August 2016 Graduation Address by Dr. Roy B. Van Arsdale 

I want to acknowledge and thank President Rudd and all the distinguished persons on the stage, students receiving degrees, and family and friends of the students.

Looking over this audience reminds me of all the courses I have taken and some that I wish I had taken – like a Speech Class.

To give you a perspective of my early life I will just relay a personal experience. When visiting my high school wrestling coach at Bernardsville High School in New Jersey a number of years ago he introduced me to his school principal as having been the poorest student to have graduated from Bernardsville High School. I was stunned, but after clarifying that he meant financially, I felt somewhat better. My purpose for telling you this is to assure you that poverty may be an impediment but it is not a barrier to success.

I see this commencement speech as my opportunity to relay some life lessons pressed on me over the past 65 years. This moment is similar to an experience that I had when I was a new hire with Union Carbide Corporation. I was headed to Brazil and was scheduled to arrive at the Rio de Janeiro airport when the day before leaving an elderly Vice President of the company pulled me aside for some unsolicited advice. He told me how to get out of the Rio airport after my arrival. I would still be trying to get out of that airport if he did not talk to me. Hopefully, my speech today will provide some Rio advice.

Title of Commencement Speech: Two sides of the fence.

You have spent at least 16 years on the student side of the fence. On that side you started with learning life's lessons at home and in school. For example:

You learned how to take care of yourself - from learning how to tie your shoes to how to put on a cap and gown.
Learning morals and the importance of integrity.
Developing a work ethic – arriving on time and doing your best.
Being respectful of others.
Achieving self discipline.
Developing your ability to focus.

Let me bring in the future college students in the audience by letting them know that almost every student during the course of their college career has a bad semester. Mine was my second semester of my freshman year at Rutgers University. I was emotionally very down and had started to skip classes. During one of these skips my friend Jerry asked me if I wanted to explore a cave he knew in upstate New Jersey. I got into his car and then realized that I had not put on my lucky socks and so I ran back to my room and switched into them. After entering the muddy narrow cave, somehow I got into the lead. Slithering along on my stomach, my hand slipped and I started to slide head first vertically down a rocky shaft to certain death. As I slid, my right foot flew up into the air and got caught in the ceiling. Jerry grabbed me by my lucky sock and pulled me out of the shaft.

My life lessons to you here are; 1) you should never skip classes, 2) when skipping classes you may be putting your life at risk, and 3) if you do skip a class and do something dangerous, make sure you are wearing your lucky socks.

You will continue to have bad times in life. Stay focused on your life goals and your particular interests. As life's bad experiences beat on me, my refuge was my love of nature. As a child I spent time hiking in woods and as an adult I immerse myself in geology trips/reading/and conducting research. You should have emotionally healthy places to go in your mind when times get tough.

Most of you students are today actually straddling the fence between being a student and being a professional. This is an awkward position with one leg on either side of the barbed wire. Questions abound in your minds.

Am I ready for the change of life style from a student to an 8-5 work day?
I'm heading to graduate school, medical school, or law school - what will that be like?

Graduation from college was an insecure time for me. I was suddenly out of the structured academic life style and I was also academically out of gas. Fortunately, I had 8 months before I started a Master of Science program in geology at the University of Cincinnati. I needed that time to recharge my academic batteries.

One of my Cincinnati classmates was an older man who had retired from the oil business and was pursuing a PhD in geology. His name was E.J. Webb and he looked and acted quite a bit like Santa Claus. At one point the geology department at Cincinnati was interviewing candidates for a professor position and wanted input from the graduate students. I made the comment that we were graduating so what difference did it make what our opinion was. Santa Claus suddenly changed to a very large angry man. He proceeded to sternly explain that it is critical that the department hire the best person they can so that the prestige of the department will continue to grow. EJ pointed out that as the academic prestige of the department and university grows so does the value of our degree.

This truth has stayed with me and helps me maintain rigor in the class room. It is critical that we the faculty, maintain academic rigor at the University of Memphis to maintain and improve the value of your degree in the years ahead. You graduates can help this critical objective by staying involved in the academics of the university after graduation through oversight committees, funding, positive academic pressure on the University of Memphis administration, and providing internships.

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati my department chairman and academic adviser Dr. Lattman helped me obtain a summer job with Chevron Oil Company in California. At the end of the summer I returned to Cincinnati to undertake a PhD degree but had lost my desire for academics and dropped out of school.

After floundering along for several weeks I received a call from Dr. Lattman asking me if I wanted a job with Union Carbide Corporation of New York City to work in international minerals exploration. Fortunately, I was living at home in New Jersey but unfortunately I was broke so I had to borrow money from my younger brother for a sports coat to wear to the interview. That was another of many humbling experiences in my life.

The end of my job interview was on the 48th floor of the Union Carbide building on Park Avenue in Manhattan with the head honcho – the president of the Minerals Division of the company. With a rather unpleasant grin he pulled out a box of minerals and selected a specimen and asked me to identify it. Mineral identification is not one of my strengths and so there I was faced with ruin. At that moment something took over me and calmly informed me that this was an unusual variety of magnetite (a magnetic mineral) and upon bouncing the specimen up and down in my hand I declared that it was magnetite that contained a high percentage of some additional high density element. Well, it was titanium rich magnetite and where my statement came from, to this day, I have no idea, but I am very grateful for these cosmic moments that have occurred in my life. His jaw dropped, I got the job, and I was off to South Africa, then Brazil, and finally Australia. After two years I returned to graduate school at the University of Utah for my PhD.

Upon graduating from the University of Utah I interviewed for a geologist position with a major oil company. During the course of the interview he asked me why my chemistry grade plummeted from my first semester to my second semester of my freshman year. This interview taught me that grades are important. I accepted the job but then turned it down when I got a telephone call from them asking me if I would spend my summers doing field work in Alaska. As a single man I would have jumped at it, but by this time I was married to Stephanie and we had a new baby. Family decisions are critical to your happiness and success. Without happiness how can we be successful?

In the meantime a friend of mine in Kentucky had passed my name on to the chairman of the geology department of Eastern Kentucky University and I was contacted about a faculty position at EKU. The interview went well and I took the position. At some point during my five years at EKU a colleague in the department told me that a major reason he wanted to hire me was because the search committee received very positive letters of reference on my behalf. This reinforced in me the importance of professional connections and having well respected referees.

The chairman at EKU moved on to be the chairman of the geology department at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and within a year asked if I would join him, which I did. Things went well at Arkansas and after nine years I got a call from Dr. Arch Johnston at the University of Memphis Center for Earthquake Research and Information. He asked if I would be interested in taking a faculty position at the University of Memphis in the department of geology, which I accepted. This move brought me to the Mississippi River valley and allowed me to focus on the geologic history of the region and the earthquakes of the New Madrid seismic zone. I relay this part of my life's story to again illustrate the importance of professional relationships and point out that flexibility has been helpful.

Let me summarize my speech with some suggested rules to live by.

  1. Follow the rules of behavior you learned at home and in school.
  2. Do not skip classes. Bad things happen when you do.
  3. Life has bad semesters. Develop skills and interests to survive those difficult times.
  4. Cultivate and maintain professional contacts.
  5. Demand academic rigor at the University of Memphis now and in the future. The value of your diploma and your children's diplomas depends on it.

I wish you well, suggest that you heed Rio advice, and I hope that your life is full of cosmic moments.

Let me close by acknowledging my loving family here in the audience: my wife of 38 years Stephanie, my son Christopher and daughter Erica (both University of Memphis graduates), and my grandchildren Jacob and Olivia.