Good morning/afternoon. I would like to thank President Shirley Raines for inviting
me to speak today. Let me start by extending congratulations to all of you who have
invested financially in these graduates. You’ve finally made it—your greatest investment—and
I bet you aren’t even disappointed that someone else will be receiving the applause.
Graduates, job well done. The immeasurable hours you’ve put into papers and research,
note-taking and regurgitating, worrying and procrastinating have finally paid off.
Congratulations, you finally get a break from the all-nighters, the last minute cramming,
and using caffeine as a primary form of sustenance. Enjoy this moment… The sense of
achievement lasts forever, but the celebration of the achievement never lasts long.
For the last month, I have been working to put a message together that will somehow
speak to the experiences of every student in this audience. Looking out at you right
now, I suddenly feel inadequate. I see fresh, young faces eager to embark on aspiring
successes. I see some features that look like mine, acquired from holding real world
jobs, being a parent, and juggling life’s responsibilities. I can guarantee that there
is a different life story underneath every cap and gown in this room. I know this
because Shelby County is a beautifully diverse community. We are artistically diverse,
ethnically diverse, and economically diverse. We have some of the most affluent social
scenes with unique music and inspiring art, and yet these settings are often juxtaposed
with less economically advantaged communities, riddled with teenage pregnancy, crime,
and despair. For these reasons, I know that my efforts to appeal to a common upbringing,
a mutual set of experience that led you to this point in your life, would be utterly
futile. Now that you are here though, I welcome you to be a part of the solution.
Blessings require responsibility; so, take a moment to look back on the various blessings
that allowed you to make it this far. Think about combating the obstacles that almost
knocked you down.
In most communities, you have to carve your own path to success more often than not.
I wonder how many of you before me today are first-generation college graduates. This
is an accomplishment with unmatched obstacles. Your unique journey began without family
members to offer advice and without cousins to walk you through completing the financial
aid forms. The financial burden is always heavier on first generation students. I
imagine you had to work through school—maybe even two jobs—juggling responsibilities
and concerns. You overcame that though, and as a result, every member in your family
will have someone to look up to. You serve as a beacon of hope to those who come after
you. You make it look easy.
But it wasn’t easy—and guess what—it’s not going to get any easier. As college students,
you are groomed to believe that life is going to suddenly become less complicated
once you walk across this stage—as if it were a portal into the dimension of adulthood,
equipped with salaries, pensions, and paid benefits. Just look in the morning paper
though, and you will see that this conception of post graduate reality is quickly
changing. Governments are revamping their benefit plans to alleviate financial deficits,
the job market is increasingly competitive, and employers tend to have different expectations
for 21st century students. You are going to have to carve your own career path, one
unique to your experiences and the opportunities that you create.
A college degree is not a blank check. It’s not a guaranteed job. There was a point
in our history where the coveted college diploma was an economic safety net, where
there were defined career pathways to follow and all you had to do were hit the check
points. Those times have passed, but do not let that devalue the experiences and knowledge
that you have gained. The broad foundation of learning that you have acquired since
elementary school will suit you well in today’s economy. The more varied your experiences
with the world, the better. More so than ever, college graduates are struggling to
find a place as they search for more promising careers versus sticking with a company
until retirement. As 21st century students, you will have to take advantage of the
tools given to you and utilize them as best you can. That means not only being familiar
with many areas and fields, but being well versed within them. You better get ready
for an unpredictable journey. You don’t know where you are going to end up, and if
you don’t want to find yourself floundering, you must exploit the opportunities that
are offered to you—all of them. The industrialist Malcolm Forbes is quoted as saying,
“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”
You may need to volunteer your time, or work exceptionally hard at an unpaid internship.
In doing so, you will discover a variety of skill areas. Challenge yourself to perfect
your abilities, your tool box. You’ll learn the lingo, jargon, and best practices
for a range of careers. These make you marketable for the job market: experience and
past performance. You will create relationships, and I encourage you to cultivate
these relationships. They will be the link to your continued success. Your relationships
will act as resources for tasks you don’t understand, critics for things you could
do better, soundboards for new ideas, and advisors for your future endeavors. Associating
yourself with the right people will elevate your thinking, will challenge you to achieve,
and will educate you on a plethora of topics. Knowledge is valuable, even if it seems
like minutia, and as 21st century graduates, you should already know this. Having
scattered interests opens you to the possibility of developing a wide network of contacts.
This means a wide variety of opportunities.
I’m sure you have heard the age old saying, “It is not what you know, but who you
know.” There is truth in that, since connections and relationships can lead you to
more opportunities, but I would like to modify this quote if I may. “It is not what
you know, but the process of discovering what you don’t know.” Let the process of
discovering what you don’t know be the necessary fire that pushes you forward professionally.
You will never grow stale, you will never be satisfied, and you will never be surpassed.
The relationships you build in school, in church, within your community, and in professional
settings are integral because those people know what you don’t. Don’t be reluctant
to ask for advice and to learn from other’s experiences. Do not hesitate to volunteer
your skills and your time. Surround yourself with the people you aspire to be. Look
at what they do, how they talk and who they talk to. Mimic them.
Because I have faith that all of you out there will successfully find your inspiring
fire and follow a suitable career path, I won’t continue lecturing you on the strategies
I used to get where I am. Instead, I’ll remind you not to forget where you came from.
Each of you endured a unique set of struggles. Each of you overcame distinct obstacles.
Once you get to where you’re going, don’t forget to give back. Right now, you are
the young professionals, moving into a workforce of old dogs who have been doing this
much longer than you. They know more than you. They’ve done more than you, and they
won’t hesitate to let you know. Don’t get discouraged though. If you strive for success—
if you constantly push to discover what you don’t know, someone is going to cut you
a break, someone’s going to give you a chance, and someone is going to see your potential
and help you to cultivate it. You have come into contact with mentors like these before,
maybe in school, church, or college. Like I said before, blessings require responsibility.
You have the responsibility to prepare yourself now, groom yourself now, to be this
person in return. You owe it to your community and to your family to expand the road
to college attainment and post graduate success. Make Memphis and Shelby County a
place where people and businesses want to be. Make it the place that YOU want it to
As young professionals, you still have the efficacy to believe in change. You have
the innovation to create new ideas for old problems. So, put yourself in a position
to exert your ideas and your vision. MPACT Memphis, an organization of young professionals,
did a survey reporting that 58% of young professionals believe that there is not a
strong sense of civic pride in Memphis. BUT, we have things to be proud of. We have
you. You are our community’s greatest asset.
For those of you who choose to pursue your future here locally, I thank you. Our community
is on the verge of achieving great things in industry, commerce, education and social
programs. So defy the obstacles that you will face as you have the hardships you’ve
overcome. Employ all of the knowledge and experience you have gained to make new connections
and create new opportunities. Don’t let a single opportunity pass you by, and don’t
forget to give back opportunity once you’ve made it. The future of your chosen community
can thank you in advance.