Treat Time as a River: Commencement Remarks for Miami-Dade College

Date: April 28th, 2012

Category: Machen, Speeches, Speeches 2012

Miami Dade College trustees, faculty, families, friends, and especially, graduates of the Class of 2012 … greetings and congratulations! It is an honor to join you here at Kendall Campus, in beautiful Miami, and most of all at Miami Dade College, the largest and most dynamic higher-education institution in the nation.

This is a great day, and I will be thrilled to have my MDC honorary degree and – with all due respect to the Florida Gators – be an MDC Shark. I hear that a few of you will be joining us at UF in the fall. Come by my office at 226 Tigert Hall – or email, if I can help a fellow Shark in Gator country. We can’t wait to see you!

Graduates, this afternoon, your achievement stands as an outstanding example to your communities; to your siblings and friends; and, for some of you, your own children. For those graduates who have partners, I want to applaud those partners – for standing by you, and for pitching in more than their fair share so that you could earn your degree just as my wife, Chris, did for me.

To the parents and grandparents here, I applaud you as well. Being a father of three college graduates myself, I share your joy – and your relief! And finally, to MDC faculty, your professionalism and personal attention helped these graduates reach a milestone that will enrich them in ways we cannot even imagine. This moment is what our lives’ work is all about.

As you might imagine, I’ve been part of a few commencement ceremonies in my time. In fact, you won’t believe this, but I gave my first commencement address fifty years ago this summer, as a senior in high school in Missouri. It’s true. Chris still keeps an old copy of my speech around to torture me.

I devoted part of that speech to astronaut John Glenn, who in that year of 1962 had become the first American to orbit the world. He launched from here in Florida aboard a Mercury space capsule called Friendship 7. We were in the midst of the Cold War, and Glenn’s flight brought great relief that the U.S. could compete with the Soviet Union.

But his historic trip did something that has far outlasted the rivalry between our superpowers: It connected the U.S. with friendly nations in a way we had never been connected before. That bond was brought home by Glenn’s flight over Australia, where residents of the city of Perth turned on their lights in a glowing “hello” to the American astronaut passing by in the dark loneliness of space.

I have no doubt that, this weekend, other commencement speakers at other campuses around the nation are telling graduates that if they want to succeed, they have to learn to connect with other parts of the world – just the way Astronaut Glenn did five decades ago. They are advising that we live in a global economy now, one that requires professionals to work in different countries, speak multiple languages, and thrive in cultures foreign to their own.

That wisdom of the world, which we strive to instill in all college students, already dwells within each of you.

You live in Miami, one of the nation’s most multicultural cities. You gather from more than 58 different countries at MDC, a richly diverse university that graduates the highest numbers of minorities of any college. Four out of five of you trace your roots to Cuba or Latin America.

Those origins place you among the nation’s fastest-growing minority population of more than 50-million Hispanics – in an America where in about 35 years minorities will become the majority.

You are among a privileged group of new college graduates who know our country and world as they are becoming. You won’t have to catch up to the times. The times have to catch up to you.

As Miamians and MDC graduates entering a world of fewer national barriers, your multiculturalism equips you to form strong bonds across countries and cultures. This ability will accelerate your careers and increase your incomes, and it will also boost the world’s global stability, from economics to human rights.

But while your cultural and language fluencies will help you do good as you do well, they will not be enough. Especially in our divided times, it will be crucial for you to look deeply within yourselves to bring compassion and acceptance to all your ventures.

I’ll tell you another story. I was the oldest child in a middle-class family of five in a suburb of St. Louis. Like many of your parents, my parents believed if I wanted something, I should work for it. I started doing odd jobs when I was eight years old, and by high school, I needed my first real job.

It was just before Christmas, and our town’s department store, Lambert’s, was hiring. There was only one hitch: Everyone was terrified of the owner, who chased teenagers out of his store and was widely reviled as the meanest businessman in town. Nevertheless, my mother, a school teacher, told me to ask him for a job. I did not want to do it – I was scared. But she insisted. So I mustered all my courage and walked through the doors alone.

My first surprise was that I got the job. My second was that as my hours piled up in the store, I grew to like and respect this man – and he, to like and respect me.

Before long, I left Lambert’s and headed off to college. But the experience taught me a lesson that has endured for my whole life: Never rely on the opinions of others. I try to begin relationships with openness, and to form my own judgments of people.

I believe that lesson is at the heart of my career, which has followed an unusual path. Although I trained as a dentist, earning both a doctor of dental surgery and a master of science in pediatric dentistry, I found my calling in higher-education leadership. I am the only dentist who is a major university president.

It wasn’t my technical education or dental skills that got me here. I wasn’t born into this role, and no one gave me any special favors. I oversee a $5 billion budget without an accounting degree; a major sports conglomerate with no background in sports management; and a huge university health science center with no recent experience in health care. But I do know something of dealing with people. And my leadership responsibilities require managing 12,000 of them, in every race, religion, nationality and personality type.

In your personal interactions, do not be a fortress, steeled against people. Be a forest, serene and open to them finding a path to your heart.

I began this afternoon talking to you about John Glenn and space. I want to end by telling you something about time.

When I was in college in the wake of John Glenn, everyone recognized space as the new frontier. Today – with the shuttle Discovery’s installation at the Smithsonian bringing a symbolic end to the space age – there is less consensus about where the greatest promise lies for you. Some say it is globalization. Others, innovation. But I would like to suggest that one of your great frontiers is time.

Everything in your world insists that time is instantaneous. Tweeting, texting, Facebook: All give you and your smart phone so much information, so quickly, they seem to collapse time, leaving you with scarcely any time to respond before the next burst of incoming information.

And technology is only part of the urgency of 2012. Politics and fads … success and fame … human relationships … all seem to flare and fade in an instant. Or perhaps I should say, “Instagram.” That is the photo-sharing company Facebook just purchased for a billion dollars. It was formed by a dozen twenty-somethings less than two years ago.

From Instagram to the iPhone, today’s sense of urgency has generated a great deal of financial success. This wealth may or may not be real, as recent booms and busts teach us. Either way, I believe it has come at a cost. That cost is the sense of hyper-alertness, just short of frantic, that prevails throughout our society.

People are not learning much from the past these days. As a matter of fact, they aren’t really fixated on what’s happening in the here-and-now, or what awaits down the road. Instead, they exist in that strange moment that accompanies the incoming text or news flash – the moment just beyond the present but never far enough ahead to call the future. They’re seizing every instant and losing every day.

As the graduates of 2012, your generation is destined to live longer than any generation in history. I want to assure you that you have time. And I want to suggest that your frontier is to recapture and revive your time. Because time is truly a gift.

So, slow down! Breath! Be in the present! Think about today! Today! Find the time to ask yourselves … what’s the hurry? Consider the moment. Open yourself to unscheduled possibilities.

Take the class outside your major – it may speak to your soul. Meet the person not planned into your day. She or he may become your life’s partner. Visit a new city on a whim – you may decide to make it your home.

Treat time not as a race but as a river, bearing you slowly and gently into the wide gulf of adventures and experiences that map who you are.

The author William Faulkner wrote, “Only when the clock stops does time come to life.” His point was that life is most complete when you give yourself the luxury to embrace it in all its richness. Not just work and weekends. Not just personal passions and travel. But also, friends, families and children – all enjoyed with leisure and appreciation.

As MDC graduates, you are already light speed ahead of your contemporaries in the cross-cultural proficiency that – just like John Glenn – will make you friends and bring you success wherever your careers take you. But do not forget that you also have an ocean of time.

So, have the longer-than-text conversation. Read the thicker book. Take the extended vacation. Linger with family. Lengthen all of life’s celebrations. Especially the one this afternoon – you deserve it. Thank you.

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