Office of the President
UW-Stevens Point Commencement Speech
Kevin P. Reilly, President, University of Wisconsin System
May 18, 2008
Thank you for that kind introduction, Chancellor Bunnell. I understand how you have come to appreciate and admire the journeys and accomplishments of these students. Thank you for your stewardship of their soon-to-be alma mater during their years on the Stevens Point campus.
Graduates, my heartfelt congratulations go out to each and every one of you, as well as to all the family members who have waited for this day with as much anticipation and hope as you—especially if they’ve been paying your tuition! I’m delighted to join you today in celebrating your commencement, and helping to launch your next life chapter.
Let me begin by saying that I know my place at this event. Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the corpse at an old-fashioned Irish wake—people need you in order to have the party… but they don’t expect you to say much!
Well, I’ll try not to talk too long, but being Irish, and still very much awake, I have a few words to add to your commencement “party.”
For the rest of your lives, May 18th, 2008 will signify the very special day your hard work and commitment finally paid off. Many of today’s graduates have inspiring stories to tell about overcoming significant obstacles to earn their degrees. Some have overcome language barriers. Some of you have worked extra hard to finance your own higher education. And some of you may be the first in your families to achieve a college degree.
Lee Sherman Dreyfus, former Wisconsin Governor and former Chancellor of UW-Stevens Point, would have applauded you all for the risks you took to be here today, tassels and all. He believed that the makings of a true leader lie in a willingness to take risks. In fact, he once advised a group of students like you to:
“Absolutely dare to risk, don’t be security-conscious. We are descended from risk takers!”
Perhaps you were a first generation college student, learning the complex in’s-and-out’s of higher education. There is no doubt that taking this risk placed a unique weight on your shoulders, as you worked to become an inspiration to your family, and to future generations. But, today you can relish the fruits of that risk. You have become an incredible role model of perseverance.
Somewhere out there is a newly-minted Pointer alumna who is rightfully proud of her bachelor’s degree in English. And somewhere out there are a mom and dad who still can’t figure out why she didn’t want to be an accountant. To those parents I say, I’m living proof that even an English degree can lay the groundwork for a reasonably successful professional career. So is Chancellor Bunnell, another English major. So, lighten up already mom and dad. To you accountants in the audience, we love you too. And remember that every English major really needs a good accountant!
Perhaps some of you might have taken an unpaid internship in addition to your full course load and part-time job, not entirely sure that you could keep all those balls in the air at one time.
Working side-by-side with professionals as enthusiastic as you about your subject area, perhaps you were finally able to apply the long nights of studying to very real situations. Now, I’m sure there were days that you wondered if the risk was worth feeling stretched so thin. But, I promise you that the experience is one that will repay you in countless ways.
Ahead of you lie boundless more opportunities, many fraught with risk, some of which may lead you down paths that you consider uncertain, or even frightening. In those times, I urge you to remember Governor Dreyfus’ admonition to “not be security-conscious.” Your time here at UW-Stevens Point has armed you with an intellectual framework that will enhance your chances of success in whatever you choose to do.
Just this past March, my wife and I participated with Chancellor Bunnell and Professor Tim Ginnett in the UW-Stevens Point College of Natural Resources bear research project. We worked with the research group as they tagged and examined two mother bears and their cubs and yearlings during hibernation. You know, some would call waking up a hundred-sixty pound mama bear a real risk!
But, as I held one of the bear cubs in my arms, I became even more aware of the very real responsibilities we all have to give back to the greater good – to explore the world around us without fear, and act as stewards of all the Earth provides for us… even if that means risking your arm to play alarm clock to a family of bears!
Today, as we celebrate your risks, it is also important to remember why you took all those risks in the first place. Yes, getting a good job and all the accoutrements was one driving force. But, for many, it was an equally strong drive to improve lives, build stronger communities, and expand intellectual horizons.
You have all achieved something that is only bestowed upon a small percentage of the human race. With your baccalaureate degree, you are by definition mighty privileged people. I urge you to take the knowledge, time, and energy that others have invested in you, and use them to serve the greater good.
It is your thoughtful contributions to the public good that will truly make a difference. Perhaps you’ll serve on the local school board, or write letters to the editor of your local newspaper to express your opinion on a vital issue. Maybe you’ll volunteer to build a playground, start a non-profit, or run for public office. Perhaps you’ll return to one of our UW System campuses one day as a faculty member to inspire the next generation of college-going students.
The attention to these responsibilities will, in turn, inspire others to continue their own way. What a difference your stories will make as they ripple out across Wisconsin, or even within your own families.
Many of you have younger siblings, and some perhaps children of your own whose educational future is still unwritten. Look at those young, eager faces today, and ask yourself where they will be years from now. Research tells us that out of every 100 Wisconsin 8th-graders, only about 30 will earn any kind of post-secondary degree within the next 10 years, if current trends hold. What will we, as a state, do to ensure those other 70 kids will prosper in a competitive, knowledge-based global economy, where other nations are ramping up the number of college graduates at a breakneck pace?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers to such a question. But I’m looking at a group full of good answers right now. I’m excited about your future, and the risks you have yet to take, that will most certainly contribute to our workforce, to our society, and to our world.
I want you to know how proud we are of your achievement here today. We know that you have worked hard to earn these degrees, and we are excited for you as you face the many opportunities and challenges the future will bring. Thank you for being part of the University of Wisconsin community, and after today, for being its loyal alumni and UW ambassadors. Know that wherever in the world your fate takes you, you will forever remain a part of us, and we of you.
Graduates, again, my best wishes to each and every one of you, and to your families. My hope is that you continue to tackle every exciting opportunity ahead of you with daring, confidence, and dedication, and that you do so guided by “the better angels of your nature,” as President Lincoln called them. I hope that your education here at Stevens Point has given those better angels reason and rein to roam across all your ambitions and dreams.
May your futures be worthy of those dreams. Way to go!