2013 Graduate Commencement
Leavey Activities Center
Santa Clara University
June 14, 2013
Thank you, William Jeffery, for that very special introduction. And thank you, President Engh, for affording me the privilege of being introduced by my son. Santa Clara University has been an extraordinary place for Will to be educated - in mechanical engineering and in life in general. We are very proud that Will receives his bachelor's degree from SCU tomorrow. Through Will, I have seen that Santa Clara is true to its three core principles of competence, conscience and compassion. His Santa Clara education is all we had hoped it would be.
Graduates, I am deeply honored and humbled to be invited to speak at the graduate commencement ceremony to such highly accomplished students and your family and friends, faculty, board members, deans and university leaders.
Now, I cannot resist starting with my favorite “Will story.” I'm sorry, Will! I promise you, this will be the last time I tell it. I got to know University of the Pacific personally during an engineering accreditation visit in 1999. When it came time for Will to explore colleges, I strongly recommended he look at Pacific. He really liked it too - he was admitted and ready to attend Pacific when I was appointed President. Understandably, he declared that this was NOT going to work. He was not going to a University where his mother was President! End of discussion. Will chose to come to Santa Clara University instead. Will followed his heart and that was the right decision. Now, Will is a Bronco for life, and our entire family is delighted that Santa Clara is part of our family heritage. (Interestingly, Will is not the first member of our family to attend Santa Clara. His great, great grandfather, Charles W. Quilty, graduated from then-Santa Clara College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1878. Now there are three in the family who are Broncos.)
Graduates, I congratulate all of you for your tremendous accomplishment. Your advanced degrees in engineering, business, counseling psychology, pastoral ministry and education reflect hard work, sacrifice and determination to better your life - to acquire the knowledge that will prepare you for a life of success. Congratulations on the extraordinary competence you have gained from your studies at Santa Clara University.
At University of the Pacific's commencement ceremony last month, I looked out at a class of bright, well educated, and ambitious graduates, just as I am now. We interviewed a focus group of graduates and found they felt proud and hopeful, but also apprehensive and uncertain. They were feeling the weight of our nation's “great recession,” with peak national unemployment of 10% and limited job opportunities for college graduates. They admitted to being nervous about getting a job, paying off their school loans, and developing a career plan. I expect many of you share that apprehension and uncertainty.
You may be asking yourself, “Now what do I do?”
- Do you know where you will be working after graduation?
- Even those of you that have a job may be wondering, is this the right job for me? Will the additional competence I have gained from my advanced degree improve my ability to be successful in this job?
- If you have not yet secured a job, you may be wondering, “When will I get a job?” “Will it be the right one for me?” “Will my advanced degree help me get a better job?” Maybe you are not asking yourselves these questions, but don't be surprised if you parents are asking about the “J” word.
But apprehension and uncertainties can run deeper than the current state of the job market. You probably are wondering whether your Santa Clara education really can help you live a more meaningful life.
I am confident that the development of your conscience and compassion - as much as the competence you have gained in your chosen field - can guide you toward a life of value and meaning. Let me explain what I mean by sharing some stories from my personal career that capture some of the uncertainties I faced in my life's journey to become President of University of the Pacific.
Doubt and uncertainty were my primary states of mind when I graduated from Stanford with my masters in mechanical engineering. It was during the recession of the early 1980s, with the Iranian revolution and energy crisis in recent memory and national unemployment at 11% the worst in any U.S. recession since 1938. I was thinking about doing the same thing many people did - stay in school to pursue another degree and hope that the job prospects would improve before I graduated again. But was that the right decision? Did I really want a PhD? Was engineering going to provide a fulfilling and meaningful professional life? And as a woman, I faced the conundrum of career versus family. I hoped to have children one day. Could I balance being a wife and mother with a high pressure professional career path? What did I want from my professional life, anyway?
So even though I'd earned a degree with clear career options, and I was ambitious and capable, I wasn't sure what my next move should be. Nor was my future path ever obvious to me until only recently.
The irony is that I am often interviewed, formally and informally, by people who ask me about my career path, as if I had charted it out at your stage in life. They seem to expect that I had a carefully crafted map, replete with GPS precision, of roads to be taken, distance to be traveled, forks in the road to be chosen, mentors picked up along the way and a few stops for key life-long learning opportunities. Not so. I wish I could give each of you career guidance analogous to a set of Google directions. But I can't. In fact, I could argue that, on the face of it, I am an example of haphazard choices, poor planning and remarkable good luck.
So... back to my story. I did stay at Stanford for my PhD. My first job out of graduate school was as an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley. I know, it sounds impressive. I'm sure that is part of the reason I decided to accept the offer from Berkeley. I mean, who in their right mind turns down a job at Cal?
Actually I took the job for all the wrong reasons. To be honest, I took it because it was expected, and because I wanted to stay in the Bay Area. And, in hindsight, I knew at the time it was the wrong decision for me. On the way home from my interview, I literally cried. You see, I had watched faculty members act irritated if an undergraduate student stopped them in the hall with a question. I only heard about the importance of research and its determination of your tenure during the interview. I had such high hopes for UC Berkeley as a place to work, yet they seemed to least value what I cared most about - undergraduate teaching. But how could I say no to an offer from Berkeley?
I should have listened to my heart because my first impressions of priorities at Berkeley were right on. One day after a few years on the job, many students arrived for my 2 o'clock office hours confused about the next day's exam in fluid dynamics. Clearly I had not taught the material well, so I answered all the students' questions … literally taking up the whole afternoon. Afterward, I felt good about helping the students learn the material and prepare for the exam. I knew in my heart that I had done the right thing. But then, a well-intentioned colleague popped his head into my office and said: “You are risking your chances of success with tenure by spending so much time with the undergraduates.” I went on to get tenure at Berkeley and had great respect for my colleagues and the value of research universities like Cal, but I was a fish out of water there. In spite of my research successes, my heart was always with the undergraduate students. I knew I had to leave, but for what? Apprehension and uncertainty again.
One year my husband and I drove through Flagstaff, Arizona, on a camping vacation. We were charmed by that mountain community and noticed that there was a university in the town, Northern Arizona University. I didn't have a plan that would get me there but within five years I'd left my tenured position at UC Berkeley to chair the NAU mechanical engineering department. All my colleagues at Berkeley thought I had just committed career suicide. And for the right reasons, this time. My heart told me I belonged at a University that valued undergraduate education. At NAU, I found I also enjoyed my administrative roles. But I still did not have any type of career plan until a colleague casually mentioned I should consider being a University President someday. That was when I charted a path and decided to be dean at a large complex engineering school, and I went to Texas Tech University. Which now comes back to Will. Will wanted to study engineering and he asked me to recommend some schools for him to consider. As I mentioned, I was familiar with University of the Pacific and thought it would be a good college choice for him. While my husband was exploring Pacific's website he happened to notice the President was retiring and said: “Pam, the Presidency at Pacific is going to be open soon! You should apply!” I did and was privileged to be selected, bringing me to Northern California, to Pacific, and to you, today.
Not an impressive narrative in career planning, is it? You might be thinking I am a poor source of advice about how to plan a career or make important life choices!
But with deeper reflection, there is a coherency in my career story and I believe it provides an important lesson, a lesson I made in my own way of trial and error. But I learned from my mistakes and maybe I can help you avoid repeating some of those same mistakes.
The byroads and pathways of my journey through life have taught me that when I decide to do something because it offers prestige or is the decision everyone expects me to make, I usually am making the wrong decisions. But, and this is important, when I made major life choices that were true to my heart, when I followed my conscience and made a commitment, I could achieve a meaningful career and personal life. My decision to take the job at Berkeley taught me a deep and lasting lesson: don't be distracted by prestige or status - make choices in life that are true to your values. Make choices that give the greatest meaning and purpose to your life at a given time. And so, while I enjoyed the field of engineering, it was teaching students and seeing their excitement upon understanding the material we were studying that gave me a deeper sense of purpose. Our move to Flagstaff allowed me to be at a university that valued teaching more than research, and where I could achieve a work/life balance so important to our family. And my decision to apply to be President at University of the Pacific, and why I recommended that Will attend the school, was my realization after 25 years at large public universities that the most powerful education comes where faculty know you and care about you. I have made a personal commitment to spend the rest of my career at schools like Pacific and Santa Clara, whose missions resonate with my values.
I predict that for my son, and for the vast majority of you, life will not follow a set of Google Map directions from point A, graduation from Santa Clara, to point B, the pinnacle of your career; to a meaningful and rewarding life. Instead, you will follow paths that bend and maybe even double back. Bifurcations will arise (more commonly known as “forks in the road” to you non-engineers) where you need to make difficult choices with insufficient information. Darn it, there are no reliable crystal balls yet. Should you take that new job? Have a child? Go on that mission? Move closer to your parents? (No ambiguity on that one: the answer is clearly YES.) Change career paths? Leave the big city? Life is a series of choices, some seemingly trivial and some laden with life-long consequences. How do you make the decision that is right for you?
Robert Frost, in his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” writes:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
As much as I deeply respect Robert Frost and enjoy his poems, I actually disagree with the implication that we should “take the path less traveled by.” My version of this poem would read, rather, “I took the one truest to my heart, and that has made all the difference.” Maybe not as poetic, but assuredly better career advice.
And so I urge you, graduates, at those forks in the road, choose the path that is true to your values and brings sense, meaning and purpose to how you spend your hours and days and weeks and years. You have many years in front of you. Use them well. Use your competence to excel in your profession, but live a life aligned with your values and with purpose. The principles you have lived by at Santa Clara University, competence, conscience and compassion, and the moral compass you developed at a Jesuit university, will guide you well. I am sure.
And so … Class of 2013, go forth. Do well. But most importantly, do good. Congratulations, graduates!