positively contributing to society, and even living longer. [4][5]

Fourth, DESIRE to succeed such that you excel.  Never give up.

When I was 14 years old, I remember being wrapped up in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Peter Vidmar was one of the stars of the games. He was an American gymnast who won gold medals in the men’s all-around team competition as well as an individual medal in the pommel horse competition.

I distinctly remember the words that he spoke shortly after the completion of the Olympics. He observed the following:

“For those of us who, in any way, had the opportunity to view the Olympic Games, we saw the greatest athletes in the world performing at the very best of their abilities. Many of those athletes scored the most points, the fastest times, or the greatest distances in the history of the Olympic Games.

“But how did they do it? What makes a great athlete? I remember a great Olympic champion who once addressed this question. He named some important factors such as great coaching, good equipment, good athletes to train with, or just pure natural talent. All of these ingredients can go into the recipe for a great athlete, and each will help in its own way. But there is one quality that rises above all, and without it, the athlete is not complete. That ingredient is desire.

“The athlete with the greatest desire to succeed will stand a greater chance of reaching his or her goal. The same holds true for the student or the musician or whatever it is that you aspire to be. A 5-year study of many of the United States’ top athletes, musicians, and scholars has recently concluded that drive and determination -- not great natural talent -- led to their extraordinary success.”[6]

UA has produced Olympians and champions. The overwhelming majority of us will never be the best athlete in the world though. Maybe some of you have developed world-class skills or have exceptional talents. More likely though, you are like me and most others -- average people trying our best to succeed, but now trying with the aid of a college degree.

I firmly believe that your UA degree, combined with an unwavering desire, drive, and determination, can help you attain any goal.

Let me share a personal story that taught me several things about distinguishing myself, and the value of a higher education including my meteorology course – yes, my meteorology course in college.

(Extemporaneous story of President Wilson’s first job as a translator in Japan.)

Regardless of how great or limited our natural abilities, we can succeed if we distinguish ourselves. Take what you have and go forward with grit, creativity, and integrity.

Take what you have learned here at UA and apply it in your respective lives. Not just for yourself, but for all of us. If you apply yourself constructively, your positive influence and productive impact can be felt all over our homes, communities, cities, states, and nations.

Do better. Be excellent. Distinguish yourself.

If you do that, you will not need to pursue success.

Success will come to you.

On behalf of the faculty, staff, alumni and friends of The University of Akron…

…I wish you God speed and Good Luck, Class of 2017.

[1] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/distinguished?s=t

[2] http://www.100people.org/statistics_100stats.php?section=statistics

[3] http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/326995-census-more-americans-have-college-degrees-than-ever-before

[4] https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/08/17/study-benefits-of-a-college-degree-are-historically-high

[5] https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-effect-of-college-education-on-mortality/

[6] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1985/04/pursuing-excellence?lang=eng