2016 Summer Commencement Address to the Graduates


Commencement address, Aug. 20, 2016

Delivered by Matthew J. Wilson, interim president at The University of Akron

Mr. Bauer and fellow trustees, distinguished faculty and administrators, guests, proud parents, family and friends, and of course my dear graduates, the Class of 2016. Congratulations to you!  

It is an extraordinary privilege to speak at your commencement. My time as interim president of this University can only be measured in weeks, but I also served as dean of our law school for two years. In that role, I met many students who earned their undergraduate degrees here at Akron. They came from disciplines across the arts, sciences and professions. Since my arrival, I have been excited and honored to be part of the University of Akron family.

Last week, I led our law students in a study abroad experience in Seoul, South Korea. On the flight home, I thought about what I might say to you today that would be worthy of your time and attention.

Since 2003, I have worked with undergraduate students, overseen graduate students, and taught professional students. I have taught, advised and guided students of all types at three major research universities

Before entering academics, I was a lawyer, an entrepreneur, a translator and marketer, an English teacher and a volunteer missionary. I have even been a grocery store clerk and a newspaper boy. My personal endeavors have led me to Japan, South Korea, the Western Pacific, the Philippines, Utah, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Florida, and now Ohio. Most importantly, I am a proud father of four, a grandfather of two, and the humble husband of an exceptional wife of 25-years who deserves all of the credit.

Watch this address on demand: Morning ceremony | Afternoon ceremony

Despite all this experience, I had to ask myself, what do I say to you…you who want to be teachers, or engineers, or nurses, or artists?  What can I tell an aspiring accountant or polymer researcher or psychologist about the road ahead?

I think the place to start is not with what you want to be, but with who you are now:  Graduates on the verge of launching a new career, changing directions, or pursuing another degree.

Think of your life as a canvas. I believe you are eager to paint those details that will tell your exciting story and draw gasps of appreciation from viewers. If you’ve ever watched an artist -- you know that they begin with broad brush strokes of colors and texture that establish the foundation upon which the rest of the painting develops. Your past, including your studies here at The University of Akron, have now formed that foundation. Often much of these foundational colors are obscured as new layers of paint are added to create the features and details of the artwork. But enough show through to give the piece the necessary depth for it to become a success.

So this morning graduates allow me to share with you five pieces of advice to help you craft the rest of your life’s painting.

First and foremost, be aware that each day will bring choices that shape the person and professional you will become. Some choices will be momentous forks in the road. However, most will be small and simple decisions that relate to how you conduct yourself, how you carry out your responsibilities, and how you interact with others.

Those decisions will reflect your integrity. Will they demonstrate respect for others, tolerance, compassion, hope, active engagement, ethical conduct, thorough preparation, and a mindset of constant service?  The choices you make will not only impact you and those around you, but will also shape what your profession and even society will become. As graduates of The University of Akron, you are destined to become leaders in your families, your communities, your professions, and in society as a whole. Keep that in mind when making small decisions as well as great ones.

There is one type of choice I’d especially like to focus on: your response to adversity. We have all faced some form of adversity, and you may already have noticed that the more you put yourself on the line, the more adversity you encounter. It is especially challenging when adversity comes from a direction you don’t expect. Something you say in an effort to do good might be misconstrued. Positive things done for others, or contributions made to an organization may be overlooked, unjustly discounted, or even attacked. There will be times when you fail to live up to your own expectations, or the expectations of others. It happens to all of us. And, believe me, when it happens, it can be very tough.

The degree or frequency of adversity is not what matters, but how you respond to it does. And your response will be a byproduct of the decisions you have made all along the way. If you act with honesty and integrity in little moments throughout your day, you will do so when adversity comes. If you consistently demonstrate courage in matters large and small, you will find it easier to summon courage during tough times. If you treat colleagues with respect and decency, you may discover surprising sources of support when challenged. If you share the sufferings of friends, family members, or loved ones, you will learn a thing or two about yourself and about life. Adversity and perceived failure are inevitable. But you can choose to utilize them as catalysts for reinvention, progress, and even joy

Second, I encourage you to regularly reflect on why you chose your particular area of study. Spend a few minutes of quiet time pondering: “Why did I enter this profession? and “Why do I remain in it?”  This exercise will refresh your perspective on why you chose this profession.

Growing up, I was always one of those kids who was clear about the future. I knew that I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and anxiously prepared for the day. After several hard, challenging, and exhilarating years in school, I became a lawyer. I was motivated to pursue a legal career by the desire to help others and make a difference in society. Admittedly, I also wanted to (i) perform in a courtroom in front of a jury,  (ii) work in a profession that would challenge me intellectually and facilitate personal growth, and (iii) yes, to have the means to adequately provide for my family.

Over the years, I have confirmed that the practice of law was everything I had envisioned, but I also have found it is much, much more. Despite our portrayal in popular culture and media, I take pride in my profession as a lawyer and the good that it does in this world. And that takes me to my next point.

My third piece of advice is to resist the temptation to approach your work simply as another job. Understand and appreciate your profession’s service to individuals and to society. Can you name a profession – OK, let’s limit that to non-criminal professions – is there a profession that does not in some way benefit others or society? Why would such a profession exist?

At the end of the day, each of us makes a contribution however small to the greater good. Never, ever forget that. And with that realization comes a responsibility to maximize our contribution to the best of our ability. Said more simply, because what we do affects others, we carry a moral duty to do our best. In fact, I hope that your experience here at The University of Akron taught you to do your best, work hard, and always contribute.

The fourth piece of advice that I want to share with you today is that you should always “take the high road.” Respect the rights and opinions of others, especially when they differ substantially from your own. Technology enables and even encourages the creation of personal echo chambers, where we see only news that interests us, where we hear only views that support our own, and where we experience only art and culture we are accustomed to.

To reverse the current rise in discord and dissension in our society, we must appreciate that individuals who hold different opinions are not necessarily evil, nor are they necessarily wrong. Two people can observe the same event and report it, honestly, from different perspectives. There is far more common ground among us than we realize. And the light that leads us to it is compromise and mutual respect. One of my missions as interim president is to support and facilitate respect, vibrant discussion, rigorous analysis, and open-mindedness. Open your minds to the world and appreciate everything around you!

My fifth and final piece of advice is to follow your dreams with the realization that dreams often change. If you don’t achieve your dream, whatever it is right now, see it as a delay or detour, not a dead end. If you don’t immediately find a job or instantaneously succeed, don’t give in to despair. Try again. Innovate. Change the parameters of your dream. If our subconscious dreams have no limits, why must our conscious ones have them?  You will cross this stage today because you have proven that you can overcome adversity and achieve your dream. That doesn’t stop with the wearing of a cap and gown. It just changes direction.
But you will need more than simple ambition to fulfill your dreams. You need to surround yourself with people who believe in you and who encourage you. It is extremely important that you form relationships and nurture them. In your most difficult times, don’t forget that the people who love you – your family and friends – will sustain you. This certainly includes the friends you have made here. Take a look around today and take note of those who are here for you today. These wonderful people will be here to help you through the tough times. They will also be there to share in your achievements.

To be truly fulfilled, make sure your dream includes the giving of your time, talents, and treasures to other people and great causes. These will be sources of genuine and lasting joy. If your life is lived solely for money or position, you run the risk of a shallow and unfulfilling journey. The real wealth in life is in your friendships, your marriage, your children, what you have learned in your work, what you have overcome, your relationship with God, and in what you have contributed to others.

In a few moments your degrees will be conferred and the canvas of your future plans, aspirations, and professional careers will be placed on their easels. For some it will be a fairly blank canvas, for others it will be the continuation of an existing one. All of them now carry hues of blue and gold associated with The University of Akron. Cherish your degree and take pride in your alma mater. Participate in our timeless mission of improving society through education and service. Encourage others to follow your path, to become part of The University of Akron, and to benefit from the professors, programs, and opportunities here.

So, it is time to load your brushes and begin your work with your hard-earned degree in hand. If you layer your canvas first with the colors of integrity, honesty, vitality, optimism, and empathy, you will have the foundations for a masterpiece.

Good luck and godspeed, graduates.