University News

At Western, We Believe in Opening Doors

2014 Fall Commencement Address

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Saturday, December 20, 2014

Good Morning, and welcome to fall commencement here at Western Illinois University. I especially want to welcome and congratulate the graduating class of 2014. Let's give our graduate as round of applause. We salute you today for the efforts you have made and the risks that you have taken to invest in your education and success. We are proud of the bonds that you have made during your time here at Western, and we appreciate you immersing yourselves in your academic studies and the numerous student activities. As a student-centered president, I am grateful for the many opportunities I have had to engage with students. Your active participation during your collegiate years will serve as a metaphoric chapter in your own life story. In writing this chapter, you have become part of the Western Illinois University story. This makes you an important part of a 115 year history with many peaks and valleys, and numerous strengths and achievements. Speaking of achievements, when others speak of their universities, you should speak loudly and proudly, of Western Illinois University. We want you to know that this year marks the tenth consecutive year that Western has been named as a "Best Midwestern University" by U.S. News and World Report. Consistent with our goals for this University, we continue to quickly and steadily rise as we moved up nine spots from the previous ranking to 39th in U.S. News and World Report. Since 2011, Western Illinois University's ranking in U.S. News and World Report has increased. We can also proudly announce that Western Illinois University is one of only four public universities in Illinois which appears in the top 50. This is an accomplishment that we can certainly be proud. The Princeton Review has named Western a "Best Midwestern College" for the tenth consecutive year and for the sixth consecutive year, GI Jobs Magazine designated our University as a "Military Friendly School". The Military Times Magazine designated us a "Best for Vets College."

When I composed this commencement address, I reflected on the opportunities that my college education afforded me. We live in a time where people are questioning the worth and value of a college education. I stand before you today and declare that a college education is still the best path to providing the best opportunities for a better life. I believe that I would have still been on my parents' small farm in Lowndes County, Alabama, if my parents had not encouraged me to seek a college education. Graduates, I was a first generation college student, meaning that I was the first in my family to attend college. At a very young age, my mother, who passed away some months ago, said that I should finish high school and go to college and that someone had to do something a little different than what she and my father had done. I can remember one time when I returned home to the State of Alabama to visit my parents on the farm where I grew up. I took a picture of the cattle on the farm. I sent that picture to many of my friends and mentors, stating that it was so peaceful on the farm, why did I ever leave? My mentor, Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, responded, saying "you left the farm so that you could see more than just a cow." Graduates, the point I am making is that you need to go beyond what you know. Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss, says "Where we are is vital to who we are. By 'where,' I'm speaking not only of our physical environment but also of our cultural environment. Culture is the sea we swim in—so pervasive, so all-consuming, that we fail to notice its existence until we step out of it." Graduates, my college education was the door that opened a new world of opportunities for me.

Open Doors Are Opportunities

Opportunities are opened doors. These commencement exercises at Western are symbolic of a door opening for each graduate. By completing your degree, you will have access to more opportunities and opened doors. At many of my public speaking engagements, I have stated that I want our school colors to represent passion and grit. At Western Illinois University, the color "purple" represents "passion" and the color "gold" represents "grit" in the University's lexicon. Passion is a strong and intense powerful emotion that compels us to move toward our goals. Grit is determination, resilience, and persistence to accomplish a goal.

Seize Your Opportunities in Life

Many of you have seized the opportunities that you have been presented. You have seized an opportunity to complete an undergraduate or graduate degree from Western Illinois University. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said that, "Perseverance is a great element of success. If you knock long enough and loud enough at the gate, you are sure to wake up somebody." Sometimes you will have to persevere and keep knocking to open that door of opportunity. It is our purple passion that motivates our graduates to knock on the door and take advantage of the opportunity and it is our gold grit that will drive you to continue knocking when it appears that the door may be closing.

However, when opportunities come your way, you must be ready to seize your opportunity and use your creativity to leave a positive indelible mark on the world. I urge you to be creative and confident. Exercise discipline and stay focused on your goals in order to make good choices when opportunities are presented. The following story illustrates the point of seizing opportunities even though things may not occur right away. You must have patience and grit and you must persevere.

Patience and grit are best seen in Thomas Edison's story. When Edison was being interviewed by a young reporter, the reporter asked, "How does it feel to have failed 10,000 times in your present adventure?" Edison responded, "Young man, since you are just getting started in life, let me give you a thought that should benefit you in the future. I have not failed anything 10,000 times, I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work." He had the patience and grit to work at it until he got it right.

Edison proved that the only difference between the big shot and the little shot is that the big shot is simply a little shot who kept on shooting. Patience is more than waiting around for something to happen. It means giving things time to happen right. Do not let failure get you down. Be persistent, dedicated, to doing what you know needs to be done. Persevere, put forth that extra effort. Graduates, patience and grit are often part of the model of success.

You should observe life through the various lenses that your education from Western Illinois University has provided you. At Western, we believe in opening doors and providing opportunities to those who come through our doors. While you have been within the gates of Western, we have guided you and have given you wise council, scholarly instruction, and provided you with an eminent and premier education. We have taught you the value of intellectualism and higher-order and critical thinking while encouraging you to observe life through multiple lenses and paradigms. Observing life through the various lenses and going beyond mere surface-thinking will sometimes cause you to go against conventional thinking. Going beyond surface-thinking and searching for deeper and meaningful causes may require you to be courageous. You need courage to see things differently. You need courage to go against the crowd. You need courage to take a different approach and to take a stand and courage to stand alone if necessary. Prolific writer, Catherine Pulsifer once said, "Successful people see alternatives and are willing to try different ways. People who only see failure are unable to see another way and give up too easily." Be courageous and be ready to seize opportunities.

You may not capture every opportunity that comes your way in life, so I must also prepare you for potential pitfalls and failures. How will you deal with failure and missed opportunities? When you experience adversity and a door of opportunity closes, will you crumble or will you bounce back and find other opportunities? When you face failure and a door of opportunity closes, will you succumb and become sedentary, refusing to no longer chase your dream? On the road to success, there will be obstacles, but you must face those obstacles, pitfalls, and failures with courage. After experiencing failure, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, tap back into your "purple passion" and summon your "gold grit" and then get back in the fight of making your dreams a reality. This, I know for certain, if you give up on a goal, you will never obtain the goal. William A. Ward once said, "Adversity causes some people to break and others to break records."

Provide Opportunities for Others

When you have taken advantage of your opportunities, and you have become a success, and everyone knows your name, Western Illinois University wants you to provide opportunities for other students and graduates of our University for this is the Western Way. As a successful person, we should open doors of opportunities for others, especially those who are less fortunate than us. However, sometimes, it is difficult to determine who is a success and who is not. Sometimes those who appear to have the least, are those who are most successful. To illustrate this statement, I recall a news story that I read in the New York Times in 1995 about a woman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi named Oseola McCarty. Ms. McCarty spent a lifetime making other people look nice as a domestic. Day after day, for most of her 87 years, she took in bundles of dirty clothes and made them clean and neat for parties she never attended, weddings to which she was never invited, graduations she never saw. She had quit school in the sixth grade to work. Ms. McCarty never married. She never had children and never learned to drive because she stated that there was never any place in particular she wanted to go. All she ever had was the work, which she saw as a blessing. Although she was paid primarily with dollar bills and coins, over the decades, she was able to save money that had accumulated to more than $150,000. In an interview McCarty stated, "I wanted to share my wealth with the children." She noted that her only real regret is that she never went back to school. Miss McCarty noted that she never minded the work, she was always so busy, but she hoped to provide an opportunity for students. She specifically stated, "Maybe, I can make it so the children don't have to work like I did." The article also noted that the people in Hattiesburg simply call her donation the Gift. Bill Pace, who was the executive director of the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation stated, "I've been in the business 24 years now, in private fund raising. And this is the first time I've experienced anything like this from an individual who simply was not affluent, did not have the resources and yet gave substantially. In fact, she gave almost everything she had." In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second highest civilian award and the University of Southern Mississippi gave an honorary degree. Ms. McCarty passed away in 1999. The university continues to award scholarships in Ms. McCarty's name and provides opportunities to students who may not be able to attend college because of financial difficulties. Her generosity illustrates that a wise person will make more opportunities than she finds.

Graduates of Western Illinois University, like Ms. McCarty, we must open doors and provide opportunities for others because at Western Illinois University, we believe in opening doors. Finally, I want to leave you with these words, "Timely people get opportunities, brave people create opportunities, and winners are those who convert problems into opportunities," so keep chasing your dreams and looking for open doors of opportunities. Thank you!