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Now That You’re Graduating, What Lies Ahead?

[As presented.]

Good afternoon, everyone.

I’m delighted to be here this afternoon to participate in this event and to personally congratulate all the graduates and their families. 

I’d also like to express my appreciation to President Altenkirch for giving me the great honor of being the keynote speaker for your graduation ceremony. 

This is really a coming home event of sorts for me. I grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s just an hour or so south of here—in Birmingham.

As I look out at this diverse crowd of smiling faces, I  am reminded of just how far we’ve come from those times in the middle of the last century—as a state, as a country, and as a society. I would never have imagined then that I, Miss May’s little boy from down in the Barracks—would be standing before you this afternoon.

That period in the late 50s was also the time when Dr. Wernher von Braun (the renown rocket scientist who led this country into space—and the person that this venue was named for) helped create this great university.

He, like most great men, had a number of profound sayings. One of his was—and I’ll paraphrase slightly, was  that “the key to prosperity”—for a city, a state, or indeed for most of us as individuals—is not money, it is not power, or the amount you pay or not pay in taxes. No, the key to prosperity is the effective use of our most precious resource—our brainpower. 

In this vein, this afternoon we will be honoring the accomplishments of over 900 students. 525  Bachelors, ~350 Masters, and 44 Ph.D. graduates from this great university. This is indeed a day to remember, a day to reflect and to be thankful, and certainly a day to celebrate the accomplishments of these young men and women.

Back in December 1977—before most of you were born—I remember sitting at my own commencement ceremony  at the University of Maryland, hoping the speaker would hurry up and sit down  so we could get to the most important part of the ceremony—getting my papers that verified that I had indeed become Dr. Willie E. May,  and getting out of there to begin the celebration. So I’ll keep that in mind.

I remember sitting in my seat, half listening to Isaac Asimov, whose books are what most people call “science fiction," but what were for me “an entertaining and mind-expanding view of what might lie ahead.” I was wondering: "what might my future look like?" 

So, for the next few minutes, let’s think about what might be in store for you.

This is certainly an exciting and challenging time to be alive, and to be entering the workforce (and many of your parents are thinking, "it’s about time").

I was impressed to learn that about 2/3 of UAH graduates  earn degrees in the science, engineering and nursing fields. That’s an incredibly high percentage. It gives me confidence that you STEM Majors—working with the business experts, teachers, writers, artists, historians and other graduates receiving degrees today—will be able to innovate your way to success. 

I am absolutely sure that employment and entrepreneurial opportunities will be out there for you that did not exist 39 years ago when I last graduated. In fact, there will be options for you in occupations that did not exist even 3 years ago. The world is changing just that rapidly.

I am also confident that the education that you received here at UAH has equipped you with the tools needed to not only face the challenges of today, but also the awareness that one must commit to a life of continuous learning in order to deal with the challenges of tomorrow.

The training that you have received here in Huntsville has you poised to address not only the issues we are facing here in the United states (or your native countries), but also the ability to make positive contributions throughout our global society. And we do face real challenges.

Things like economic uncertainty, energy (production, conservation and dissemination), affordable and effective health care, and yes, there is still poverty in many parts of the world—including the USA.

We are experiencing steadily increasing acts of terrorism globally, and now increasingly here at home.

We are experiencing “environmental” climate change for sure, but we are also experiencing “political” climate change. We are experiencing such political hardening that the views espoused by our elected officials seem farther apart than at any other time in my lifetime. Our leaders are acting more like “politicians” than statesmen, in order to keep their jobs. It is increasingly disturbing to me that for many of our elected leaders, never admitting publicly to changing their minds, even after acquiring new and relevant information, is seen as a good thing and best for our country.

So, with this as a backdrop: What strategies can you adopt to make a positive difference and improve our world for the better? How can you put this newly minted brainpower to work for the benefit of yourselves and the rest of us?

I’d like to offer at least three ways and three stories to help you remember them. But first, let’s focus on what we already know about your future. 

Career Choices

Because of the choices that you have made—and the hard work that you’ve put in—employment with reasonable salaries and work assignments that will be exciting, challenging and meaningful are awaiting you, if not immediately, then certainly in the near future.  

I’m guessing that you’ve each invested somewhere between 4 and 10 years of specialized training in your various fields and disciplines. That’s a significant percentage of your lifetimes. So I’m sure you all feel that it’s now time to reap the rewards of all that hard work; it’s time to get paid!

And money certainly is great; we can’t live without it! But over my career, I’ve learned that: 

  • A career selection that provides excitement, challenges and personal growth is just as important as one that pays top dollar—maybe even more so.
  • It’s no fun, nor is it good for your physical or mental health, to go to a JOB every day that does not offer intellectual stimulation, challenges and some degree of personal satisfaction. 

Let me share a personal reflection.

After completing my undergraduate training, I took a JOB that provided me with an occupational deferment and kept me out of Vietnam, turning down fellowships to attend graduate school at Harvard, Illinois, Tennessee. At that time, almost everyone else from my neighborhood in Birmingham had already been—or was soon to be—drafted into military service.

Now, I commend and appreciate all the men and women who made then, and are making today, sacrifices as members of our military services to ensure that we continue to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that we civilians often take for granted. 

Now while that job kept me “out of the war,” it was just that—a JOB, one that I did not particularly like; in fact, one that I hated! One where I asked myself every day, “Is this what you committed 4 years of hard and specialized study to do?” For me then, at 20 years of age, 4 years seemed like a very long time. It was 20 percent of my life!

I took more than 45 sick days during the 3-1/2 years I had that J-O-B.

In contrast, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, I have taken about 20 sick days during my 45.5-year career there! I have not had a J-O-B, I’ve had an interesting, exciting, fullfilling and rewarding career. I have been able to see how the results of my work have benefited both our country and our global society. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the smartest, most creative and hardworking people in this country, if not the world, as we focused on scientific innovations and discoveries and the underpinning measurements, standards and technology needed for improving our country’s international trade, competitiveness and quality of life.

And excuse me for being a little parochial and bragging a bit, but  the research that we do has garnered five Nobel prizes, two National Medal of Science Awards and three Service to America Awards over the past 20 years! 

I’ve also had the opportunity to work with people all around the world and have learned so much from those interactions. I have not always agreed with my colleagues here or abroad, but I have learned that it’s always wise to listen to what they have to say and to try to understand their perspectives. We can always learn from others—especially people who come from different cultures and backgrounds  (remember Dr. Von Braun)—and have different perspectives and outlooks than our own. DIVERSITY OF THOUGHT IS A PRECIOUS and POWERFUL THING!

In our global society, where “innovation” is a mantra, we should remember that the best new ideas often occur based on input from unexpected and nontraditional sources. 

Here’s the first short story to show you what I mean. 

A soap manufacturer received a complaint from a customer. The customer said he had purchased some very expensive soap only to find that one of the boxes was empty. The manager really wanted to solve this problem, so the company purchased an expensive X-ray spectrometer with high-resolution monitors and hired and trained three technicians to monitor the soapboxes as they passed along on the assembly line. 

OK, problem solved, but at a rather high price.

Now it happened that a competitor received a very similar complaint—a customer called and said that she had bought a box of soap, which she later found to be empty, and asked “what kind of quality control do you guys have”? As before, management really wanted to solve the problem. But this time, one of the newly hired assembly workers, just a regular guy from the factory floor, walked up to his manager and said “I heard you got a problem with empty boxes. Stop sweating it! I got this.”

The dude walked away and soon returned with a $50 electric fan. He pointed it at the assembly line, turned it on, and they both watched the empty boxes being blown off the conveyer belt. Problem solved. Cost: ~$50 bucks! 

This mythical example shows that no matter how much training, HOW MUCH EDUCATION you have, or how much money you spend, you won’t really provide the best solution to any problem unless you look at the problem from all sides, get input from diverse sources, and truly use all available brainpower to solve the problem!

Current State of the World

But, beyond keeping an open mind to achieve success in your own professional careers, there is a greater challenge that I have for you.

As I mentioned earlier, the world is much different today than the one I faced as the naïve young man who accepted that first job in 1968, or even the freshly minted Ph.D. that I was 39 years ago years ago.

The Cold War is over and the U.S. is not the world’s lone superpower—neither militarily nor economically. The world’s population has increased, and thanks to advances in medical science, people in the world are living longer. But in many parts of the world, there are still hunger-related diseases, war, hopelessness and despair; and ironically, in other parts, diabetes and obesity—conditions normally associated with affluence—are on the rise. 

We continue to work very hard to improve “the quality of our lives” here in the United States. As we strive for the American  Dream, many people in other countries feel that we are excessive, selfish and lacking in compassion. Consequently, there is—at the extreme—an increasing dislike for the U.S., and at least, a misunderstanding of many of our policies and practices. There are increased efforts in a number of countries to obtain weapons of mass destruction—nuclear, chemical and biological—to be used against the U.S. and our allies.

And please do not be confused about where I stand or where my allegiance lies: “God bless America, land that I love,” the “Greatest Land on Earth.” But as we are hopefully all inquiry-based thinkers, it is worth asking: Where do these notions come from? Why have they arisen? Why, even within the U.S., are there such stark differences in our thoughts about what America is, or should be, that we resort to violence rather than dialogue to express our differences!

Diversity and Responsibility

Perhaps it is first worth asking: Why is and has this country been so great? 

Lots of reasons, but not the least of which lies in the fact that the United States of America is one of the most diverse country in the world. And this diversity can be one of our major strengths. 

The U.S. was founded on diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of beliefs and views. But as many of you may have learned firsthand at the Thanksgiving dinner table, people can agree that the U.S. is very diverse and yet not agree at all on how to manage this diversity.  

Let me share with you excerpts from a rather profound writing by Lani Havens:

There was once a community of people who lived by a great river. One day, they noticed that people were beginning to drown and float downstream. Initially, one person dove in and rescued one person. Others then jumped in and rescued additional victims while others stood on the shore and pulled people out. Yet, the more people that they rescued, even more continued to drown.

Then an elder came by and saw all this heroic activity taking place, and asked, “But shouldn’t somebody go up the river and find out why the people are falling in the river in the first place?”

There are a number of parallels between this story and the tragic events that occurred on September 11, 2001, or more recently, in cities around the world from Orlando to Paris, from San Bernardino to Mosul.

Like the village helpers rescuing people from the river on all of these awful occasions, we saw many ordinary citizens display extreme levels of courage and heroism. Like in the river story, our leaders have tried, and are still trying, to clearly define the problem(s) and take appropriate action(s) for acts of terrorism that are occurring with increasing frequency. 

But the question remains: Have we looked upstream? Is it possible to determine and address root causes of these horrific actions?

With all of the changes happening in the world around us, going forward, it’s going to be exceedingly important for us as a society to learn much more about other cultures—their values and their priorities; i.e. gain a better understanding of global diversity. Remember the First Law of Thermodynamics: that the total energy of the system plus the surroundings is constant. Remember that our actions have effects on all other inhabitants of this planet. 

Challenge to Graduates

I challenge all of you to embrace diversity from a broad perspective. Think of yourselves as not only citizens of your respective communities and countries, but also as citizens of Planet Earth. 

I encourage you to travel broadly and  see our country and the world from a broader context and perspective. We in the U.S are one country in a world of nearly 200 countries. Each of us lives only one life in a world of about 7 billion people! 

I think you’ll find that, at some level, most people all over the world want the same things out of life—we all want similar things for our children and families. Yet at the same time, what is best for us in the U.S. might not always be best for others.

Commit to a life of continual learning. We accept that our knowledge in the area of science and technology is changing at an exponential rate, but so is the sociopolitical landscape of the world. Get involved in the governance of your country(ies)—wherever YOUR country might be. Perhaps some of you will get directly involved in public service, but for those of you who don’t, you must hold those of you who do accountable.

Elect leaders at all levels of government based on your assessment of how well they grasp key issues, consider diverse points of view, and systematically analyze any upriver issues before deciding on a course of action. 

Each of you have successfully studied various disciplines and grasped them well enough for the University of Alabama Huntsville to be awarding you with a degree this afternoon. But, no matter what your actual major or areas of focus, what you have actually demonstrated is your ability to absorb and process information, critically evaluate data, and solve very complex problems.

In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, the science of psychohistory was employed to predict human events in a manner that led to salvation of the Galactic Empire through the establishment and eventual unification of two cultures or “Foundations” at opposite ends of the Galaxy. The theory behind psychohistory was based, to some extent, on the kinetic theory of gases, where each atom or molecule in a gas moves randomly so that the position or velocity of any one of them cannot be known, but the rules governing their overall behavior can be worked out with great precision. 

In that same way, the intention of psychohistory was to work out the overall behavior of human societies, even though the solutions would not apply to the behavior of any single human being. Perhaps psychohistory would not have predicted the specific activities of September 11, 2001, nor other horrific events that have occurred since, or that will occur in the future. But it might have alerted us that there was peril ahead, as happened several times in Asimov’s Foundation Stories.

Given the polarization within the world today, perhaps it was inevitable that something would happen to make the world look upstream to see why people are jumping in the river.

To you, the 2016 Fall Graduates of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, it’s going to be your responsibility to manage the increasing diversity that exists in the world—a very complex problem indeed. But I’m betting that you are up to the task just like Asimov’s heroes and heroines were in his stories.

So in closing, I congratulate you for completing your preparation for the jobs in this complex new world that awaits you. Hopefully, these will be jobs in your chosen areas of interest and disciplines.

But I hope that you all will also take on the crucially important job of being educated citizens and responsible custodians of Planet Earth—at least for a while, and then pass this responsibility on to your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and all that will come after you.

Above all, persevere in your dreams and do not be afraid to fail. We actually learn much more from failures than from successes.

One last story, this one about a young lad who set out to test the mettle of the old wise man in the community.

The lad cupped a small bird in his hands and asked the old man if the bird was alive or dead. Now, the old man realized if he answered that the bird was alive, the lad would immediately crush it, open his hands and prove the old man wrong. But if the old man said that the bird was dead, the lad planned to simply open his hands and allow the bird to fly away.

The wise old man simply answered: It’s in your hands. Likewise, the future of the world will soon be in YOUR hands. Keep it alive. Nurture it carefully. And look upstream whenever possible. Help it to prosper by using your brainpower to seek practical solutions and make a positive difference.

Embrace our diversity. It is the source for much of our uniquely American spirit and creativity.

And now, let’s get on with your commencement festivities. A time to remember. A time to reflect and be thankful. And certainly a time to CELEBRATE!

Created December 13, 2016, Updated December 14, 2016