Advice to Grads
By John Dempsey
Special to The Pilot
I've been feeling a bit left out lately, since nobody has called me to deliver a commencement speech. Usually I'll get a call from one of the local high schools or from another college. But this year - nothing. I guess I've lost my touch.
I was thinking, though, about what I would tell this year's graduates if I had the chance. What could I say to the young people whose world is so different from the one I inherited, and whose future will take place in a world that will be more different still?
The first thing I would do with my graduation speech would be to make it short. The only unpardonable sin for a graduation speech is to make it too long. Nobody really wants to hear graduation speakers - they're all that stands between the graduates and their "big moment," so I'd make it short, absolutely no more than 15 minutes.
Second, I would tell some jokes. You can't get through a graduation speech - just as you can't get through life - without laughing. People who don't laugh don't really live, and graduation is as good a place as any to start laughing.
Once we were all settled in, I would leave my graduates with five thoughts. No more, no less.
First: Read the Sermon on the Mount, and act like you've read it.
I realize it may be a little odd to start a -secular speech with a reference to scripture, but I think that Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is the most important message ever delivered. Not only is it the central core of the Christian message, but it is also a great source of -inspiration for those who want to use religion as a positive force in their lives.
It seems to me that far too many people who pontificate about religion dwell on its harsh, negative aspects. Almost never do I hear one of these pontificators quote, or refer to, the message of the Sermon on the Mount.
Second: Visit a national park.
Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park if that's all you can manage, but make a -genuine effort in your life to visit one of the real beauties - Yellowstone, Glacier, the Tetons, Yosemite, or best of all, the Grand Canyon.
Being in the presence of these magical examples of nature's beauty serves two purposes. First, it gives us a sense of just how majestic our world can be, and second, it helps us put our own little foibles and problems into proper perspective. We are all important as individuals, but we are all a part of something much larger than ourselves, and losing ourselves in the beauty of nature is a great way to bring that home.
Third: I would tell my graduates that the things you experience will, over time, either build you up or tear you down.
Literature, movies, music, friends - over time, they will either help you or hurt you. If you read and see, listen to and hang with things and people who raise you up, your life will be a lot happier and more productive than it will be if your influences are in the other direction.
I'm not asking that you spend all of your time in art galleries or listening to Mozart, but I am saying that if your life is a steady diet of "Nightmare on Elm Street" and music that demeans women, don't be -surprised if it turns out poorly. Good art, good literature, good music - these things can be "ennobling." That is not only one of my favorite words, but it is a way to make your life meaningful and happy.
Fourth: For this idea, I will borrow from Stephen Covey, author of "7 Habits of Highly Effective People," who says we must know the difference between the important and the urgent.
Life today is full of urgent things - deadlines, ringing phones, texts and all the other things that make our lives noisy and cluttered. Each one of them is urgent - they need to be dealt with now - but not all of them are important.
As we go through life, and as demands on us get more and more intense, we need to be able to know what is important. And it is not always what is urgent. Quality time with family and friends, taking time for prayer or reflection, pausing to marvel at a beautiful sunset - none of these are really urgent, but all are important. Know the difference.
My last bit of advice for my graduates would echo the words of Barbara Cole, one of our professors here at Sandhills.
Barbara recently was given an honor here at the college (a very well-deserved one, by the way), and in her remarks that day she expressed her appreciation to her colleagues. She concluded by saying that rather than -saying "thank you" for the honor she had received, she wanted to "live thank you."
I was taken by her phrase, and I thought how beautiful it would be if people expressed their thanks by the way they lived as well as by what they said.
We all stand on the shoulders of others - our ancestors, our friends, our teachers, the people who have made our country great and who have kept it safe. The best message I can leave with young graduates is to ask that they be aware of how -fortunate they are, and to ask that they try to live in a way that expresses their thanks.
Dr. John Dempsey is president of Sandhills Community College.
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