Remarks as prepared for delivery.
I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to come to Hays tonight to honor you, the top seniors in your high schools. This is the 40th year of the Kansas Honors Program, and these events wouldn’t be possible without the help of our local coordinators, so let’s please recognize them.
Now, I know this isn’t a KU recruitment event, but I do want to say that, as the highest achieving seniors in your schools, I want to personally ask you to consider attending KU. You’re exactly the kind of students we want in our university community, so please explore the opportunities we have available for you.
As Chancellor, I’ve outlined a vision for the university as we move into the future. KU’s mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that will change the world.
To succeed in that mission, we’re elevating three things: our expectations for ourselves as a university, our aspirations for the state of Kansas, and our hopes for the world.
These three things – expectations, aspirations and hopes – also apply to your personal success as you prepare to leave high school and take your next steps into the world. They’re what I want to talk to you about tonight.
First, expectations. We all have expectations placed upon us. For me, those come from everyone from students to legislators to alumni. For you, your parents have expectations. So do your teachers, your friends, your pastors, your coaches. All of these are important, and we each try to live up to these expectations as best we can.
But these aren’t the most important expectations placed upon us. The most important expectations are those we place upon ourselves. They’re the ones that truly motivate us to excel. Because while you won’t always be around your friends, and can sometimes tune out your parents – I’m a parent, I know how it goes – you can’t escape from you. But too often we don’t set the expectations we have for ourselves high enough.
What sort of expectations do you have for yourselves as you look ahead to the rest of your time in high school? Do you just expect to finish, or do you expect to finish strong? You’re the best students in your schools, yet ‘senioritis’ can afflict anyone.
Look at the months ahead and think about the expectations that you’ve set for yourself. Are they high enough so that when you achieve them you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment?
Now think of what you want to do after high school. For many of you, that will be college.
A quick aside to mention that KU has new four-year renewable scholarships. They’re based on academic achievement and the deadline to apply is November 1. See me later for details.
As I said, many of you will go to college. Many others will choose to serve our nation in the military, or go on to start careers after graduating from high school. Whatever you choose to do, commit to it. Enter it with the expectation that you will not just be good, but that you’ll excel.
When you do that, you’ll set more than just an expectation, you’ll create an aspiration.
Aspirations are those big goals that we each want to achieve. But they can’t be static if we want to truly excel in our chosen fields, and in our lives.
When I was in high school, my aspiration wasn’t to be a university chancellor someday, and it wasn’t to be a professor. My aspiration then was just to go to college.
Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college when they were growing up. But they knew the power of education, and they made sure that my seven siblings and I had that opportunity. And thanks to their love, the support of my high school teachers, and a lot of scholarships, I could aspire to earning a college degree.
Once I was nearing that goal, I then lifted my aspirations higher and went to graduate school. Then I aspired to earn a doctorate, and become a psychologist and a professor.
Throughout my career, whenever I was on the verge of achieving one aspiration, I set another, higher one. That’s what you should do if you want to make the most of the opportunities you’ve been given. Continuous progress is the only sure path to excellence.
In addition to giving me a belief in the power of education to transform a life, my parents also taught me something else. They taught me to never let my aspirations be limited by the perceptions of others.
This was important, because I grew up in a small town in North Carolina when segregation was still the law. Just going to college, let alone someday leading one, was a lofty aspiration for someone in my position then.
For example, I spent the majority of my career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before coming to KU two years ago. UNC didn’t admit its first black female student until 1963. Her name was Karen Parker. Her aspiration was to go to college at UNC, and she didn’t let those who said it was impossible deter her from achieving that aspiration.
Similarly, if I had let the perceptions of others limit my aspirations, I never would have left home to go to college, not to mention have gone on to have all the other amazing opportunities I’ve experienced over the course of my life as a result.
It doesn’t matter what those external perceptions are. Maybe you’re from a very small town or are the first in your family to go to college. Maybe you are overcoming a disability or discrimination or a language barrier. Regardless of the challenge, the only person who can limit your aspirations is you.
So I’ve talked about expectations and aspirations. They both fit into the third element, hopes.
I mentioned that KU is seeking to elevate the hopes we have for our world. What that means is that we are focusing our efforts on solving the grand challenges of our time. How do we create sustainable prosperity by developing clean, domestic sources of energy, like wind power? How do we extend the lifespans of the aquifers that are so important to communities here and throughout Kansas? How do we help everyone achieve their full potential and contribute to our society?
We’re working on these and other grand challenges because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. I hope you do, too, because the hopes for a prosperous future lie with you and the fellow leaders sitting with you.
It’s easy to get caught up in wondering what you’re going to do to make a living. And that’s important, because as much as mom and dad are nervous about you living on your own, they’re also kind of looking forward to it.
But it is more important to wonder how you’re going to make a good living and a good life.
Last week, the world lost two great men on the same day.
One those men was Steve Jobs, whose inventions changed the way we interact with technology and each other, and in the process opened up a new world.
The other was the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whose determination to end racism, even in the face of grave threats to his own life, opened doors for millions of Americans who previously had been treated as second-class citizens. Americans like me.
Both of these men were tremendously influential in shaping the world we live in. Both were visionaries. And both will be remembered not for how much money they earned – one earned billions, while the other did not – but for what they did with their lives.
It is my hope that you will each use your talents and opportunities to do something meaningful with your lives. To make a good living and a good life, for yourself and for those around you.
You’re on the verge of an incredibly exciting time in your lives. Whether you’re preparing to go off to college (maybe at KU), into the military, or into a career, know that your family and friends are there supporting you.
Also know that the most powerful expectations that motivate us, the aspirations that drive us, and the hopes that inspire us, all come from within. Set yours high as you take the next step in your lives.
Congratulations on this achievement, and best wishes on your future success!