Commencement Office
Summer Commencement Address

August Commencement Address, by Dr. Robyn Cox

Dr. Robyn Cox
Dr. Robyn Cox

Good afternoon graduates, and congratulations on the accomplishment we are celebrating today. This is a good day. You and your families can truly be proud of your achievements while you were a student at the University of Memphis.

Speaking of that, while you were a student, you probably visited the University web site many times. You have certainly seen the words “University of Memphis: dreamers, thinkers, doers”. That’s our motto. Those three words appear on the University seal. Have you ever stopped to reflect on what they might mean for you? Dreaming, thinking and doing describes what you have been as a student. You have had a dream of what you would achieve in life. You worked hard to think about and understand the ideas and concepts introduced by your professors. And many of the things you have done have been motivated by the idea of reaching the goal of graduating today. Perhaps you think that you will be leaving all that behind now – that you’ll receive the degree and move on to a totally different world. But you won’t. You’ll still be a dreamer, thinker and doer after you walk out that door today and into your future. Because that’s what we all are, for our entire lives.

It’s been quite a few years since the day I was a graduate like you are today. Ever since then, I’ve tried to figure out what it takes to make dreams into reality, and how to think in a productive and responsible way about the significant matters of life, and perhaps most importantly, what are the essential things to do in order to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. I am going to spend my few minutes with you today reflecting on where this search has taken me. I hope there will be something about it that you can use as you go forward into whatever comes next.

Let’s begin with your dreams. What will it take to succeed in turning your dreams into reality? You might be surprised to hear that you don’t necessarily need to be really smart, even though you are because otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Also, you don’t have to be wealthy, or lucky to achieve your dreams. That’s because the most indispensable element in turning your dreams into reality is …… perseverance. Woody Allen had it right when he said that “eighty percent of success is just showing up”. Whatever your dream is, there’s a good chance that you will not reach it easily or quickly. In fact, if you do reach it easily or quickly, you didn’t dream big enough. A worthwhile dream should take time. Along the way, you might have some disappointments and setbacks. They happen to most of us. The important thing is how you react to them.

Quite a few years ago, when I was a young junior faculty member, I failed at something I tried as I pursued the dream of becoming a successful academic. I was quite despondent and I guess it showed. One of my students – younger than me and yet so much wiser – brought me a gift. It was a small jar of candy and on it was written, in that cute bubble writing, the word “persevere”. It was just the encouragement I needed to pick myself up and try again. I still cherish that jar even though the writing is worn off it now. It sat on my desk for many years as inspiration. Maybe you should get one for yourself.

If you have a setback as you seek your dreams next week or next year, it might be painful, or embarrassing. You can take some time to pull yourself together. But then what will you do? The most fundamental thing is to learn from the experience and then hang in there and have another go at it. There are so many clichés that express this general idea, we can be in danger of forgetting how true they are. Sayings like: ‘you never lose until you quit’; or, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try try again’. These sayings are so familiar because they capture something really central about succeeding. So, don’t give up. Perseverance is the number one characteristic that will help you achieve your dreams.

Now we come to the topic of thinking. Up to now, you’ve probably been thinking a lot about the things in your immediate life. Your classes, your girlfriend or boyfriend, what to eat or wear tomorrow, and so on. That stuff is all good and necessary. But in the next 20-30 years, you also will need to think about some pretty serious and weighty issues. You will live in a time that calls for decisions about morality and responsibility that have never arisen before, as well as decisions about questions that have existed forever but now require a fresh evaluation. There is an enormous quantity of information and misinformation coming from every direction these days. The internet of course, 24-hour television news, junk mail, Twitter, and so on. Pulling it all together can be difficult and confusing for a thoughtful person who wants to do the right thing.

In this environment, it has become popular for various entities to try to trick you into thinking that things are simple – black or white, blue or red, etc. Simple categorical thinking is so much easier. You just identify the appropriate pigeonhole, usually with a catchy but vaguely defined label, and put the whole troublesome business in there. Done. But unfortunately, life is not simple. In fact, real-life is always complicated when you start looking at the big picture. So don’t be beguiled into believing that a few words in a sound bite or a slogan or a label can truthfully encompass the important real world issues that will come along. Matters such as: what are the basic responsibilities of government? Or, how should we manage scientific discoveries that allow human beings to be created in a laboratory? And many more such challenges. I urge you to refuse to close your mind with simplistic thinking when the time comes for you to decide how our society will move forward.

But in that case, how will you cope with the information explosion of the present and the future? In other words. how will you think in order to reach decisions about where you stand on the weighty matters of your days, whatever they are?

The most important action to take is to step outside your comfort zone and intentionally expose yourself to other points of view. For example, if you usually watch CNN news, switch over to Fox news sometimes. Some of the ideas you hear might not appeal to you much or they might be promoted by people you don’t admire, but still they might have some worthwhile elements. I encourage you to keep your mind open and weigh as much information as you can before you settle on a position. And when you do decide, take the next step. Vote, write a letter, attend a meeting, or whatever it takes so that the results of your thinking can contribute to the world of the future.

One more thing on the topic of thinking and your future. I have noticed that living is rather like a ride on a Ferris wheel. Sometimes you are up and the view is fine and your thinking is optimistic and you feel fulfilled. Then, sure enough, after a while you will be down and the view is not so good and you might be tempted to think that life is no longer enjoyable. Let me assure you that you would be wrong to think that. The wheel will go around and you will rise up again. Your life will go up and down in cycles. You won’t know when the changes will come, but they will come: up, down, up again. So remember to notice. When you are up, look around and think how good it is and take a moment just to be glad. When you are down, think about the fact that you will be in better times in the future.

So far, we have reflected on aspects of achieving your dreams and being thoughtful as citizens and as individuals. That leaves me with the topic of doing. What are the essential things for you to do in the future in order to live a fulfilled and meaningful life? As it turns out, it is not essential to do most of the things that are held up in our culture as highly desirable experiences. You don’t have to visit the ruins of Pompeii, or become a celebrity, or drive a fancy car. The really important stuff to do is in your relationships with the people in your life. First of all, with your children. If you have children now or in the future, spend as much time as you can with them before they get old enough for school. I’m not saying this for your children’s sakes, although spending time with you can be very beneficial for them. But I am saying it for your sake. Don’t miss this experience – it will be over quickly and it will never come back. Being with your children, teaching them what’s important, and vicariously experiencing their joy and enthusiasm for living is one of the most fulfilling things there is for a man or a woman to do, period.

It is also important to do what you can to be close to your parents. Forgive them for their human mistakes, if you need to. And talk to them about their lives before you came on the scene. This is how you figure out who you are. Learning about past history as it relates to you will add meaning to your life and anchor you in time and space. Don’t wait too long to begin learning your story from your parents and other family – the opportunity does not last forever.

And the last thing to do is so simple and yet it will contribute so much to your happiness. Smile at people. It’s a crazy thing, but when you smile at someone else, it makes you feel good. They usually like it too, so it’s a win-win situation. We should all do it more often.

If, in your future, you have opportunities to climb a mountain, or play pro baseball, or snorkel in the Caribbean, by all means do it if you want. But it won’t make your life more fulfilled or meaningful than reveling in your children, appreciating your parents, and smiling at people – or at least, not much more and not for very long.

So there you have it – reflections on what’s important about dreaming, thinking, and doing after you graduate from the University of Memphis. I will leave you with a short synopsis: as you dream, persevere; as you think, don’t decide until you deliberate; and, make people the most important thing in your life. Now, as I walk back to my chair, I want you to turn to the people on each side of you, smile at them, and say “congratulations”.

More from Commencement

View a slideshow View a slideshow of August 2009 Commencement
Video: watch Dr. Cox's address to the graduates
Read Dr. Cox's address to the graduates
View the Commencement Program

Graduation Stories

Ghana resident travels to U of M to receive doctorate, the Memphis Commercial Appeal

80-year-old student will receive second academic degree today, the Jackson Sun


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