Monday, June 23, 2014

Time to Take your Place

Time to Take your Place 

A Graduation Speech by Dr. David Inniss

Honorable guests, family and friends, Faculty and staff, my fellow graduates, and supporters of the university. There are few words that can capture the emotions that flow through me as I stand before you on this stage today. I believe that humbled, excited, privileged, grateful, honored, and fortunate are just a few that come to mind as I consider the journey that brings us all together at this moment in time. I do not take it lightly the importance of this moment and this opportunity! Pause for a quiet second and take in the scenery around you! The colorful regalia…The blue sky…the cotton ball clouds…Notice the expressions of genuine joy on the faces of those around you…This moment when the fragrance of fresh leis and brand new gowns fill this space that we share. Take in the sounds…the birds chirping…the soft chatter…the periodic giggle of a child…the hum drum of a city that is on the brink of something major. I do not take it for granted how special this moment is! 

In the United States of America, there are, according to my research about 4,600 degree granting institutions. Let’s assume that each of these institutions hosts both a summer and winter student graduations. And let’s assume further that there are at least 3 flavors of the commencement ceremony at each. Often there is one per school/college within the institution but just to be conservative, let us assume that there are 3. This would suggest that since 1990, there have been approximately 690,000 commencement addresses that were made. Now that is quite a lot of speeches. 

As I pondered on this, several questions came to me, the most important being “How on earth can I find something that is unique in content that would pay appropriate homage to this experience…and to this moment for the graduates under the spotlight today”. “How could I string together some words that represented some ground-breaking advice and eye-opening spoken creativity with some unique meaning that transcends all the barriers that may exist between you, ladies and gentlemen, and me! 

Among those many speeches, several are held up today as the standard against which others are compared. For example, Steve Jobs delivered a stirring anecdotal collection of inspiring tidbits to the Stanford class of 2005. He spoke of his humbled beginnings, his biggest disappointments and provided an almost prophetic analysis of his end. But in that speech he captured the concept of THE POWER OF REFLECTION. Life is about dots…but connecting those dots can only be accomplished by looking backward. We can only move forward embracing our future and trusting in our hearts that the dots will connect at some point…even when it feels like we are well off track. This advice was timeless. It is highly applicable to each of us here today. But I thought that there was no possible way that I could share that message and capture the essence of such oratory genius from one of the greatest minds of our time. 

With the echo of Jobs’ words on that beautiful Stanford evening still in my head, it occurred to me that THE POWER OF REFLECTION that he spoke so effectively about was being lived out in all its glory right here in the Drexel family. While he may have had some wonderful experiences that contributed to the power of his story, Steve Jobs never had the privilege…and yes you heard me correctly…Steve Jobs never had the privilege of meeting my fellow dragon Phe Bach. 
Phe and his entire family moved to Lincoln Nebraska from Vietnam in 1991. Thrust into an environment without knowing a single word of English, he graduated in the top 10% of his high school class within 3 years. Since then, he has earned Bachelors in Biology, a Masters in Bio-organic Chemistry, a Teaching Credential and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. While these educational achievements are great, it is his character that has most impacted me. As a Buddhist, he embraces mindfulness, the reflection and the balance between one’s public life, personal life and spiritual life. During many times of classroom conflict, Phe creatively restored unity and focus with understanding, compassion and wisdom. Phe, thank you for touching me in a unique way. 

Another great speaker was Professor Randy Pauch, the famed author of the book “The Last Lecture” who delivered a compelling 6 minute address to the graduates at Carnegie Mellon University in which he cleverly asked those moving on from that institution to LIVE IN THE MOMENT. Pauch spoke at commencement as a 48 year old man, only 2 months before his predicted death at the hands of pancreatic cancer and he spoke candidly about what I call the dash. You see ladies and gentlemen, every tombstone, every grave site marker has inscribed upon it a birth date and an expiry date with a small dash between them. What does that dash represent for you? When your story is told, how will the ones that follow you describe what your dash meant. Pauch stated, and I quote, “We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living well and living fully. For the reaper is always going to come for all of us. When the reaper shows up, it’s too late to do all the things that you’re always gonna, kinda get around to.” In other words, live pure…inside out…following your own inner voice and not allowing it to be drowned out by others. 

There is no way I could effectively convey this idea of LIVING IN THE MOMENT more eloquently or with the dramatic value that Professor Randy Pauch did EXCEPT that I am fortunate enough to have met another graduate here today…Kawami Evans! Born and raised in the projects in Bridgeport CT, she was raised by her extended family and lived her early years focused on elevating herself beyond her circumstances. Kawami embodies the idea of living in the moment. She cherishes every second, often referring to her many situations with the term magical…her magical family, her magical husband, her magical career, her magical parenting experience, her magical daughter. Kawami has taught me about operating from a heart space and on the importance of zeroing in on positivity regardless of the circumstance. Kawami, thank you for touching me in a unique way. 

President Bill Clinton, one of the most compelling speakers I have ever listened to spoke briefly but 
profoundly at the Howard University graduation in 2013. The gist of the message he delivered there remains highly applicable to those of us gathered here today. Fellow graduates, it is highly important that we understand the ever changing world in which we live. We are taking our newly acquired skills and returning to a world in which interdependency on many fronts is emerging as the rule and no longer as the exception. Operating in isolation is as close to impossibility than ever before. Mr. Clinton urged us to TAKE ON AN INTERDEPENDENT WORLD WITH AN INTERDEPENDENT MINDSET…One that says that I am stronger and more effective with the support of others…a thought process that states that I will accomplish more for this world when I can lock arms with the likes of Charles Lee, Victor Dike, Lynnise Davis, Elias Mazarheh, Ling Lao, Justin Griffin, Levi Moore, Michelle Smith, Manpreet Sidhu, Erika Peters, Mary Holly and Catherine Gumbo. 

Individually we are but a drop but together an ocean. I probably could never convey the idea that creative cooperation trumps constant conflict with greater ease, matching grace or with more profound examples than President Clinton. But while President Clinton verbalized the notion of interdependency, there is a powerhouse of a woman among us who is a die-hard practitioner of THE INTERDEPENDENT MINDSET FOR AN INTERDEPENDENT WORLD. I am yet to come across anyone who builds, nurtures and leverages positive relationships across all sectors and in any forum like our outgoing Associate Vice Provost Dr. Sandra Kirschenmann does. It is through her strategic prowess and her long term vision that Drexel University is becoming tightly interwoven into the fabric of this city and at the center of this region’s growth. Sandy, thank you for your mentorship, your genuine care for my wellbeing and for touching me in a unique way. 

So despite what I thought, I did not have to go too far to find a source of inspiration or to capture uniqueness. They exist in our midst…in our Drexel University family. It is wonderful to know that the very principles spoken of by some of the greatest minds this planet has ever seen are lived out among my friends. 

The Power of Reflection, The need to live in the Moment and Having an Interdependent Mindset for an Interdependent World are not just words uttered by the likes of those famous speakers, it is a way of life for you my fellow dragons. 

Sandy paves the way for one of my own personal heroes. Dr. Mike Marion has been a great friend of mine for more than 3 years. I have been around the block and I can often tell when people have good energy and Mike has it. Mike’s resolve, humility and methodical approach to realizing his vision for serving others may often be mistaken for shyness. But I see it differently, here is a man that in spite of his physical stature, remains humble and continues to invest and reinvest in his continued growth. I think Drexel and this city are in for a treat with his leadership. Mike thank you for quietly being a tremendous role model for me and for touching me in a unique way. 

With Dr. Marion, we all at this time have a challenge before us. Fortunately, one of the gifts that this 
country gives over and over and over is the opportunity to start again…Never an assurance of success…but there is always the opportunity to begin again. 

There is a reason why a ceremony as meaningful as this one, as emotionally loaded as this one is called a Commencement. It could have been called The Culmination…or The Finale…or the Accomplishment Ceremony. But instead it has been rightfully named A Commencement. We, as a class, as an extended Drexel family, are right on time! 

We must take our place and grab the mantle that is being passed on to us. We can no longer settle for behind the scenes. It is TIME THAT WE TOOK OUR PLACE! IT IS TIME WE TOOK OUR PLACE as Champions of Curiosity –Shake off the shackles of how it has been done before and loosen the limitations of conventional thinking. We can be in the room, sit at the table with fresh points of view, renewed enthusiasm and a honed sense of discovery. 

TIME TO TAKE OUR RIGHTFUL PLACE as Stewards of Social Justice - The idea of inclusiveness has gone beyond what it meant in the 60s and more is required of us to challenge any vitriol, hatred or discriminatory stances that threaten the very equality that those behind us sweat and bled for. 

IT IS TIME WE TOOK OUR PLACE as Influencers in Intellectual Thought—With the power of this degree, we can stand on the shoulders of the thought leaders that have preceded us. However, when challenged, we no longer have the luxury of providing the answer “that’s just how it is”. IT IS TIME WE TOOK OUR PLACE as Defenders of the Dream—When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about going to the mountain top and seeing the promised land—a land where fairness and equality were upheld, he only got to see the promised land from a distance. It is incumbent upon us to continue our march towards this land where people’s religion, sexual orientation, gender, political persuasion and skin color are all subordinated to the content of their character. 

FINALLY WE MUST TAKE OUR RIGHTFUL PLACE As Pioneers of Possibility—The rich history of this institution includes countless stories of breaking down barriers. Those of you who have interacted with me have probably heard me say that “My undergraduate degree got me a started…My Master’s degree opened doors…and my doctorate will help me knock down walls”! We have it within us to be THE ENTREPRENEURS, THE POLITICAL STALWARTS, THE INVENTORS, THE BUSINESS MEN, THE BUSINESS WOMEN, THE DECISION MAKERS that push the envelope of possibility in this city, this state, this nation and in the world. 

My fellow dragons, I depart this stage elated for your achievements, excited for your future and humbled by your friendship. It is time we took our place. 

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