Commencement Address delivered by ESU President Marcia G. Welsh, Ph.D.

Northampton Community College Commencement Address
Spring 2015
ESU President Marcia G. Welsh, Ph.D.

Congratulations to you, the Northampton Community College graduates of 2015!  Today you have officially earned an associate degree in an area of study that, for whatever reason, piqued your interest, and now you're equipped and ready to take your education and your career to the next level.

But know that you are graduating with more than a piece of paper.  Your future, your career, your hopes and dreams are now in the palm of your hand.  I hope you have been challenged.  I hope you have asked questions and learned to think critically, and I hope you have been changed by the experiences you've had and the people you've met along the way. Be proud in this moment, but for a second, stop to think about those who may not have that same opportunity.

A recent anonymous quote asks, "What if the cure for cancer was trapped inside the mind of someone who can't afford an education?"  It's a good question and one that keeps me awake at night.  Presidents like Dr. Erickson and I struggle to find a balance between the financial challenges that come with our daily operations and the commitment of institutions like NCC and ESU to keeping our tuition affordable so students from diverse backgrounds and circumstances can earn a great public education if they so desire.

In my family, I was basically a first generation college graduate.  My mother did get her baccalaureate degree on my 16th birthday, but I was not born to a college graduate.  My siblings and I worked in our mother's place at home and at our small three-aisle family grocery store so she could go to college.  I watched my mother, a commuter student who had a dream to become a teacher, going first to a junior college 30 miles away and then to the closest public four-year institution 150 miles away.   So I can sincerely appreciate how difficult it is to be an adult student, with a family, and with all of the sacrifices someone in that situation makes to attain a college education.  The key to her story - and mine - is that we wanted something more and were willing to pay our dues to reach our goals, to get our degrees.

Almost daily, I hear stories from our students and their parents, individuals who work like my mother and me to have more opportunities and, in some cases, to set an example for their own sons and daughters. Here are just a few stories of NCC graduates who have gone on to pursue successful careers, and who we got to know at ESU:

There's Elena Zervos who earned an associate degree in early childhood education in 2012.  While completing her internship, she met a young boy with Down Syndrome who changed her life.  It was during her daily encounters with him that she knew special education was her destination.  Elena has now received her bachelor's degree in special education from ESU.  She continued to learn and to grow, teaching in a life skills classroom as part of her educational requirements.  Even before graduation, Elena landed a full-time job working for the Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 in Nazareth Middle School and is now living her dream.

Paul Reidmiller joined the Navy in November of 1995, deploying twice to the Persian Gulf region onboard the U.S.S. Constellation CV-64.  He was honorably discharged in 2006 and began attending NCC in 2012.  In the spring of 2013, Paul graduated with an associate degree in general studies.  He then transferred to ESU and, just one year later, earned a bachelor's degree in political science with a concentration in public relations.  He is now enrolled in ESU's management and leadership-public administration master's program and plans to graduate with his third degree in May 2016.

Kathy Migliaccio earned her associate degree at NCC in 2013 and just earned a bachelor's degree in business management with a concentration in accounting from ESU.  Kathy will soon begin her career as an accounting assistant at Camelback.  She, too, is part of the long list of graduates who have become NCC success stories!

Yet not everyone has the inclination to attend a two-year community college or a four-year university.  Some individuals opt for a vocational or trade school.  The point being, it's about getting an education that is a good fit in terms of affordability and employment potential that will somehow pay off in the fast-paced, technologically advanced society in which we live. 

Take it from me - I did not go to college to become a university president. I had no mentors nor did I know anyone personally in education to emulate.  I grew up in a town of 500 people - the only people with college degrees in my community were the pharmacist, the doctor and the dentist, and, of course, our teachers.  So when I was asked, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" my dad responded "a doctor."  But it was his dream, not mine.  I was at a loss as to how I was going to figure this out for myself. 

Finally, the day came when I was off to college.  I had a different major every semester because I was excited to learn, to take classes that would allow me to become something - but what?  I did everything that we advise our students NOT to do.  During my senior year, I finally decided to become a physical sciences major because that degree program allowed me the opportunity to take a lot of electives.  I took studio art, design, literature of the American West, chemistry, biochemistry, physics and anything related to mathematics.  But I avoided computer science classes, and the related punch cards, because what kind of job would I get with that degree?

Then my graduation day came, and I received my degree in physical sciences, and my father asked when I would begin medical school.  I finally had the courage to say, "that is your dream, not mine."

Dad barely spoke to me for about a year, but when I finally earned my Ph.D. in human anatomy some years later, I gave him a bound copy of my dissertation. He put it on the fireplace mantle and was so very proud of me, and yet every time we were together, he asked "when are you planning to return to college to get that medical degree?"

My Ph.D. gave me the opportunity to actually teach medical students for 23 years and I loved every minute of that part of my career.  But at some point, I moved on and demonstrated administrative skills I didn't realize I had.  My father saw me become a college dean, and then a university provost but he had no idea what either job was and couldn't explain it when he talked with his friends.  It would have been much easier for him to say, "My daughter, the doctor." He didn't live to see me become a university president, but I know he would be very proud ... AND he would still hound me about returning to college to go to medical school!

Know that I applaud all that you've done, the sacrifices you and your family have made, to find a way to complete your educational journey. You've invested more than money - you've made a commitment to seeing your training through to the end.  You've crossed the threshold to your future and made an investment in YOU. 

Hopefully this will not be your last day as a student.  Let's talk about the paths you have available to you as you leave here today.  A path can be a road or track made for a particular purpose; the route or course along which you will travel or move; or a course of action.  I like the definition used in computer science where a path is a sequence of commands or a link between points that is needed to reach a particular goal.

Some well-known ideas about the paths we choose include one from Yogi Berra, who once quipped: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
And then there's the famous poet Robert Frost.  In his poem titled "The Road Not Taken," he described two roads, and understanding he could not take both, he chose the one less traveled by.  It's important to note that the title of Robert Frost's poem is not "The Road Less Traveled" but "The Road Not Taken." Even as he makes a choice, the speaker knows he will second-guess himself somewhere down the line or at the very least he will wonder what is irrevocably lost.  What would have happened had he taken the other path? What would have happened if I had become a physician, fulfilling my father's dream, rather than pursuing my doctorate in human anatomy?  Perhaps the theme of Frost's poem should have been "seize the day."

The question now is, can you "seize the day" as you address your future?  Do you have a path for your future?  What will you make of it?  There is significance for us as college presidents to make sure our students have pathways to become successful graduates.

Education matters.  Skills and knowledge matter.   It's not just about what you learn in a classroom or a textbook, it's also about your willingness to step out and overcome obstacles, to seek new career paths and to have confidence in yourself to know you can do anything.  Those are the gems you, the Class of 2015, have learned along your path to where you stand today.

As you now move forward on your journey, let me leave you with some advice:
First, accept challenges, not limitations.  Now that you face your future, know you will continue to have trials; your work is far from done.  It's up to each and every one of you to set your own path and overcome the obstacles that may stand in the way of your success.  Two students graduating with the same major are certain to find different pathways to use their talents and their abilities.  Most of you have plans for your future.  Right now, most of you think you know what you are going to do and where you are going with your career or your place in the world.  But in 5 years or 10, most of you will not be doing what you have planned today. You will be given choices, and you will make decisions.  Make the best of those choices, those decisions.  Don't dwell on what could have been, but control what is, and make it the best!

Second, be thankful.  As I've said before, not everyone has the same opportunities to earn a solid education to help achieve professional success in this ever-changing global economy as you have had.  Use your voice and your experiences to inspire others to take that leap of faith!  And never forget where you've come from.  Always take time out to love and to live.  Never forget family and friends who have supported you along the way.  When you see opportunities, pay it forward with money or time or both, to be sure that those after you also have choices about where they want to go in life and how they'll get there.

Third, keep learning. Continue to learn from others. You will need to trust others, to sometimes lean on others, and take to heart the knowledge that the world is filled with smart people.  As you navigate through the rest of your life, be open to collaboration. Other people and other people's ideas may, at times, be better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.

And last, take the high road.  Author Rachel St. John-Gilbert once wrote: "Taking the high road is hard work -- walking uphill requires strength and effort. Anyone can take the low road --walking downhill is easy." Always take the high road.  Never sacrifice your reputation or your integrity to accomplish your goals.

Every college and university wants to make a difference to its students.  For most college and university presidents, Dr. Erickson and me included, helping students succeed is the touchstone that helps us measure all that we do.  Professors want the academic experience to make a difference to those students they touch.  Administrators and staff want the same thing, of course, but we also want to do all that we can to instill in each of you values and good citizenry through your vast experiences outside of the classroom.  While these are all great aspirations, it is also important to realize that you also have changed us, either as individuals, or as institutions.  We are better because you were here.

You are the future.  So with imagination, ingenuity and audacity, explore, discover, and change the world.  Have fun while you're at it! The future is in the hearts and minds of you, the really bright graduates with a variety of choices about what pathways you're going to take now that you've earned your diploma.  Now, go out and amaze us!
Best wishes, Class of 2015!

Read More