June 9, 2014
Good evening, everyone.
My name is Gordon Gee, and I am president of West Virginia University.
It is an honor being here in the presence of future leaders of America.
You know, some of the country’s greatest thinkers, politicians, athletes, and celebrities were once participants in Boys State.
You may have heard of some of them: Bill Clinton, RG3, Phil Jackson, Mark Walberg, and Michael Jordan.
There is even a University President who participated in Boys State — and you’re looking at him!
At one point in my life — a long, long, long time ago — I was in Boys State, just like you.
So I am here to tell you this: You could someday become president of the United States. Or you could star in blockbuster movies. Or you could win multiple sports championships.
Or you could be a quirky guy who wears bow ties and looks like Orville Redenbacher.
But seriously, I hope you look back on this someday and realize, “There is nothing wrong with being a quirky guy who wears bow ties.”
As long as you serve, learn, and touch people’s lives — while being your true self — that is all that really matters.
I learned one of life’s best lessons during my first tenure at West Virginia University. I was given the chance to serve as its president when I was only 36.
Right after I became president, a couple of old-time professors came by and said, “You’re not doing very well.”
When I asked why, they said, “You don’t look and act like a university president.”
So I tried to change. I became a bit more stoic and standoffish, I hung up my bow ties. And what I discovered was that I was miserable and I was also failing.
So I just went back to wearing my argyle socks and my bow ties, and I remained a university president for a long period of time.
My success as a president has not come from hiding what makes me different — it has come from embracing my differences and embracing others’ unique perspectives and strengths.
I hope each of you will do the same. You have a unique voice. You have power to change the world — embrace that power and embrace who you are.
Because I stayed true to myself, I went on to serve as president of some of the top universities in the country.
But, I must say, that Boys State also played a key role in propelling my career.
I also learned a lot as a Boy Scout, as I am sure many of you have also served as a Scout.
I grew up in a town called Vernal, Utah. It was small and had about 2,000 people. Vernal’s largest attraction was, and is, the nearby Dinosaur National Monument. The irony of the most popular characters in town being 150 million years old was never lost on me.
Growing up in Vernal, my life had four pillars: My family, my faith, my school, and Boy Scouts. As a junior, Boys State supplemented those four pillars.
Participation in Boys State gave me intellectual stimulation, discipline, and the ability to work under pressure.
I never think about what I do for a living as a job, but as a calling. The fact that a small-town guy from Utah can become president of five or six of the major institutions in this country is both the American dream and the American responsibility.
The lessons I learned in Boys State have carried over into my life today. And those lessons are even more important for you and today’s youth.
When I was growing up, television signals did not reach Vernal. For me, electronic entertainment meant radio broadcasts of opera.
Today, boys in the smallest towns have access to a frenzied array of electronic distractions.
Even I have a Twitter and Instagram accounts.
And I am guilty of taking a lot of selfies.
Many youth also lack the strong families and faith communities that can channel boys’ boundless dreams in positive directions.
In this environment, programs such as Boys State fill a void. It helps build teamwork skills, respect for others, and self-confidence.
Each one of you has been given a gift by participating in Boys State.
It is among the most respected educational programs of government instruction for high school students.
Each participant becomes a part of the operation of his city, county, and state government.
You are exposed to the rights and privileges, the duties, and the responsibilities of a franchised citizen.
At Boys State, you have six career paths to participate in: Political, Legal, Newspaper, Banking, Law Enforcement, and National Guard/Homeland Security.
These are all noble career paths.
And if you are thinking about going to college, Boys State can serve as a firm launchpad into higher education.
And of course you will want to become Mountaineers!
The future is yours — so make the most of it. Get as much education as you can.
As college costs have soared nationwide, some have questioned the value of a degree. The latest research shows, however, that higher education has never been more important.
Millennials with college degrees made about $17,500 more in 2012 than their peers with only high school diplomas.
Having an educated populace is also more important to West Virginia’s future and America’s future.
Educated citizens are more productive, engaged citizens, and that is the kind of citizen our country needs to meet 21st century challenges.
As a participant in Boys State, you are already way ahead of many your peers when it comes to engagement. You understand the importance of community service.
Service is the rent we pay to live on this planet.
But I also want you to remember to have fun.
Work hard. And play hard.
I attribute part of my success to not taking myself too seriously.
You should do the same. You must poke fun at yourself sometimes.
You can take your work seriously. But not yourself. I hope you will continue serving — and learning — throughout your lives.
Remember, your potential is unlimited.