Commencement speech delivered by NOAA Administrator at the University of Puget Sound

“Navigating the Road Ahead: An Homage to Mom on Mothers' Day”

 

University of Puget Sound
2012 Commencement Speech
Tacoma, Washington

13 May 2012


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

May 13, 2012

President Thomas, Members of the Board of Trustees, esteemed faculty, proud parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, children and loved ones:   Today is a day to celebrate!  And what a glorious day it is!

Congratulations, graduates!!! You have crossed the finish line!  YOU ROCK!!! 

Congratulations and big thanks to the parents, siblings, and families who have supported you all throughout your college journey.

Special congratulations and a Happy Mother’s Day to all the Mom’s here.  I know how very proud you are.

I’ve had the chance to meet and talk with a number of today’s graduates – they are uniformly impressive.   We celebrate their extraordinary accomplishments.  Each is different; each has his or her own story.  Each is rich with potential.

I suspect that many of you grads are both very proud to be here, but also at least a little apprehensive.  ‘What’s next for me?’ you ask. ‘Now what do I do? ‘ 

For as you know well, there is no syllabus from here on out – no “Life 101” handbook to instruct you what to do or how to do it.  Your new ‘due dates’ will focus on electric bills, rent payments, and tax returns. By all means, pay attention to those!  But the more haunting assignments in your Life are long-term projects, motivated by vague questions with no right answer and no clear deadlines, like:

…Should I go to grad school? Law school? Medical school?
…Start my own company? Work for the government? NGO? Private sector?
…Travel the world instead?
…What’s a 401K and should I have one?
…How do I balance my career, my family, my friends, AND the things I love to do? 
…Who am I? What do I wish to leave behind?

It can be overwhelming to think about these questions.

So how do you navigate life? What’s your compass?  How do you find your latitude and longitude?  How do you deal with storms you didn’t anticipate?  

These challenges face all grads, but often seem particularly vexing for newly minted liberal arts graduates...or so the story-line goes.  But reality is quite different from the myth.

How many of you have heard Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as ‘Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers’, of NPR’s Car Talk fame? 

You may have heard them tease liberal arts majors about the questionable utility of their degrees.  But did you know that Ray’s own degree from MIT was in humanities and science?

Or maybe you’ve heard of some of these other folks who graduated with liberal arts degrees:

  • Michael Crichton, Mick Jagger and Prince Charles were all anthropology majors
  • Lance Armstrong and Bill Clinton majored in foreign languages
  • Martha Stewart and Wolf Blitzer in history
  • John Elway and Wes Anderson in philosophy
  • Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi were political science majors
  • And Jon Stewart’s major was... psychology!

So, despite what the Car Talk guys might teasingly imply, a liberal arts degree actually enables you to do most anything.  

So, let’s dispel the myth. 

Especially in a world that changes rapidly, the ability to write clearly and think critically are invaluable. 

Knowing how to learn, appreciating diverse points of view and interdisciplinary approaches are exactly what you need and what our world needs of you.  

I was immensely fortunate to also graduate from a small liberal arts school – Colorado College, which shares many similarities to UPS: small classes, great student-faculty ratio, passionate teachers who care deeply about individual students, a holistic approach to sustainability, and the ever-present pick-up ultimate Frisbee games.  

Colorado College came to national attention a little over three years ago, when President-Elect Obama named one Colorado College grad after another to key leadership positions in his new Administration.  Previous Presidents have tapped Ivy League schools to populate their teams:  JFK is famous for selecting Harvard grads; the Bush presidents looked to Yale.  President Obama, a Columbia-Harvard grad himself, chose from across the land, and relied more on the individual’s abilities than her pedigree.  But as far as I’m aware, the largest number of very senior positions (those requiring Senate confirmation) from any one school is 5, and those 5 all graduated from Colorado College.  Colorado College’s grads from across two decades are now the leaders in the Department of the Interior, NASA, NOAA, Forest Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.   

I credit those individuals' liberal arts background — even for those of us who are scientists — as the secret ingredient and the common denominator in their selection.  Liberal arts graduates’ ways of thinking about and analyzing problems, holistic approaches and deep appreciation of history and philosophy are excellent preparation for their jobs as well as for your future.   

Now, I know full well that hearing those words does not remove all of the angst, but I hope it will empower you to transition into the next phase of your life with confidence.

As you embark on your journey ahead, I want to share a few things that I’ve learned along the way.  Here are four pieces of advice to help you chart your own path:

  • Seek opportunities to grow

Think about the choices you will make. 

Make choices that reflect opportunities to grow, to be exposed to new ideas, to stretch in new directions. 

Choose options that give you energy.   

Don’t be afraid to take risks or step outside your comfort zone--just like you did in signing up for a really tough course.

Yes, it may be scary. But those scary opportunities represent the places that you will learn the most and grow the most as a person.

Recognize when you do this, there will be bumps along the road, and that it’s ok to make mistakes and fall down – this is how we learn.

What is not ok is to stay down.

Learn from your mistakes, your failures and use them as opportunities to grow as a person.

Be resilient. Build resilience--the ability to absorb unexpected changes and stay on an even keel.  Look for and make opportunities happen.

  • This one may surprise you: Become skilled at nurturing--yes, I said nurturing. 

Now, I realize that historically we have thought of nurturing in the context of mothers taking care of their children. But I know from watching my dad with his six daughters, my husband with our two sons, and my son with his young daughter that men can be as adept at nurturing as are women. 

Hopefully by now, you have learned how to nurture yourself and perhaps your friends. But nurturing should extend beyond the immediate family.

Good physicians nurture their patients.  Good bosses should nurture their employees.
‘Nurture’ is often defined narrowly as ‘to feed and protect’ or ‘to support and encourage.’
But my charge to you is to think more expansively about the importance of nurturing - nurturing your community, nurturing knowledge, nurturing the planet. 

Someone who is good at nurturing is a good steward.

Be a woman or a man who brings others up with you as you move up.  Nurture your mentees.

Be someone who takes stewardship and the sustainability of communities and the Earth seriously. 

Live, champion, and breathe life into innovative ways to take UPS’s sustainability thinking to a broader level.  

In short, embrace the challenge to nurture what you love.

  • Celebrate and promote rational thought and intellectual values.

You are fortunate to be graduating from a university that values the mind as well as the body and the spirit.  The attitudes, skills and ways of thinking you’ve learned here will serve you well.

Repay that gift by being a champion for rationality, for fact-based approaches to tough problems, for respect for civil dialogue and problem-solving.

I see far too much anti-intellectual sentiment and rhetoric in our national dialogue about challenging issues.  Help bring civility and respect for rationality back.

  • Chart your own path based on your core values.

This is your compass.

As you move through life, you will be pulled in a million different directions and you will have to make choices on which path to choose. I urge you to remember what is most important to you now and let that help guide your decisions in the future. 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.  I had been told I was the first woman to be hired as an Assistant Professor in my department — talk about pressure! I loved my job - teaching and doing research. 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. I had grown up with my Mom saying, 'Where there's a will, there's a way!' Those were not empty words. She created a way to balance her own career as a pediatrician with being a mother of six — 6! — daughters. My husband and I were inspired. Despite it never having been done, we sought an arrangement in which we could split a single faculty position into 2 separate, but tenure-track, positions. Oregon State University 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 two 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. I thank my Mom for her example, her courage and her love.

Even now, I tell my staff that I need three 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, so we do the juggling act to try to accomodate those needs.

So, I urge you to find a good work-life balance.  Being great career-wise is not as important as being yourself. 

In summary,  embrace your liberal arts education and consider these 4 ideas:

  • Seek opportunities to grow.
  • Become skilled at nurturing. 
  • Celebrate and promote rational thought and intellectual values.
  • And chart your own path based on your core values.

…and you'll be off to a great start. 

I want to leave you all with the following quote which is sometimes attributed to Mark Twain:

  • "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." (unquote)

I am confident that you all will go forth and do great things, whichever paths you choose. 
And as true loggers, you will take those paths to the heights!

Good luck to all of you. Fond memories and fond farewells as you leave your adult home, your alma mater. Welcome to the broader world!

 

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