The following is the text of the keynote address delivered by Dr. Walter MacDonald CCAS’74, president and CEO of Educational Testing Services, at the Rutgers University–Camden College of Arts and Sciences/University College commencement ceremony held at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 21.
View the video of his address, or read the full text below.
Good evening! Let me say just one quick thing before I commence my commencement: CONGRATULATIONS! CLASS OF 2015 YOU DID IT!
Do you really need to hear anything else today, other than your name being called up here to collect your diploma?
You have my apologies in advance. But commencement speeches like the one you’re about to endure are rituals of continuity. Besides, there’s nothing you can do about it since you’re a captive audience. Think of it this way: At least you don’t have to take notes.
On the other hand, I do have a pretty good idea of what you’re experiencing. That’s because, not so long ago, at least in geologic time, I was in your place when I collected my degree in biology. I earned my bachelor’s degree in biology in 1974 from this same great university. I came from a family that didn’t have much money, my father had passed away, I was working construction after high school – but through incredibly good fortune I found Rutgers Camden. Graduation day was a VERY proud day for me and my family. All of you should be so proud of yourselves – I know your families are very proud – make sure you thank them for the support they’ve given you over the years.
Commencement speakers sometimes come through with nuggets of timeless wisdom. In 1963, for instance, President Kennedy, in a commencement speech, told the world that although humankind was hurtling toward self-destruction, we weren’t DOOMED to self-destruction — that because we make most of our own problems — we can then solve most of our own problems. He was right!
In 2005, Steve Jobs advised graduates that because work would take up a large part of their lives, they better love what they do, and to keep looking until they found what they loved to do.
Also very true!
And let’s not forget that other great American, Kermit the Frog, who opined to the 1996 graduating class at Southampton College of Long Island University that we should all “feel very proud of ourselves … and just a little bit silly.”
I would say that being a little bit silly is actually a pretty good approach for what you are guaranteed to encounter in your lives. Take it from someone who has gone through it all: It’s a lot easier to deal with hardships and setbacks with a spoonful of silliness than with a curtain of gloom. And ditto for your achievements and successes. No one likes a serious winner.
If you can’t be very silly sometimes, then you’re probably being too serious too much of the time.
The world has changed a lot since President Kennedy, Steve Jobs, and Kermit gave their famous speeches. For one thing, no one was live-Tweeting reviews of THEIR commencement speeches. Not that any of you are doing that today!
But as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And commencement speeches are still mostly about some older person telling a bunch of young millennials how to live a good life. We get to do this because age, of course, confers wisdom.
As it so happens, I do have the secret to the good life. And I will tell it to you. It is this: Above all, above EVERYTHING else, you MUST —
You know what? Let me come back to that. Timing’s everything in these things. In the meantime, I WOULD like to offer a bit of counterintuitive career advice.
Some of you will be going on to graduate school, some will be entering the workforce, and some of you haven’t a clue. Very possibly, most of you haven’t a clue. I’m tempted to ask for a show of hands, but there are too many parents in the audience, and this should be a happy day for them.
Sooner or later, though, you will more than likely end up in the workforce. When you enter that confusing, maddening, exasperating and rewarding jungle, be an adventurer. Be an explorer. Be someone who is open to different opinions, places and perspectives.
Being an explorer means not settling into one track, or one job, in one division or department, at one company, with one set of responsibilities from now until retirement. Given that they’ll have pushed back the retirement age to 113 by the time you’re ready to move to Florida, you’ll definitely want to love what you do.
Now, that doesn’t mean changing careers every year. It might not even mean changing employers every year. Or ever! Plenty of organizations are big enough — or small enough — to offer a rich variety of things to do every day. Do some of this, do some of that, do some of the other. The worst that’ll happen is that you’ll learn more than anyone else and people will look to you for insight and advice. Not such a terrible thing!
That’s what I did. I started at ETS in 1984, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s a big enough place, with enough moving parts, that I could basically change jobs every few years. And I did. I started out creating the new AP Biology curriculum and exam, and over the years I worked in just about every division in the organization, including Higher Education, Research and Development, Test Development, College Board Programs, Teacher Licensure, and running testing programs like the APs, SATs, GREs, TOEFL, Praxis, and others. I never got bored. ETS is a not-for-profit organization that only exists to help advance quality and equity in education. It’s an organization that does good things. And now I run the place and get invited to give commencement speeches at my alma mater.
Be it in career or life, there’s NO law that says you are on one path forever. In fact, that’s one of the great things about the excellent education you’ve just completed: It’ll give you a real shot at carving your OWN path, and not following the one someone else has paved for you.
Here’s another piece of advice: Even if you’re heading straight to the workplace, TAKE THE
GRE NOW. Take it while you’re academically fresh and sharp. It doesn’t mean you’ll have to put your work plans on hold and go to graduate school now. But it WILL give you options for the next few years. Also, it would be REALLY, REALLY great if you could take the GRE before the end of ETS’s fourth fiscal quarter, which would really help me with my Board of Trustees.
Awww…. I was just being silly. You can take the GRE after the fourth quarter.
Even more important than taking the GRE is that from this day forward, apply your skills and knowledge in ways that stand to improve the world for the rest of us. You don’t need me to tell you how perilous things are for so many people in so many places — whether it’s the threat to habitation on earth, or the crushing poverty endured by children and families just a mile or two from this center.
I mentioned President Kennedy’s assurance that it was in our own power to forestall nuclear annihilation. He was right, of course. And so far we’ve succeeded. But we and you have to remain vigilant as we are faced with unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons proliferation, and terrorism with many faces.
In our own country, economic and educational inequalities have created inequalities of condition and of opportunity that have never been deeper — or more threatening to our long-term stability, prosperity, and our sense of shared purpose as a democracy and a nation.
Every new generation is forced to deal with stuff left by the one that came before it. And we’ve dumped some doozies on you. I would submit, however, that one reason why we’re celebrating your commencement is precisely BECAUSE of the stuff we’ve left for you. The world needs every one of you to use your great education and skills to leave it better than you found it.
A few minutes ago, I started to reveal the secrets to the good life. The fact is, you already know what they are, so you don’t need me — or JFK, Steve Jobs or Kermit — to tell you. But since this is a commencement speech, I’ll tell you anyway. Here are 10 secrets to a rich and rewarding life:
So…. As Kermit puts it, “May success and a smile always be yours … even when you’re knee deep in the sticky muck of life.”
Thank you very much for allowing me to talk to you today – it was truly a great honor.
Work hard, have fun, be and do good!
GOOD LUCK and CHEERS to the class of 2015!
You can also read the full text of this commencement address here.