Commencement Office
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December 2010 Graduation Address

President Raines, distinguished guests, and soon-to-be University of Memphis graduates.

I’m honored to be with you today.

We’ve got a moment to celebrate here.

Look around you. We’re in a room with people who got their act together. They pulled all-nighters, put down their video game players, and spent at least some of their hard-earned money on books and not on beer - all to earn a little piece of white paper that says to the world: College Graduate.

Of course, having the phrase college graduate on your resume won’t fix everything in life.

For example, I don’t know how many of your college graduates are following doctor’s advice and exercising every day?

As a college graduate are you now flossing regularly?

How about eating those three helpings of broccoli each week?

No, being a college graduate won’t make you thinner, give you better hair, or make your in-laws like you.

But the words college graduate do say something about each of you.

To be here today means you learned what it takes to finish a daunting task.

You wouldn’t be walking the aisle in a blue robe today if you hadn’t learned how to stay up late to cram for a test.  You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t learned that sometimes we have to press on even when we’re sick or tired, or both. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t figured out how to tackle a challenge that at the beginning seems too complicated, or too big, or to boring, to imagine.

But you did it. Today, you’re a college graduate.

That puts you among the most privileged people on this Earth. On this day when you are being honored for making it through at least 16 years of education know that:

  • More than 1 billion people on earth don’t know how to read. They couldn’t possibly work a job where you have to read the outline, write a report, or critique the outcome.  Reading - with comprehension - is one of the big advantages you take with you with that college degree.

Today, with your college degree, the numbers say you likely will earn a cool million dollars more during your work life compared to those who don’t have a college degree. As a college graduate you most likely will never live in poverty:

  • Yet today about  2.7 billion people or 1 out of ever 2 adults on earth, are living on less than $2 a day - or not quite $1,000 a year.

And how many hours did you spend hammering on a computer keyboard the last few years? You’ve been texting on your phone, buying songs from iTunes, and all the while simply have thought this is just what college life is all about.

  • But remember, your digital life in college may well be the starkest dividing line of what separates you from much of the world. Only 1 person in a 6 on this earth even owns a computer or knows how to use one. Indeed, the greatest divide between the haves and the have-nots in your lifetimes likely will be this digital divide – the division between those who have computer skills and digital devices, and those who do not.

In Memphis you are a rare breed, too. Only 2 out of 10 adults in Memphis have a college degree.  On Monday morning, more than 30,000 Memphians will be unemployed or looking for a job. Yet leaders of our region’s top-tier employers in health care, transportation and the sciences tell me they simply cannot find enough well-qualified, college-educated applicants to fill the best jobs now.

  • You are what the world needs. What this country needs. What Memphis needs. A roomful of young men and women ready to take a next step. A higher step. A step making Memphis a city of choice, as Mayor AC Wharton, puts it, a city of choice where other talented, creative young people will want to live – and thrive.

But, we have one last test to pass. Ready?

Graduates: Reach your arm straight up over your head.

Now, bend your arm back down toward your shoulder.

Finally, give yourself a few pats! You deserve it!

Now, if you are a parent, or a friend, or a family member of a graduate, stand up. That’s right. Stand up.

Join me right now, December 18, 2010. in giving a standing ovation to this University of Memphis graduating class of 2010!


Graduates, you’ve patted yourselves on the back for all your work.

Family and friends, you’ve given the graduates a standing ovation.

But honestly, the graduates here today don’t have much time to celebrate and kick back.

Because there is big question looming on the horizon: What do I do with the rest of my life?

First, some practical advice. Floss. Wear sun screen. Eat your broccoli!

But in the few minutes we have left today, I also want to give you 10 things I believe you must to take with you after graduation - 10 suggestions I think will give you a lifetime leg up to go along with your newly-printed college degree.

My list comes from two sources: my son Cody, and his girlfriend, Kylie.

I’ve spent a lot of time around Cody and Kylie the last few months. These two young people have been my laboratory for life lessons. I’ve talked with them often about what college can do, and can’t do, and what it takes to make the most of having a college degree.

A quick profile of Cody and Kylie.

Kylie graduated from college last year. An honors student in chemistry she moved to Memphis to be with my son, Cody.

When she got here, despite of the worst recession in 80 years, despite not knowing many people, despite not growing up in Memphis, with her college degree landed her a great job.

She works at a lab. She runs tests on dogs and cats for veterinarians around the country. The specimens and tissue samples are flown into Memphis every night on FedEx. Kylie gets up at 3:30 a.m. to be at the lab by 4, does the tests, and the results are flown back out Memphis to every corner of America on FedEx the next morning

My son Cody is at the University of Memphis right now. He’s taken a more circuitous route toward graduation.

He’s had three majors, a couple of great party years, and dented up my wife’s Subaru along the way. Suffice it to say he has taken a little longer to get things figured out. But he’s on his way now and doing well.

Over the past few months I’ve spent many a dinner hour talking about college and life, and life after college, with Kylie and Cody.  So, in closing I’d like to share with you what I’ll call:

Kylie and Cody’s 10 Lessons College Graduates Need to Live the Rest of Their Lives.

Take these with you and I think whatever comes next for each of you will a success:


1.  Think. (Or as Kylie and Cody explained to me, sometimes we all were idiots in college!)  Sometimes you fake it. Sometimes you follow the crowd. Sometimes you are swayed by the trend-of-the-day or the simple fix of the moment.

In life, that’s not good enough. From this day forward, it’s best to be disciplined, curious and to think for yourself.  

Will you take this pledge today? Raise your hands and say: `I pledge, never to become a YouTube video that pops up when somebody searches the phrase: ``Hold my beer and watch this.”

2.   Know what you don’t know. You’re smart. If you weren’t smart, you wouldn’t be here today.  But being smart today doesn’t guarantee smart tomorrow.

Do you know how many new jobs you will have to learn over your careers? Probably 10.

Can you imagine how much the world will change in your working life? I couldn’t when I graduated from college there were no iPhones, no Facebook, and no microwave popcorn – in fact no microwaves!

Remember, it’s OK to feel stupid about stuff you don’t know. But it’s not OK to stay stupid!

3.   Pick a path. Yes, you found you way to class. Now you’ve got to find a path in your life. Both Kylie and Cody told me one of the hardest parts of their college lives was fretting about getting out of college and getting on with life. It can be scary. Don’t worry. Life will come at you. The real troubles along the way usually sneak up on you anyway. Instead of worrying, take a step. Get unstuck, unfrozen, get started. Find somebody who has arrived at a destination where you want to be and ask them about the journey. No, life isn’t about one step, but a hundred, and a thousand, and then a million. But you still have to pick a path and take that first one.

4.   Show up. As a boss who has hired hundreds of people, I’ll tell you this. You will never get a job if you don’t show up for the interview. And, you won’t keep a job unless you get there on time, do the work, and quit your bitchin'.

Show up. Make a good impression. Promise less and deliver more than is expected.  

5.   Make new friends. It’s not college anymore. Most of the people you meet from now on won’t be like you. Your peers at work will have lived other places. On the kid’s soccer team you will have rich families, poor families, families that wear baggy pants and St. John knits. Your life going forward will increasingly be built on interpersonal relationships with all these different kinds of people. A nerd could be your boss. Likely will be. If you are white, you may well work for an African American. And if you are black, you surely will have some white colleagues. So pledge now to learn to make friends with people who are different from you. Because that’s what makes the world such an interesting place.

6.   Don’t get pregnant or get somebody pregnant until you’re ready to have a baby.Raising a family is wonderful, life-affirming event. But when I think lovingly about my son Cody and daughter Sarah I know this. Bless their hearts, but they are expensive, time consuming, and exhausting. Are you in for all that? If not, don’t’ rush it. Get a foothold first.

If I by chance you didn’t hear that advice before now and have already started your family, OK, then remember this. Parenting is the most important job you can have. So do it right. Remember that the first three years of life are the most critical years for future success. That’s when our brains are wired to learn, to love, to develop. When you have a baby, feed your baby right, read to your baby, talk to your baby. It’s up to you to get your baby off to good start.

7.   Watch your reputation. Yes the songs on your iPad, the reality TV show you watch, and the Web sites you visit often are filled with hateful words and trashy images. Sometimes you might be tempted to think that everybody is taking their clothes off in front of a camera, or falling down drunk, or going on some violent or profane rant - and posting it online. Not true. Making a spectacle of yourself isn’t the same as being famous. Or rich. Or all that attractive to the boss or a person you’d want to marry. Words matter. Deeds matter. Mind yours.

8.   Manage your money. Do you have a school debt to pay off as you leave college? If so, take out your phone’s calculator during this graduation ceremony and start figuring out how to pay off that debt. And on Monday?  Go open a savings account. Why? Because money troubles sink too many people. Most college-educated households still have less than $25,000 in savings. Don’t let that happen to you. This year, cut back on your Christmas shopping and instead commit to putting $25 per week into savings. Do this every week for your entire working career, and you’ll have enough money to retire – no matter whether Social Security is still around.

9.   Remember your body is a temple. Eat the broccoli. Don’t smoke. Get some exercise every day. Be nice to your family, your friends, and your cat.  Because you will miss them when they are gone. Be serious about what you do, but don’t’ take yourself too seriously. As the little book says: Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff. ‘’

10.  Go live your life. First, frame your diploma. You’re a college graduate! You’ve joined a very privileged minority of the world. You have a huge advantage over the billion people who can’t read, the 2 billion living on $2 a day, and the millions more who will never use a computer.  Then, go do something to make the world better. Help those who are less fortunate. Be generous, not jealous.

Because this little planet and its people are desperately hoping you will be a success, that you will be an inspiration, that you can scale the mountain that keeps us apart and afraid.

So go build something!

Thank – you!




More from Commencement

color guard View a slideshow of December 2010 Commencement
Peck Video: watch Mr. Peck's address to the graduates
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View the Commencement Program

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