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Potomac State College of WVU Commencement

WVU President E. Gordon Gee
Prepared Remarks
May 7, 2016

On behalf of West Virginia University, I am delighted to congratulate the 2016 graduates of Potomac State College.

Having served as president at about half the universities in this country, I have attended more graduation ceremonies than just about anyone on the planet.

That means I have sat through more graduation speeches than anyone on the planet. And, since I have to sit on stage, I cannot even yawn or roll my eyes like you can during my speech.

Plus I have to wear this ridiculous hat.

But each time I look out into a sea of graduates’ happy, hopeful faces, I feel as excited as I did on my own college graduation day, 48 years ago. I remember everything but what the speaker said. Quite frankly, most graduation speeches fade from listeners’ minds as soon as the speaker stops talking — which is never quite soon enough.

The graduation season is the “advice season” on America’s nearly 5,000 campuses, and each year graduates hear the usual bromides: Be true to yourself.

Follow your dreams. Remember that life is about the journey, not the destination.

So, what advice am I going to give you? Be true to yourself. Follow your dreams. Remember that life is about the journey, not the destination.

Because sometimes well-worn platitudes become well-worn for a reason. They really do point the way to happiness, and those of us who have learned their value on life’s twisting always want to smooth the road for those just starting out.

But do not worry: My take on this age-old message will be short. In fact, I can condense most of it into one story.

A young woman named Margie Mason came to West Virginia University from Daybrook, West Virginia—a town so small most maps omit it. Her father was a truck driver, and he passed along to Margie a willingness to work hard.

At age 19, while pursuing her journalism degree, she took a minimum wage job as a typist at the local newspaper. She soon worked her way up to part-time reporter status, and one day she covered a guest lecture by legendary Vietnam War correspondent and West Virginia University alumnus George Esper.

Having grown up around the war’s veterans, Margie already had a strong interest in Vietnam. Meeting Esper turned that interest into a life’s direction. Esper went on to join the University faculty and became a mentor for Margie.

After graduation, she went to work for The Associated Press. She also continued to deepen her knowledge:  She won a fellowship in Asian Studies and attended the University of Hawaii, concentrating on Southeast Asia and the Vietnamese language. She took a position with the AP’s bureau in Hanoi, going on to serve as its Asia medical writer and later Indonesia bureau chief.

In that role, as part of a team, she investigated slavery among seafood suppliers. And for her work, she won one of the highest awards in journalism—the Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service.

When the award became public last month, Margie reflected on the late George Esper and her other mentors. She said: “There were a lot of people there who wanted me to succeed. But certainly, I never dreamed I would be part of a team that would win a Pulitzer.”

Not one of you sitting here today knows where life will ultimately take you. You do not know how much you can accomplish. You do not know how high you can climb.

But I know you all have a rugged and determined spirit, and you can reach any summit within view if you do the three things that Margie has done:


1. Be true to yourself.
Margie found her purpose at West Virginia University and never strayed from it. For some of us, it takes a little longer to find the right path.

Ask yourself this question: If you had to identify one reason to live, what would it be? Is your life’s purpose to help others? Is it to inspire others with great works of art or your words or your deeds?

Life is about finding your purpose and making sure your choices serve that purpose.

Being self-aware allows one to engage in self-correction. I try to reflect on my actions each day, seeing where I have strayed from the appropriate path—although I also get some help with that from the media.

2. Follow your dreams.
Pursuing your passion makes life worth living. That is not just my experience—research backs it up.

Marketing scholar Raj Raghunathan wrote a book called “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?” His research shows that lasting happiness rarely grows from the external rewards we chase — money, awards, job titles.

We celebrate those achievements, but the glow soon evaporates. Our new promotion or our new salary becomes our new normal. Then we wonder: What next?

Dr. Raghunathan says: “Ultimately, what we need in order to be happy is at some level pretty simple. It requires doing something that you find meaningful, that you can kind of get lost in on a daily basis.”

Which brings me to my final piece of advice.
3. Remember that life is about the journey, not the destination.

Glory is fleeting in a world where posting a cat video on YouTube can make you a celebrity. So instead of chasing it, write down the top five things that reflect how you want to live your life.

For me, this should include things such as “family time” or “listen to good music every day.” And for all of us, it should include more complex ideas like “honesty” and “simplicity.”

Above all, it should include “making a difference.” Because even the strongest passion, if based on selfishness, will lead to a dead end.

Margie Mason’s groundbreaking work did not just earn her a Pulitzer Prize. It helped to free more than 2,000 slaves, led to dozens of arrests and inspired legislation barring imports of slave-produced goods.

Find a way to use your passion to improve the world. When you do that, you will excel. You will achieve success. And the happiness you gain will be the kind that lasts.