Winter Graduation Address, Trinity Washington University
By William E. Conway, Jr., January 8, 2020
You are fortunate, you are unique and, most importantly, you can make a difference.
President McGuire, Dr. Talley, Deans and Faculty, Family Members, Friends, and of course, Students, thank you for the great honor of being your graduation speaker. The honor today really belongs to you. I am sorry that my wife couldn’t be here today. She is a driving force behind our scholarship program. We have now committed to support over 3,000 nurses, and our goal is 10,000 scholarship nurses.
Congratulations to the graduates! I’m sure it wasn’t always easy or fun. Many times it may have seemed useless or too difficult to complete, but you did it. And, because you have earned your degree [and you may even be the first person in your family to do so] you have special responsibility. I will come to that a little later.
Just as important, for virtually all students, you did not earn this degree alone. Your parents, friends, teachers, classmates, spouses and others, financed you, encouraged you, taught you, badgered you and loved you.
Least important is my role today. In looking at the schedule, my remarks are about the only thing between you and your diploma. Usually, when I speak in public, I try to help people invest their money wisely, not tell them how to live the rest of their lives. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that.
I cannot even remember who gave the graduation speech when I graduated from Dartmouth almost 50 years ago, and I certainly have no idea what he or she said, and I am positive that what they said did not affect my life in any significant way. The same goes for my master’s degree from the University of Chicago about 45 years ago. While I hope my remarks add some value for you, my feelings will not be hurt if that isn’t the case.
To gain some insight about what I might say to you, I looked on the internet for graduation speeches that were considered to be some of the best. Many of them involved someone like me trying to summarize what he or she had learned over the years, imparting some of their acquired wisdom, and then inspiring the graduates to go forth to follow their dreams, not be afraid to fail, be passionate, be kind, and work hard. I am not going to do that today.
I can think of two reasons why I was selected to be your graduation speaker. First, [as you have already heard] my grandmother, Ellen McQuade, graduated from Trinity in 1912. She was the first member of my family to go to college. She played on the tennis team, and she was active in student government and religious activities. I didn’t know her as a young girl, but later in life she was a wonderful mother of 4, and grandmother of 18 grandchildren, including me.
The second reason why I might have been chosen is because of the nursing scholarships that my wife and I have given to Trinity.
I don’t think that either my grandmother or my philanthropy qualify me to be your speaker. But, here I am.
I would like to give a special shout out to the nursing students. In order to become a nurse, a student must pass the NCLEX exam, the Nursing Clinical Licensing exam, which questions prospective nurses on their knowledge and skills. If you pass the exam, you can become a nurse; if you don’t pass, you cannot become a nurse. Nationally, after studying 2-4 years, about 85-90% of the students pass. The exam doesn’t discriminate between black or white, old or young, fat or thin, gay or straight, male or female. You pass or you don’t. And, if you pass, you can get a job and you can help people. Last year, 29 Trinity nursing students took the exam. They all passed – 100%.
When I heard that all 29 students had passed the NCLEX, I thought that the test can’t be that tough. So, I decided to take the test. I went online and found a practice test – 20 questions, all multiple choice, 4 possible answers to each question. I decided not to study, thinking that I was a smart guy, supported nurses and had been in the hospital a few times. I also thought that multiple choice would make it much easier. Half the 4 possible answers would be obviously wrong, and then I could make an educated guess between the other two. Because there were only 4 answers to each of the 20 questions, random guessing by a monkey could get 5 correct. My score was a 6 out of 20. I beat the monkey. I couldn’t be more proud of our nursing students!
I am going to speak about you, not about me. Who are you? Three main thoughts. You are fortunate, you are unique and, most importantly, you can make a difference.
First, you are very fortunate. As I said earlier, you have a college degree from Trinity. Hopefully, you have learned that the value of your education is not only the knowledge you have gained, or even the ability to get a job, but also how to learn, how to listen, how to live. As you probably know, Trinity was established in 1897 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The mission of these Sisters was and is to make known the Goodness of God. What a great mission statement! I think that Goodness of God is on display here today. What is your mission? What are you going to do with your good fortune and your degree?
Second, in addition to your good fortune, you are unique. You are different than everyone else. No one else has your emotions, your drive, your compassion, your history, your genes, your sense of humor, your good qualities and your not so good qualities, and your special place and time in the universe. However, as unique as you are, you are not the center of the universe. We are all on our own path. I am reminded of a story about Albert Einstein. Einstein was the greatest scientist of the 20th Century. He won the Nobel Prize. He discovered E = mc2 and developed new conceptual models of the universe. He was the most famous person on the planet. More famous than the Pope, the President and Taylor Swift combined. A story was told about this famous and brilliant man. He was riding on a train, and the conductor came through the train car, asking to see everyone’s ticket. Einstein started looking for his ticket – checking his coat and pants pockets with no success. The conductor said, “Don’t worry Dr. Einstein, we know who you are, and we know you have a ticket.” The conductor moved on but Einstein continued looking for his ticket, down on the floor, in the seat pocket in front of him, in his baggage. The conductor came by again, and said, “Dr. Einstein, don’t worry about the ticket, we know who you are!” But, Einstein kept looking for his ticket and answered, “I also know who I am, but I don’t know where I’m going.”
If Einstein didn’t know where he was going, how can the rest of us? Do you know where you are going?
Not only are you fortunate and unique, but you also can make a difference. The opportunities can be small or large, and they can happen frequently. And, usually they don’t require you to be a super hero. What you do, when the time comes to make a difference, will determine the answer to the question, “Who are you?”
Let me give you some recent examples of people who are making a difference. A few times each week, John Kelly writes an entertaining column for The Washington Post, in the Metro section called John Kelly’s Washington. He writes about ordinary things in our community. Recently, his columns have focused on the Post’s Helping Hand for charities during the holiday season. During the year, he writes about DC landmarks, sports teams and the arts. This week he wrote about buying a new family car, a Kia Soul. He has been writing this column for 30 years. Ordinary yes, but extraordinary too. He makes the world a better place.
Another story in the Post last week was about RuQuan Brown, a 17 year old straight A student at Benjamin Banneker Academic High in Washington, a star football player, and student body president. Both his stepfather and a teammate on his football team were shot and killed in the past 2 years. Because of the impact of these tragedies, he started a clothing company in their honor with 20% of the proceeds used to buy guns off the streets. Talk about making a difference!
Another story, this time about someone more famous, Pope Francis. Last week, he was shaking hands in the crowd and a woman wouldn’t let go of his hand. He tried to make her let go but she wouldn’t. Finally, he had enough and slaps her hand. End of story? Not so. The next day, Francis said, “So many times we lose our patience. Me too, and I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.” His good example, how to sincerely apologize, can make a difference.
Another example, this year a Johns Hopkins doctor, Gregg Semenza, like Einstein, wins the Nobel Prize. A great honor. Rather than basking in the glow, he pays tribute to his high school biology teacher, Rose Nelson. He said “she inspired me and others to pursue careers in scientific research by teaching us about the scientists and the scientific process that led to discoveries.” The difference maker is Rose Nelson, not so much Gregg Semenza.
A final example of someone who has made a difference is Trinity’s own President, Pat McGuire, a 1974 graduate of Trinity. In 1989, 30 years ago, when Pat became President of Trinity, its full time enrollment had fallen to only 300. I would guess that Trinity was in danger of closing. I have heard that the nuns of Notre Dame de Namur and President McGuire wouldn’t let the school close. They were determined to keep Trinity open and to keep the Mission alive. Today, the enrollment is over 2000, and Trinity educates more DC public school graduates than any other private university in the US, and is ranked #3 on the most recent lists of most affordable women’s colleges. Think of the difference Pat has made.
You may say, as Einstein did, “I know who I am,” and you may add who you are not – that you are not a Washington Post writer, a high school star, a Pope, a high school biology teacher, or a University president.
What do all these people have in common? Not much except they are all unique, one of a kind, just like the rest of us. Yes, they are all good human beings of considerable intelligence. But in many ways they have little in common. 2 women, 3 men; 1 PhD, 1 still in High School; ages 17-83; 1 black, 3 white, 1 Hispanic. What they have in common is that they are all unique and they all made a difference! You can too.
In my life, I wish that I had made more of a difference. When I was young, I often regretted the things I did. As I get older, I regret the things I didn’t do. Mostly, I should have stood up for more people who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Sometimes when I could have made a difference, I didn’t. I am trying to make up for lost time.
When I look around at the world, I see how much better it could be. I think, Doesn’t God see this problem? – fill in the blank – opioid crisis, cancer, homelessness, climate change, or even more personal problems – health, debts, job, family. Why doesn’t God do anything about it?
God is thinking – of course I see the problem, I’m God. And God is also thinking, “Why don’t you do something about it?” What are you – TRINITY GRADUATES – with your good fortune, uniqueness and ability to make a difference, what are you going to do about it? We’re counting on you.
Thank you and good luck to you.