August 2017 Commencement Address by Dr. Abby Parrill-Baker
Congratulations, graduates. You are here today because you have made the most of the opportunity to learn that the University of Memphis has presented to you. A Chinese proverb says, "Teachers open the doors, but you must enter by yourself." While we celebrate today the degree you have earned, and the many doors that degree opens for you, I can't help but consider some of the doors my teachers opened for me and how entering those doorways has lead me here. My undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University in chemistry opened many doors, but I choose to enter the one that lead to graduate school at the University of Arizona. I thought at the time that I was preparing myself to step through the next door into a pharmaceutical company where I could help develop the drugs that would cure devastating human diseases (and potentially make a really impressive salary while helping society from the research bench). However, I found myself not only learning exciting chemistry, but also teaching undergraduate students in their early laboratory courses. Quite often, I'd head home after a day full of learning, researching and teaching, and find myself sharing stories only about the exciting moment when I'd tried to explain a chemistry concept just one more way to one of my students and the excitement we'd share when that was the explanation that helped the student make one of those sudden leaps in understanding, a lightbulb moment. It was my husband (and now research collaborator, colleague, and fellow teacher, Dr. Daniel Baker) who knew me well enough to ask, "Are you sure you want to work in the pharmaceutical industry? You seem to really enjoy teaching." So while my graduate degree did indeed open the door I originally intended it would, that is not the doorway I chose to enter. I instead choose to enter doorways that lead me here to the University of Memphis, where I can teach students in the classroom, and mentor students within the context of an early stage drug discovery research program. I have the best of everything I was looking for right here. I advise each of you to not only look for the doors your teachers have opened for you, but to listen to your heart and those around you who understand you best when you choose which doorways to enter.
As you enter through the doors to each new opportunity you choose to pursue, don't let the fear of making mistakes prevent you from really investing yourself. Albert Einstein once said "Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.". My first teaching role after I completed graduate school was at Michigan State University, teaching organic chemistry to a class of about 300 undergraduate students. The size of the classroom alone was daunting, as was the responsibility I had to structure the class, choose the learning activities, write the exams, and assess student learning for grade determination. For at least a month, I had butterflies in my stomach before walking into the classroom, out of fear that I would make a mistake or say something really dumb in front of 300 people. I must admit I had some flashbacks about that time while preparing for today's commencement address, as the FedEx Forum seats just a few more than 300 people. However, one day came when I was teaching my class of 300 students and I did make that feared mistake. I got myself so completely tangled up and stuck on dead end directions in working an example problem that I had to tell the class I would start over on the problem outside of class, and we would discuss how I had gone wrong and what lessons we could learn from that in the next class. It was quite a relief to me that there were no tomatoes thrown, no boos, and no crowd of angry students waiting outside the chair's office to file complaints after I finished class and escaped back to my office. True to my word, I did start over on the problem outside of class. I found my mistake and how I could use my mistake as a learning moment for my students. From that moment on, I was able to relax and enter the classroom with confidence, knowing that my mistakes in the classroom could have value not only to my own learning and development, but to my students' learning and development.
So far I've pointed out that your work here at the University has opened numerous doorways of opportunity, you should follow your heart when selecting which opportunities to pursue, and you should not allow fear of mistakes to prevent you from investing yourself in those opportunities. I'd like to close by also advising you to avoid investing so much of your time, energy, and self in your career that you forget all the other really important aspects of life. Everyone needs time to unwind, discover the world, and share new experiences with family. Jacob Morton Braude showed tremendous insight when he said "A vacation should be just long enough for the boss to miss you, and not long enough for him to discover how well he can get along without you.". It was about seven years ago when our family took our first cruise, heading off together to explore the Caribbean over Spring Break. While this was not our first family vacation, it was a particularly special vacation that has influenced our vacation choices ever since. The first thing we did upon entering our stateroom, was to turn our cell phones off and lock them in the safe. That was by far the most relaxing vacation we had taken up to that point. Whether we were watching the stage show before dinner or relaxing on a beach in the Caribbean, we were simply enjoying our time together without outside distractions. We returned to work and school with renewed energy, excitement, and focus. So while you will need to invest yourself in making the most of the opportunities you choose without being held back by fear of making mistakes, don't forget that vacations enrich both your personal and professional life! Congratulations again and best wishes on a happy and productive future. Go Tigers!