I have so much I want to say about the experience of being the commencement speaker at Bloomsburg University this past weekend. I want to take some time to reflect on the whole weekend before leaving it here. For now I wanted to just share the video of the event and the transcript of the speech. What I will say is that this was a privilege and an honor. One I hope to never forget.
Good afternoon, President Soltz, distinguished guests, faculty, staff, parents, families and friends, my own Mom and Dad who are here today, and to you, the 2017 graduating class of Bloomsburg University.
Thank you all for allowing me to be a part of your day. It is an honor and a privilege to come back to my hometown, speak to my fellow Huskies, and maybe even grab a Steph’s sub. Look, here’s the reality. I’m not famous. So, when you looked at the program and asked, “who is this guy?” there really isn’t a terrific answer. I’m just a guy from Bloomsburg who got a degree from this fantastic university who the administration thought should speak to you today.
With that said I promise to do my best to share with you some brief thoughts from the perspective of someone who has sat in those chairs, who has studied in these rooms, and who is helping to shape the future as an education and technology leader.
So let’s just hang out while I share five stories about a theme that doesn’t always go hand in hand with science and technology: people.
Story One: Learning
My Father recently hit a hole in one at the age of 82. Pretty remarkable if you ask me. It is his second hole in one, the first coming some 15 years ago. I’ve never hit one, even though I try nearly 18 times a round. My Mother has hit six holes in one. Yeah, six. Her most recent was about a week after my Dad’s second one. She proudly posted it to Facebook, not to one up my Dad or anything. In my most loving and snarkiest way, I commented on her post, “Did you hit yours with one arm like Dad?”
You see, my Dad has been battling bone cancer. He has a titanium rod that holds his left arm somewhat securely into a titanium shoulder socket. Now he can’t raise that left arm above his mid-section, so we thought his golfing days were done until he did what he always does: he decided otherwise.
One day he went out and just started putting one-handed. Then he started chipping one-handed and before long he developed a one-armed golfing technique. It’s with this one-armed swing that my father hit his hole in one. And it is with that hole in one that he taught me the lesson of a lifetime: if the only way you can do something you love is one-armed, you figure out how to do it.
You will face challenges like this all the time and you probably won’t hit a hole in one while doing it. But if you want to succeed, you will have to push yourself. You will have to challenge yourself. You will have to re-learn the things you thought you knew.
You have been exercising that capability while here at Bloomsburg. Just remember, you will have to accept that you are never done learning and to be as successful as the vision you have for yourself — and you need to develop a vision for your future self — you will have to do it your whole life. Life won’t care that you knew how to golf two-armed. Life won’t care that your situation is unfair. You must persevere and learn and re-learn again and again.
Story Two: Discovery
I grew up at Bloomsburg University. Twice. The first was as a little kid, the son of a Psychology Professor and an Administrator. Both of my parents worked here and I spent countless hours exploring nearly every nook and cranny of this place. I’ve probably been on every rooftop of every building built before 1990 or so. For that I want to apologize to any members of the University Police force. But Bloomsburg University was, at that time, my physical playground.
My love for scientific discovery and technology began when I was young and I would visit my Dad in his office at Old Science Hall. His colleagues had an experimental rat lab that they would take me into and describe how they could get the rats to press levers for food to demonstrate theory. In the back room of that lab there were a couple of Apple II computers. I was only allowed to play the games if I proved that I could do something useful with the machines. So, a couple of my Dad’s colleagues taught me some BASIC programming. That gave me the keys to play the games and, more importantly, to spark an interest that would lead to a career.
I never had a single programming class until grad school, but that little exposure carried me for over 15 years. It is important to recognize that your passions can lay dormant for many years before you discover them. And that is the thing you need to consider critical — always keep discovering. Not just discovery in the world, but discovery in yourself. You never know where it will take you.
Story Three: Empathy
My mother was the director of the counseling center in Ben Franklin Hall. I would visit her and get to know the students she was working with. Our phone would ring in the middle of the night so she could help many of them with incredibly difficult conversations and decisions. She always found time to help them. My mother taught me the most important thing that I still try to utilize in every single engagement I have: empathy.
Whenever someone did something to hurt me and I was mad, she would ask me, “I wonder what is going on in that young man’s life that would make him act that way toward you?” It would infuriate me to no end. Can’t I just be mad at someone? But that repeated question eventually changed the lens I was using to look at the world.
If you take the time to see behavior from a reflective point of view, I guarantee you will be more successful in work, play, and love. It is sometimes a very hard thing to do, but I implore you to do it. You may know everything about your field, but you will not become a leader who can motivate teams of people and lead successful projects without being an empathetic colleague or boss.
Story Four: Mentorship
I said I grew up twice at Bloomsburg University. The second time is what leads me to speak to you today. I completed my Masters degree here in 1996 in Instructional Technology. As a matter of fact, I completed it right over there in the McCormick Center. Incidentally I was here the day they put the first shovel in the ground to build what would ultimately become my dad’s new office and the place that would change my life.
I had completed my undergraduate psychology degree from West Virginia University, but at the time there weren’t many jobs for an undergrad in psychology. After moving to Raleigh, North Carolina in a failed attempt to get a Ph.D. at NC State and a stint selling mobile homes, I came home to Bloomsburg. I put my degree to use by cutting lawns, painting houses, and doing odd jobs for landlords. Not exactly the vision I had for myself.
When I saw an old friend one afternoon, he told me he was in the MSIT program at Bloomsburg. My friend, Keith, was the son of the Director of the Institute for Interactive Technologies, Dr. Hank Bailey. He told me that I needed to go see his dad and maybe he could help.
The next day I came up here and talked to Dr. Bailey in his office and he asked me a bunch of questions, spun around at his desk, typed some stuff into his computer, printed out a piece of paper, spun back around, and told me I had class that evening at 6 PM. Bloomsburg University was now my intellectual playground.
Dr. Bailey’s kindness, I soon discovered, set me on a path that pushed me to do the hardest work of my life to that point. It taught me that a kid from Bloomsburg, with a degree from Bloomsburg, can do anything they want. I now live in Chicago and work at one of the finest institutions in the world, acting as the University of Chicago’s Chief Information Officer. I got that job 20 years after leaving Bloomsburg, but I really got it the day Dr. Bailey handed me my class schedule and said, “we will see you tonight.”
Don’t take what you’ve accomplished lightly. And look, I know that the hard work has been peppered with lots of fun and plenty of trips to Hess’s dance floor. But make sure you recall the work. That work ethic will need to become stronger if you are going to succeed. Lean on that as a foundation for the job you are going to get in 20 years that will blow your mind.
When I was working at Penn State University, I was lucky enough to be part of a secret project at Apple. The iPod had just been released and I was part of a small team that was helping Apple understand how the iPod could impact teaching and learning. Another member of this team was Dr. Carl Berger who was the Dean of the University of Michigan’s College of Education. Dr. Berger instantly began pushing me to find my voice in a room filled with my elders and idols.
He pushed me to take a new job at Penn State that I thought I had no business having. When I asked him if I should take it, he simply said, “Cole, when the elevator doors open and that up-arrow flashes, you get on. You’ll figure it out once you are there.”
What Dr. Berger was saying to me was that fear is an OK thing to feel, even if what you fear is your own potential for failure. He knew it would be hard for me, largely because he had spent a lifetime getting on elevators going to higher metaphorical floors, but also because he knew that I had to take risks and live with the fear. That simple piece of advice would not have come my way had I not asked him for his help and guidance. The hardest part is often in the moment we ask for help. But that is the lesson.
Seek out mentors in unlikely places and find ones who challenge you. Keep in mind that a mentor is not some mythical person in a position of absolute power over you. Sometimes you find them right next to you.
I am lucky that my wife has always pushed me to be better — to communicate more clearly, to have an argument based on knowledge, to be humble, and above all, value the journey. If she were here, she would surely tell me I did a good job, but that I could have hit that word harder or made that point more clearly. If you want a future where you get better every single day, find a partner, mentor, or a friend who will lovingly push you into that uncomfortable space. Trust me, it is much better to be wrong and critiqued at home with someone who cares about you.
Mentors are extraordinary people and you should fight to have as many as you possibly can. The thing that I always tell anyone who will listen is that mentorship is a two-way street. Mentors don’t just come along, they are found and cultivated. It takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you can look back and recognize a mentor. If you don’t open yourself up to the love, the advice, and ultimately the help that a mentor offers, you won’t end up with a mentor. Be brave enough to be vulnerable and amazing things will come your way.
Story Five: Change
In 1984, I got the first ever Apple Macintosh computer. It was a gift for my 12th birthday from my parents. Now I want you to think back to those times and realize that computers only plugged into the wall. It was magical, but nothing fundamentally changed until the Internet happened a decade later.
I have two children and like all the parents here, I love them and care for them deeply. I smile when I see them succeed and it wounds me when I see them on the edge of failure. At the end of the day, I just like to see them. I talk with them over dinner and homework and check into their Snapchat stories every day to make sure I keep up.
The reason I bring them up is that as a technologist I have always been taken aback by their similarities and differences in their uses of technology. My daughter was born into the same era as you and I existed in — the standard desktop and laptop computer era. She grew up learning how to use these machines through a traditional keyboard, mouse, and trackpad.
My son, on the other hand, was born at the same time as the iPhone. His first exposure to technology was through interacting with a piece of glass held in his hand. This piece of technology that he held in that little hand was so incredibly new and engaging that we couldn’t have predicted it only four years earlier when my daughter was born.
And it is in that small four year window that everything changed. I lived for more than a decade without a significant technological event and here I see the biggest leap in the span of four years. That is the difference between a freshman walking into the dorms here at Bloomsburg University to all of you sitting in front of me now.
Paradigms like this used to take decades to change, but now they are happening at a pace that is both exhilarating and frankly terrifying. This is the world in which you are stepping into. A world where paradigms change regularly, a world where economies are constructed upon jobs that will never go back to the way things were, and you are prepared for it. That is why you are sitting here today.
Think about it, when many of you started this journey at Bloomsburg, the first job you will have may not have existed. My job didn’t exist when I was in college. When you started at Bloomsburg University, cars could not drive themselves, taxi cabs were the de-facto transportation when you needed a ride somewhere, and we certainly weren’t 3D printing homes in countries torn apart by natural disasters.
Are you ready for a lifetime of accelerated change and constant reinvention? If you are, then you have been born into the right era. This is the time for people like you.
But most of all it is a time for people. If you live your life knowing that it is people who power all of this invention, that people discover and create new science, that people are the ones writing the code, then you will have little trouble being part of it.
Practice being a good person and always focus on the people. It is odd to say this to a group of graduates from the College of Science and Technology, but under all the equations, code, and experiments, it still comes down to people. And in our time, people who embrace science and technology, those who possess a love for learning, and those who can communicate and inspire teams of people will be the leaders of this new economy.
And this is what I’ll leave you with. Think of this place, this town, this community, this University, and the people you’ve known here. They’ve all left marks on your life and in turn you have added your name to a list of great people who have matriculated here. The marks that you’ve made here are indelible and are probably quite impressive, and your memories of this time will truly be some of the best of your lives.
As you make your way to what is next, know that there will surely be new marks — new friendships, graduate school, love, spouses, babies, the passing of people you care deeply about, new jobs or lost jobs — and I’ve had a few! But I can guarantee if you walk back across this campus in thirty years, you will see something that will make you smile, a simple mark left upon your life.
Ask yourself, “what marks do you want to leave for those who follow?” Your graduation may seem like an end, but it is just a beginning. Make it part of your life’s work to make marks and to leave a positive impression upon the people who follow.
So again, thank you for letting me be a small mark on your journey and for letting me share a few thoughts with you. Just remember that life will throw you curve balls and you have to learn and re-learn how to hit them. You will find your passions in strange places and it will not be predictable. You will need mentors and if you want them in your life, you have to open yourself up to help and critique. You will not find success without them. Find them, embrace them, learn from them, and then be one for someone else. Finally, be prepared for the acceleration of change. I know it is daunting, but it is also exciting. Bloomsburg University has given you the tools to keep learning and I know you will go beyond just keeping up.
As Alan Watts said, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
So, to the class of 2017, I say congratulations and let’s dance! Thank you.