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2015 December Graduation

Prepared Remarks
December 18, 2015

Good afternoon! On behalf of West Virginia University’s faculty, staff, students, Board of Governors and administration, I am delighted to welcome you all to our December Commencement ceremony.

This is one of the most important moments in our University’s life. You can tell it is important because I am here, instead of where I would otherwise be: At the mall cinemas, in my wookie costume, clutching my light-saber, sitting through every showing of Star Wars.

Since you chose Commencement over Han Solo and C3P0, this must be an important moment in your life, too.

But all this hubbub about Star Wars got me thinking about space exploration. And that got me thinking about Commencement in a whole new way.

So, I invite you join me in a little thought experiment:

Imagine yourself 50 million miles away from everyone and everything that you love.


With no way to contact anyone and few tools for survival except those you can devise for yourself.

You might recognize this as the premise of the popular book and movie “The Martian.”

But the challenges that fictional astronaut faced are super-heightened versions of the ones each new college graduate encounters.

How do you use everything you have learned to build a new life?

How do you create a new home?

How do you grow potatoes in your own waste?

Actually, you will probably not face that last challenge. If you do, I do not want to hear about it.

But, the truth is, you may feel alone sometimes.

You may struggle about what to do next and how to survive in this often chaotic and sometimes dangerous world.

But do not worry—because I am not worried about any of you.

You are never really alone. You take the fellowship of 190,000 other Mountaineers with you. That Mountaineer passion is a powerful force—and, for you, the force awakens today.

And I know you will not only survive but thrive—because at West Virginia University you have assembled a unique toolkit of skills and strengths.

So what is in this toolkit? Imagine it for a moment a real survival pack, held together in a Flying WV string backpack like one you might have received at freshman orientation. And let us peek inside at the supplies that will serve you well anywhere from Mars to medical school. Here we find:

  • Your Mountaineer ID card. Look at it to remember all your rides on the PRT—and the patience you developed whenever it broke down.
  • A copy of your transcript, which will hopefully remind you how hard you worked to achieve excellence on our campus and encourage you to keep working just as hard. But if it reminds you, instead, that you did not work as hard as you should have—let it be a warning to step up your game.
  • A pair of shoes—or Uggs—well-worn from all the time you spent walking across our campuses and climbing thousands of stairs. They should remind you to stay active. Doing so will keep you physically and mentally sharp for all the challenges that lay ahead.
  • There is also a Flying WV cookie in this survival kit—to remind you that we all need to indulge ourselves now and then.
  • You will find a book in here. A real book, with pages—not an ebook or PDF. Whatever book affected you the most deeply in your time here. It reminds you of all you have learned—and that only by continuing to learn can you find success and personal fulfillment.
  • There is a selfie-stick, to remind you of me—and the impromptu late-night photo sessions shared as I prowled around campus.
  • There is a ticket stub from a Mountaineer game in here, to evoke your will to win.
  • There is a picture of your family, to remind you that people love you even when you lose.
  • There are some highlights—and lowlights—from the Instagram feed of your college years. These are reminders to be careful with your social media presence when you are out in the professional world. Because no employer will be impressed by how well you nae nae.
  • There is a coonskin cap, to remind you that you are a Mountaineer—and Mountaineers go first. They have the courage to take risks and blaze uncharted paths.
  • There is a box of Ramen noodles in here—because if you ever managed to make a meal out of them, you can consider yourself a true innovator.
  • Of course, you will find a bow-tie in your survival pack. I am the one who is packing it, after all. And I want it to remind you to be yourself—no matter how quirky that self may be.
  • And finally, you will find a supply of Flying WV flags, so you can plant one wherever you land. It is not just a way to show your gold-and-blue pride. It is a sure way to make friends. Because as soon as you display it, even in the most unlikely and out-of-the-way places, you will hear voices calling, “Let’s go, Mountaineers.”

Probably even in a galaxy far, far away.

In truth, creating a new home for yourself is not easy, and you will have to do it over and over again. Research predicts that today’s youngest graduates will hold 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetimes.

Starting your journey here was probably a little scary, but you managed to make a home for yourself. And you learned that you can make a home—and a mark—anywhere in the world.

Like Chris Hickey and Deonna Gandy, two marketing majors from Pennsylvania who created the hashtag RespectfulMountaineer last year.

Rejecting destructive behavior and embracing true school spirit, the hashtag took Twitter by storm and grew into a movement.

Or like agribusiness graduate Amy Stokes, who came here from New Jersey with a love of horses. Through our Equine Studies program, she toured Ireland’s racing industry, interned at a world-class farm in Kentucky, and is now off to the United Kingdom to complete what I am told is the prestigious National Stud Diploma Course.

I do not know exactly what the National Stud Diploma is, but I wish it appeared on my CV.

Quinn Jones, a computer science and computer engineering major from Pennsylvania, also made a mark here. He led a team that created a better lung-function testing device.

Graduate Paris Winfrey only had to travel 40 miles to get to our campus from his home in Clarksburg. But since arriving here, he has journeyed much further—backpacking through New Zealand, helping the needy in Honduras, and exploring rain forests in Nepal. He has also rock-climbed and white-water-rafted his way through our beautiful state as an Adventure West Virginia leader. Now, with his marketing degree in hand, he has new challenges to conquer.

And the advice a mentor gave him before his Nepal trip will shepherd him. Paris said: “I was told to ‘Take what the mountain gives you.’ He meant to go into the experience with open ears and open eyes. Envision where you want to go, but be willing to be affected, changed and shaped by the environment.”

That is good advice for every graduate. Keep your eyes open to new vistas. Keep your ears open to new voices. Keep your heart open to new adventures.

And never forget that as a Mountaineer, you always have a place where you belong.

You do not even need country roads to take you here. And you do not need to take any real survival tools with you as you leave.

As poet Maya Angelou once said: “We feel safest when we go inside ourselves and find home—a place where we belong and maybe the only place we really do.”

Mountaineers: It is all part of you now. And within yourself is everything you need to feel at home in the world.