Patti McGill Peterson, who has served for the past five years as presidential advisor for Global Initiatives at ACE, recently gave the commencement address at Stockton University in New Jersey.
As she prepares to step down from her post at ACE, we would like to reprint her remarks to Stockton’s graduates, which focus on jobs—and dreams.
First and foremost, I want to extend my personal congratulations to all the graduates assembled today. I join your family and friends in cheering you across the finish line.
Commencement addresses were once upon a time the longest part of any commencement ceremony. Fear not, we are in the modern age. It’s now got to be something that is tweetable!
My instructions are to be mercifully brief. President Kesselman has admonished that if I go over my allotment, two members of your weight lifting club will come alongside and carry me off the platform.
I actually have sat through a remarkable number of commencement addresses and one thing seems to be a common thread, they aspire to be inspirational. In that tradition, I would like to focus on the pursuit of your dreams.
Jobs and Dreams
Right now, I would love to be able to do an instant poll to and ask you what your post-graduate dream is. I’m not talking about fuzzy-headed day dreaming. I’m defining “dream” as a cherished aspiration, ambition or ideal.
That great philosopher, Stephen Colbert, once said, “Thankfully, dreams change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overcome with cowboys and princesses.”
Actually, there are some polls out there that indicate that dreams of graduates are increasingly pragmatic. These dreams are about quickly hitting a career path and moving into a high paying job. Universities and the education they provide are also increasingly held accountable for that goal.
I clearly understood when I served as a university president that one of my jobs was to help our students succeed in the world of work and especially to help the English major translate what she or he knew into full-time employment. That meant investing significantly in the best, most dynamic career services program we could possibly build.
While I understood that vocational responsibility, I didn’t believe for a minute that it was my only responsibility. I held a deep belief that one of my jobs was to support bigger dreams that would sustain our graduates through all the jobs they would hold and all the vicissitudes they would experience, eventually taking them to a more expansive sense of who they are and what they could do. I wish the same for you.
It was reaffirming several months ago to hear President Obama support this point of view. He said the purpose of higher education is not just to transmit job skills, it is also to widen your horizons, to make you a better citizen, to help you evaluate information, make your way through the world and to be more creative.
That means we have to think long and hard about the difference between skills for a particular job and broadly adaptable knowledge and generally about the difference between vocational education and the kind of education that lasts for a lifetime, over the course of multiple jobs.
The Dream of Vera King Farris
I take my inspiration to make these distinctions in part from the education and career of Dr. Vera King Farris, who served as the third president of Stockton, the first African American woman to do so. Even more remarkable was the fact that she was a scientist. I had the honor of knowing her when I was in the early stages of my own career. She would have continued her work in science but she chose to think and dream more broadly about how to prepare graduates like you for the wider world. She understood that to be the CEO of Stockton was not just a job; it was a calling to something much larger. Like Dr. Farris, I want all of you to have a big dream and to feel the pull of a calling.
Preparing for the Big Dream
Education for the big dream is not narrow; it engages the brain and the heart. It provides perspective, it connects dots, and while it can deepen your convictions, it also helps you to be a constructive skeptic by developing what my father would have called “a good crap detector” (aka to engage the mind in critical thinking). It means drawing upon science as well as religion, math as well as philosophy. It’s what we call a general education and possessing it alongside your major is very important to your big dream and, ultimately, the quality of your life.
Dr. Farris went to Tuskegee University, an historically black institution, for her undergraduate degree. Booker T. Washington had been its founding president and northern philanthropy encouraged his early emphasis on vocational education. But what happened at the turn of the century is a warning about educating too narrowly for a specific job. Students there were learning such things as blacksmithing and making horse drawn carriages. Then along came Henry Ford with his automobile.
Sadly, a generation of Tuskegee students were out of jobs and thrown off their career paths. Their education and their dreams had been tied to a narrow set of vocational options. Fortunately, Tuskegee moved on and became an institution that could educate a Vera King Farris to embrace a larger dream.
Beware of anyone who narrows your dream to a single job or a single word like, “plastics.” That was the career advice given to, Benjamin, the woe-begotten hero in The Graduate (if you haven’t seen it, definitely pull it up on Netflix). Caveat Emptor: plastics today, Teflon tomorrow. Benjamin needed a bigger dream.
The great thing for your generation is that the world is so deeply interconnected. Your dream space has fewer and fewer boundaries. It can move readily across the world. That’s why it is so important for you to know something about the rest of the planet, its languages, cultures and customs.
I am reminded of something I once read about the American Dream in reverse. It was about a group of Indian-Americans who had become wildly successful in Silicon Valley. It was a story about how they were returning to India to support schools, orphanages, special education programs for girls and other community building projects.
One of their number described the morphing of his dream in this way. First it was to come to the US and go to graduate school. Then it was to get a job in Silicon Valley and be able to stay in the US. Eventually, he realized that his ultimate dream was to make a difference in the poor village in northern India in which he grew up. Incidentally, he also found outlets for his philanthropy in San Francisco. He had come full circle but with a much larger international dream than the one with which he had started.
When I mention Silicon Valley, invariably I think of Steve Jobs. He didn’t major in computer science. When he attended Reed College, he was interested in Eastern mysticism and he once said that a course in Asian calligraphy was what influenced the design of the first Mac. He often talked about the importance of following your dreams and of enlarging them as you move through life. His ultimate stated dream was to “put a ding in the universe.”
I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachians, the first in my family to have the opportunity of a university education and the first to venture beyond the United States of America in my life and work. My dreams have grown and multiplied in large part due to the quality of my education and equality of opportunity. Thank you for recognizing that today by awarding me an honorary degree.
In closing, I wish you the power of a broad and deep education from Stockton University, the courage to follow your dreams and ideals, the willingness to look to far horizons and n’shallah, the chance to put a ding in the universe.
Patti McGill Peterson
May 15, 2016