Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good evening! It’s a great pleasure to be here with you tonight.
As some of you might know, I’m new to Kansas. I just became chancellor of KU in August. So when they asked me which Kansas Honors Program I’d like to do first, Dodge City seemed the logical choice. This is a town that is quintessentially “Kansan” – a place that embraces its history as it moves forward into the future.
I also had an opportunity to visit Greensburg for the first time today. It is full of amazing people who are creating a city that should be an example for us all. Not only because of the green buildings, but also because of the community spirit that is so clearly evident.
I’m happy for the opportunity to visit with you tonight because it gives me another chance to learn about this great state. But most of all, I’m happy to be here because it means I get to meet you, the most outstanding high school seniors from this part of Kansas.
Tonight is about you. It is about the achievements that led you to this night, and the journey that is in front of you. For some that journey will lead to college. For others, military service or a career.
None of us know where your journeys will take you. Some will be more difficult than others. But as you prepare for them, I want to share a few things I’ve learned during my – let’s just say, multi-year journey.
I’m a first generation college student. I wasn’t the first in my family to go to college, as my older brother and sister both left for school before me, but neither of my parents attended college.
When I applied to college, neither of my parents had completed high school, though they were both naturally smart and worked tremendously hard to support me and my seven siblings. My mother did later complete her high school degree and complete some college courses, which between working and taking care of our family was an even more remarkable feat.
But even though they hadn’t gone to college, my parents both emphasized the power an education has to change a life. They knew what it could do for me and my brothers and sisters.
I’m sure that’s a message the parents in the audience have shared with you as well, and I’m glad they’re here too. Because though you’re the ones being honored, it is your parents who are why you’re here today – both literally, and because of the support they provided.
Parents and family members, it is of course, your students who have earned the grades. But remember all the homework and projects you helped with? All the rides to school and practice? All the recitals, games and performances? Not to mention the extra dollars for this and that.
Now, I have two kids. I know these things are just what we do as parents. But it is that support that you’ve given and the sacrifices you’ve made over the years that paved the way for your children, just as my parents did the same for me.
And no matter how independent they may feel now or how independent they become in the future, they will continue to seek your approval and advice. And trust me, they will miss you and all that you do to make their lives comfortable. That in particular makes me think of the do’s and don’ts of doing laundry. I’m sure there’s a lot to be learned in that department before graduation rolls around.
Just as the students here tonight have benefitted from the support of their parents, family and teachers, I had that same support as I went to college. My parents made it clear that I needed to further my education, and the nuns at my high school reinforced that message.
I needed all the support and motivation I could get, because it took a lot of determination just to get to school, let alone finish it.
I never visited the college I was planning to attend. I lived in the small town of Washington, North Carolina. The school was in Pennsylvania and it was just too expensive to get there. There were no glossy viewbooks or Internet virtual tours, so I saw it for the first time when I arrived for classes.
I took the bus from North Carolina to New York, where my older brother lived. He picked me up and drove me to campus.
The problem was, I arrived a day before anyone else and I was the only person on my entire floor that first night in the dorms.
Or so I thought.
Some upperclassmen patrolled the halls making all sorts of noises. It was a long first night.
It’s times like that, when you’re alone and maybe a little scared, that you ask “Can I really do this?” It doesn’t matter if it’s your first night at college or your first job interview. Those doubts start to creep in and can shake your confidence. We’ve all been there.
That’s when you have to believe in yourself, and when you have to rely on the strength you’ve received from your family. I never would have made it through college without the support of my parents, the example set by my siblings, and the guidance provided by my teachers.
They told me that anything was possible, and I believed them. They told me to never let the expectations of others limit my own aspirations, and I didn’t.
And through their own actions, they also demonstrated to me the importance of forming habits of excellence.
Clearly, you’ve already established some of those habits or you wouldn’t be here tonight. The ability to multitask – and I don’t mean texting and being on Facebook simultaneously. An interest in a wide range of sports and activities beyond academics. The ability to get out of bed at the last possible minute and still make it to school on time. Though, as a mom, I think that is an ability all children have.
All of those will be important, but none of those will be enough. No matter where you go after graduation, you are going to have to continue to learn and grow and develop habits of excellence if you hope to be successful.
This isn’t anything new. The ancient Greeks knew it. Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
But even motivation and good habits alone won’t be enough. You must also set goals for yourself. It is ok if they change over time, and it helps if you have some idea of the path to take to achieve them.
When I first went to college, my goal was to get my bachelor’s degree. Well, my first goal was to get off of that bus to New York. My goal was to graduate. It wasn’t to be a professor or KU chancellor.
At the time, I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was or what it took to get one, but that was ok because earning a Ph.D. wasn’t yet my goal. That came later, when I had graduated and was ready to set new goals.
You may want to be president, but first get elected to the city council. Then the legislature, and so on. Set a goal, and when you reach it, set another.
Goals help motivate and guide you, and we all need that guidance. We make ourselves what we are with each decision. But we must know where we want to go so that each decision can move us in the right direction.
Setting goals gives you that direction; while establishing habits of excellence helps ensure you make the right decision.
And make no mistake. You will face more and more decisions. Everything from “What do I want to do with my life?” to “Can I wash these clothes together?” Your life will be defined by the decisions you make.
Big change is coming. New schools, jobs, friends. You’re on the verge of a thrilling time in your lives. Be ready for it.
Don’t let others limit your ambitions. Use the great gifts you’ve been given to achieve your goals, and to use each day to be who you want to be.
Congratulations and best of luck to all of you!