This past month I was honored to be invited to give a commencement address at the University of Central Florida. It was such a joyful experience to celebrate this milestone with UCF graduates (they graduated roughly 9,000 students that weekend!) Have you given a commencement address? What advice would you offer to students embarking with a degree today? Below is what I offered to the graduates.
"Let me begin with the most important piece of advice – take all advice with a grain of salt. Sift through, find the stuff that helps, and don’t get hung up on the rest. I am up here because just like many of you, I am a bit of an underdog. I had a very imperfect path to and through college.
I remember sitting where you are today, excited but anxious about what was next and whether it would work out for me. Would I would be able to pay my student loans?
I just want you to know that it is normal and ok to not know what is next. You are going to have lots of purposes and lots of passions in life.
Often, your purpose is directly connected to the hard things you overcome. Your purpose might be preventing that same thing from happening to other people.
So, my second piece of advice is to embrace your inner underdog (and find the hole in the world that only you can fill). I spent the entire first decade of my career trying to fit in rather than sharing the story of my path through college. I didn’t want people to think I didn’t belong.
But everything changed a decade into my career when I finally told my personal story and stopped pretending that I was like everyone else. Because I was not. Because you are not.
I finally embraced my underdog, doing that showed me my purpose, and transformed my career. Navigating college was difficult for me. And my purpose is changing higher education in America so that it is easier to navigate for other students. Finally sharing my story made me more relatable, it inspired others to share their stories, and join me in building a movement together.
I can’t believe I get to do this work every day with incredible people around the country committed to creating a brighter future for every person regardless of the family they were born into or the neighborhood they grew up in. And every month when I pay my student loans, it is a gratitude practice for me. A reminder that I should keep betting on myself because it is totally worth it. So, spend less energy trying to fit in, and instead embrace your own inner underdog.
Because you are the only person who will ever exist with your exact experiences, skills, talents, quirks, and abilities. And you are the only person who can make the exact contribution to the world you can make.
My third piece of advice is to be aware of how you make people feel. No one cares why you do or do not deserve to be somewhere. They care whether you care about them. Whether you listen. Whether you are curious. Dr. Maya Angelou was right when she said “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
You know those people you’ve enjoyed being around, but you can’t quite figure out why – they are kind, they listen, they make you feel important. Be like them. Focus on how you make others feel. Be generous – share credit. We all do our best work when we are not worried about getting credit and are instead focused on bringing forth the best ideas.
We need more solution makers, more creators with a conscience. We need you.
Now here’s the fourth piece of advice: Challenge your thoughts: Because without you directing it, your mind is going to lie to you.
It is designed to keep you safe by exaggerating fear. To keep you where you are, it will make you feel afraid of new things. That limbic part of your brain that obsesses over fear served us well as cave people. But now that getting eaten by bears is less of a risk, it will hold you back. You need to dance with your understanding of yourself. Don’t let your brain convince you that you should just stay where you are. Challenge it. Be brave. The path to confidence is doing things that scare you.
Whenever you get overwhelmed and fearful and freaked out about your life, I want you to zoom out. Don’t let the moment get too big or too close to you. Go for a walk. Read history. Talk to someone else with curiosity about their world. The more you isolate and don’t second guess whatever thoughts you have racing in your mind, the more powerless and anxious you will be. Always zoom out. Perspective is what you need. In that moment when your anxiety is high and your confidence is low, I want you to use the following thoughts: “I’m figuring this out.” and “I’m seeing what I’m capable of.” Focusing on that framing shift your brain from despair, to being on a quest. You alone get to determine which thoughts you focus your time on – do not be held hostage to your brain. Zoom out & give it better things to focus on and think about.
One of the most important ways to take care of your mind – and here’s the fifth piece of advice – is to spend time with people you disagree with. And spend energy arguing a position every week that you do not believe in.
The more we only talk to people like ourselves, the more we will think we are right and others are wrong. That makes us comfortable in our own preconceptions, and intellectually lazy. The truth is, it depends. It always depends. Facts are facts. But when it comes to your perspective, it totally influences how you see the world. So, build up the muscle of dispassionately arguing something you don’t agree with. It will teach you that people who disagree with you aren’t evil. It will make you actually consider other views. And it will make other people want to be around you.
My parting request is that you invest in yourself. When I talk to other people about advice they wish they’d gotten when they graduated from college, I constantly hear the following: Start a Roth IRA immediately. Whatever you do, pay yourself first.
Graduates, I am so proud of you. I hope you embrace your inner underdog and make the contribution only you can make in the world, that you are mindful of the way you make others feel, and that you challenge your thoughts and spend time with people you disagree with.
This may not be THE formula for a successful life, but it’s one that’s working for me."
We are excited to introduce Girija Kulkarni as the next UIA Fellow at CU Denver. Girija brings a wealth of project management experience and environmental sciences expertise along with a strong passion for alleviating barriers that hinder students’ holistic success. Welcome, Girija!
Coming this fall to the network will be our newest member, University of New Mexico. We can’t wait! In the meantime, do you know someone who would be a great fit as the University of New Mexico’s inaugural UIA Fellow? Have them check out the full job description and apply here (position open until filled).
A big congratulations is in order to esteemed UIA partner, Dr. Leonard Taylor, for his recent appointment as the director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). He will also be joining the IU Higher Education and Student Affairs program as an associate professor beginning in July. Dr. Taylor has been a critical thought partner and consultant to our UIA member campuses as they forge ahead in planning and implementing their BSSI projects. We look forward to sharing their learning and insights from the project with you later this year.
Learn With Us
- Innovating Through Failure… And Success (blog)
- Weekly Wisdom with Michael Sorrell (podcast)
- Technology Partnerships and Higher Education (blog)
- Innovation Spotlight with Peter Temes (podcast)
- Showing the Human Face of Higher Ed Leadership (blog)
- Innovation Spotlight with Drew Magliozzi (podcast)
Here’s what we’re learning about this month at the UIA:
- More about the habits of creative people who come up with the next best idea (Video, TedTalk)
- The lessons today’s innovator can apply from one historical perspective (Article, HBR)
- A new equity roundtables guidebook developed to help university leaders design and facilitate inclusive and action-oriented dialogue on campus (Resource, APLU)
- What current enrollment trends could signal for higher education in a post-pandemic world (Article, Inside Higher Ed)
- This free professional development opportunity for change leaders and their teams in higher education to build capacity for effective change (Resource, USC Pullias Center for Higher Education)
Stuff We Love
A curated list of the latest and greatest things we’re using this summer as vacation travel ramps up:
- A stylish and compact way to carry medication when you travel
- Travel-sized reusable spray bottles for transporting fragrance
- This excellent cord wrangler to keep all your chargers organized
- The portable power bank you won’t leave home without (Pro tip: buy it at Costco when it’s in stock)
- A useful iPad or tablet holder for your next road trip with the kids
Events to put on your Radar
- June 14 - 15, 2023: JFF Horizons Annual Summit, New Orleans, LA
- June 25 - 27, 2023: NASPA Conference on Student Success in Higher Education, Kansas City, MO (Deadline to Register: June 2)
- September 25 - 28, 2023: National College Learning Center Association (NCLCA) Conference, Portland, OR (Deadline to Register: July 14)
- October 4 - 7, 2023: NACADA Annual Conference, Orlando, FL (Deadline to Register Early: August 16)
- October 16 - 18, 2023: NCAN National Conference, Dallas, TX (Deadline to Register Early: July 14)
- November 1 - 3, 2023: ACL Annual Conference, Asheville, NC (Deadline for Proposals: June 30)
- November 4 - 7, 2023: AASCU Annual Conference, Chicago, IL (Registration Information TBA)
- November 12 - 14, 2023: APLU Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA (Early Registration Open Early Summer)
- November 15 - 18, 2023: ASHE Annual Conference, Minneapolis, MN (Deadline to Register Early: August 5)
- December 10 - 12, 2023: Complete College America Annual Convening, Las Vegas, NV (Deadline to Register Early: August 1)
Your staff, your students, they actually want to know you. Not the version of you that is impenetrable, the version of you that might not have it all together, because none of us have it all together. It's really important that we just be human.