Great Bay Community College Commencement Address 2009

Mark W. Huddleston
President, University of New Hampshire

Great Bay Community College
Stratham, NH 
May 16, 2009

Good afternoon. It is a tremendous honor for me to address the Class of 2009 at Great Bay Community College. I was the first person on either side of my family to have gone to college, ever. I suspect that’s true for more than a few of you. So standing here today, I see myself in your faces. I applaud the wisdom you showed in making your own choices and the tenacity you exhibited in making it to this ceremony today. I’m here to tell you that it was worth the effort. Everything that I have been able to accomplish in my life is a product of the decision I made to go to college. Of course, I’m still stuck in college forty-one years later, but that’s another story.

Now, feeling as honored as I do, I took this assignment seriously, and I did what anyone with serious intent would do in preparing a commencement address: I sat down at my computer and Googled “Commencement Addresses.”

Here are some things you learn when you do that.

First, you get a lot of hits, more than 5,520,000 in fact. I didn’t explore all of them.

Second, you find a lot of commencement addresses for sale on the internet. I assure you, I didn’t buy this one.

Third, if you haven’t got anything better to do, you can watch a lot commencement addresses on YouTube. Most of them are pretty awful, but I have to say that Conan O’Brien and Will Farrell at Harvard in 2000 and 2003 respectively are pretty funny.

The fourth thing you find is a lot of advice for would-be commencement speakers. One frequently repeated bit of advice is, unless you’re a professional comedian, don’t try to be funny like Conan O’Brien or Will Farrell. Another is to keep it short. I promise to heed both.

Finally, when you Google “Commencement Addresses” on the internet you constantly run into the infamous “Kurt Vonnegut” MIT commencement address. This speech is infamous for two reasons. First and most important, because Vonnegut neither wrote it nor delivered it. It was actually written by a Chicago newspaper columnist and circulated as a prank on-line—after which it simply went viral. But the second reason that the speech is infamous is that, whoever wrote it, it is very funny and very memorable—unlike almost every other commencement address. Aimed as all such addresses are at graduates about to embark on the rest of their lives, it consists entirely of pithy pearls of wisdom such as: Wear sunscreen. Be kind to your knees; you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Floss. Don’t read beauty magazines; they’ll only make you feel ugly. And so forth. How can you go wrong with that?

Anyway, there is some interesting stuff out there. But in addition to wanting some tips on commencement speeches, I also wanted to know more about more about Great Bay Community College. So, I also Googled your school, and I found some very interesting things . . . particularly on the website.

I can hear the administration and faculty groan, but fear not, President Arvelo and esteemed members of the platform party: Of the 11 faculty listed, seven earned the smiley face distinction, which means above average. And four were given the coveted hot chili pepper rating – which is equivalent to a gold star.

Here is some of what Great Bay students wrote. About English Professor Rick Walker, a student said, “He's one of the best professors I've ever had in seven years of college, both in the U.S. and abroad.”

Of Mathematics professor Scott Hewett, another chili pepper, we learn: “I highly recommend Scott for those who don't think of themselves as ‘math people’. He’s a good guy, with a quirky but great sense of humor!”

And then there is Biology Professor Catherine Ennis: “Catherine is great. I enjoyed her class and her insight into the medical field. She has a unique perspective on (as i feel) a dull topic.”

It is people like Rick Walker, Scott Hewett, and Catherine Ennis—and all the other members of the Great Bay faculty—who have made your journey so rewarding. Let’s give them all a hand.

One of the things the Great Bay faculty no doubt taught you, in addition to English, Biology and Math, is that real learning is both hard and immensely satisfying.

The knowledge you have acquired in your time at Great Bay is a gift that you have given yourself—with the support of teachers and family and friends. It is a gift that really will keep on giving, for the rest of your lives.

Some of you may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers. In Outliers, Gladwell asks the central question, why are some people really, really successful at what they do? What makes a Mozart a Mozart or a Bill Gates a Bill Gates? As you might expect, the answer is complicated, but one of the things that Gladwell emphasizes over and over again is the importance of practice, which he distills into the “10,000 hour rule.” Gladwell says that for a person to become an expert at anything he or she needs to put in 10,000 hours of practice in that thing. Sobering advice for any of you who think you’re going to become a rock star by learning three or four guitar chords over the weekend.

But actually it’s good news for this crowd. Think about it.

If you’ve spent an average of 8 hours a day for the past two years working and studying hard in your area of expertise, you have already accumulated—any of Scott Hewett’s students know the answer?—5,824 hours, well on your way to Gladwell’s magic number.

Now, Gladwell says that success isn’t a product simply of practice. There is a socio-cultural element as well. You need to be in the right place at the right time.

That combination of lots of practice and being in the right place has worked out very well for the 43 Great Bay graduates who have transferred to the University of New Hampshire to complete a baccalaureate degree. You may know some of them:

Kevin Baldwin, for example, began his full-time status at UNH in January, although he attended UNH part time while earning his associate’s degree at Great Bay Community College. Kevin decided to enroll in the “Watershed Watch” program, a collaboration between UNH, Great Bay Community College and Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. Kevin decided to start at GBCC instead of UNH to save money, work on electives and build a stronger academic portfolio.

Emily Knox transferred from Great Bay to UNH last year. She is now a dual major in international affairs and journalism…and minoring in Spanish. Her goal is to write for National Geographic magazine—in her blog-words, “to submerse myself into the world I have yet discovered, and learn everything I can about it: how diverse societies interact, environmental problems attacking civilizations, mores and rituals of cultures.”

That’s inspiring stuff.

Kevin and Emily are part of a cooperative effort between the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire called the Connections Program. This program creates seamless pathways to a four-year degree for New Hampshire students.

The Connections Program is really an expansion of a successful model that has been in place since fall 2005 between UNH and Great Bay Community College. Through this partnership, students who were not originally accepted to UNH received a letter from UNH notifying them that they could attend the community college at Stratham, and if they attended full time and met the educational goals of the program, they would automatically be accepted into UNH the following year.

In this still-new 21st century, in a world that is, as journalist Tom Friedman puts it, hot, flat and crowded, it is imperative that we have citizens who are well-educated. Indeed, we need citizens who are continually educated. This is especially important in New Hampshire. Despite the recent downturn, our state has a robust high-tech economy, one that is directly wired to the rest of the globe. It is critical that we keep higher education affordable and accessible to everyone in the Granite State so that we can keep that high-tech economy fully fueled.

In turn, affordability and accessibility require a high level of coordination and cooperation between the state’s two public systems of higher education, so that transfer can be simple, seamless and cost-free for our students.

That may sound like a plug for UNH—but it’s not. It’s really a plug for you and your future. You’ve all made at least one consequential choice by taking advantage of the opportunities at Great Bay. I would urge you to keep making such choices and continue your education, through the baccalaureate and beyond.

Again, learning is hard and it demands sacrifice. But there is no greater or more sustainable satisfaction to be found than that afforded by higher education.

In the not-really-Vonnegut speech I mentioned at the beginning of this address, we are advised to do smart things like wear sunscreen and floss regularly. It is hard to top that as parting advice for those headed out into the great wide world.

But I do have some simple admonitions of my own, three bits of wisdom that you would do well to remember.

First: Treat your Facebook page as if your mother and your boss were your only friends.

Second: Think carefully before you fill in job applications or other forms. There is a famous case of a young Massachusetts man who, when filling out a college application, was asked for name, age, and sex. For “name” he wrote in “William Smith.” For “age” he dutifully filled in “18.” And for “sex,” he wrote, “Once, in high school.”

Finally I have this bit of advice: Read Dr. Suess, even—or maybe especially even—if you don’t have any little kids at home. He was one of the world’s great philosophers. What could be better than this:

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”

Or this:

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose.”

Congratulations, Class of 2009.