Commencement speech delivered by NOAA Administrator at University of South Carolina

LIFE 101 – Where’s the Syllabus?

University of South Carolina
2012 Commencement Speech Columbia, South Carolina

Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D. Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere & NOAA Administrator

As delivered

May 4, 2012

President Pastides, members of the Board of Trustees, esteemed faculty, proud parents, families, and loved ones. Today is a day to celebrate!

Congratulations, graduates!!!  You have crossed the finish line!  Well done!!! 

I am delighted to be in Gamecock Country where my dad and grandmother grew up.  I greatly value my southern roots. I also value the wings that my parents gave me.

What a powerful combination: roots and wings. Roots that help ground and define you, and wings that let you grow into your potential and make the world a better place.

Today is the day when we usually say to graduates, "Go forth and do good things." Easy to say: Go forth and do good things. 

But what does that mean in a dynamic world where things that once seemed unimaginable have happened and altered our world dramatically? A world where...

…9-11 changed the world in an instant.
…Americans occupy Afghanistan and Wall Street.
…Your cell phone feeds you the latest news and helps you navigate the streets, find bargains or find your friends.

The world is full of change. And we can't begin to imagine what's around the corner.

What does it mean to be YOU in this world of change? 

If you’re 20-something, you’re in the ‘defining decade’ of your life, so says clinical psychologist Dr. Meg Jay.  On being in your 20s, Dr. Jay says –and I quote:

  • “80 percent of life’s most defining moments happen by age 35.
  • 70 percent of lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of a career.
  • By the time Americans reach their 30s, more than half of them are married, living with, or dating their future partner.
  • Our personalities change more in our 20s that any other time [in our lives].” Endquote.

A few years ago, you were asking, “What’s my major?” Today, that’s changed to “What’s my life going to look like?”

From here on out, it’s Life 101 all the way. There is no syllabus for this course, no major to guide the courses you should take. But the skills and values you’ve learned here and at home will serve you well --- if you let them.   

Your new due dates will be grocery and electric bills, rent payments, and tax returns - concrete assignments. But Life 101 is also full of long-term assignments - finding answers to questions like:

  • What will be the defining moments of my life?  How do I make them happen?
  • How do I chart a career that will reliably give me food, clothes, shelter, support me and perhaps a family into the future and bring job satisfaction?
  • Who am I? What do I wish to leave behind?

Life 101 is full of vague questions with vague deadlines. But it is also full of potential.

Only you can figure out what’s best for you. But you have help and you can provide help.

So how do you draw strength from your roots, but also find your wings?  How do you know where you are and where you're going? How do you deal with storms you didn’t anticipate?

Know thyself.  This is your compass.  Even now, I tell my staff that I need 3 things to stay sane:  time for my family, time to learn about new scientific findings and be challenged by new ideas, and time to be out in the natural world, to be renewed -- all tough things to do in my current job. I also need enough sleep to function well. 

Think about the choices you will make. My advice: choose opportunities to grow, things that will stretch you; choose options that give you energy.  And keep the big picture and long term in mind, as well as what is really important to you.

One of the biggest choices I faced in my life was deciding how to balance career and family. My first faculty position was at Harvard – a plum position for anyone, but especially for a woman in science in the 70s.  There were very few of us and I had been told I was the first woman in my department to be hired as an Assistant Professor. Yet, when my husband and I started thinking about having a family, we wanted to both share in raising our children and spend lots of time with them. My husband is also a marine ecologist. Despite it never having been done, we sought a university that would be willing to split a single faculty position into 2 separate, but tenure-track, positions. Oregon State University (OSU) liked the idea. When I chose to leave Harvard, my colleagues and mentors thought I was crazy. How could I think of leaving Harvard?   

But we did. At OSU, we each worked half-time for 10 years, taking turns caring for our 2 boys. We were each evaluated for promotion and tenure on our own merits. Things couldn’t have worked out better. We knew what was important to us and found a way to make it possible.

Another tip: Become resilient. Life doesn’t usually go as planned. There are often many twists and turns, rejection and failure, before success.

Steve Jobs and others show us the power of resilience. It’s okay to fall down, but not okay to stay down.  Within every failure is an opportunity.

Just like every fall Weekend brings a new gameday -- a new opportunity for victory on the football field, you should look for opportunities to reset the scoreboard, to start anew.

As you move through your life, be civil - a highly under-rated quality.  And it's contagious!

Be generous. Be a woman or a man who brings others up with you as you move up.

Be a nurturer, not only of any children you have or may have, but nurture yourself. Nurture your friends, family and community. And nurture our planet.

Use the great critical thinking skills you learned here for good, but also to avoid letting bad things happen. 
As you walk off this campus today and walk into Life 101, create your own syllabus. 

Draw on the strength of your roots, but find your wings. Know thyself. Be resilient. Look for and make opportunities happen.

Keep friendships alive. Build ways to make new friends. Listen and learn from others. Embrace differences as much as sameness.

And find a good work-life balance. Being great career-wise is not as important as being yourself. 

Go forth and do good things.

Good luck to all of you. Fond memories and fond farewells as you leave your alma mater.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
and NOAA Administrator