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My (Uninvited) High School Commencement Speech

Updated on May 3, 2014

Penn State Commencement


Why not me?

Having a doctorate and having taught at colleges and universities for several years, I feel I am qualified to speak to a graduating class or two. So, for those who are graduating, know someone who is graduating , are a parent of a recent graduate or are someone looking to hire a speaker whose honorarium has been described as "moderate," here is the graduation speech I have never been asked to give.

My Speech to Graduates

For all of you graduating from High School this year, congratulations! You have achieved a firm milestone in your life and reached one of those important turning points in your personal history. For all of you who are parents or step-parents of someone graduating, congratulations! You, too, have major decisions to make, such as how to redecorate your child’s room and whether or not to lease your child’s room out. (I see some of you already have paint swatches and carpet samples—way to be proactive!)

Future Plans

Are you planning to go on to some form of higher education after graduation?

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Future Plans

Are you planning on remodeling or renting your child's room out?

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Do you need more than just high school?

But back to you, graduating class of 2014. You are probably wondering what this all means in the larger scale of things. As I said earlier, this is a turning point. From here you decide your future which, contrary to popular belief (and every counselor and teacher you have talked to), you do not need to know exactly what that future is. It will probably include something with the word “college,” “university” or “tech” in it, but beyond that it is wide open.

I have been professing in colleges and universities for many years. Let me tell you what you might expect.

1. Expect not to be fully prepared.

Don’t blame your teachers for this—blame your legislators and lobbyists. These are the people who have championed standardized testing as “the way to insure that the kids are learning.” If only they would finish that sentence, it would be “are learning to take standardized tests.” Your teachers had many wonderful things to teach you, but funding schemes got in their way.


2. Expect to hear people like me complain about your lack of writing and reading skills. But I'm ready to help.

Work with me in your classes. Bring me drafts of what you are writing for feedback. It will take some extra work on both our parts, but you will see your ability to understand material, and as a bonus—your grades, improve. But you have to be willing to put in your part of the bargain.

Field of Study

If you are going on to some form of higher education, are you sure about what you want to study?

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3. Expect to not know what you want to do with your life.

It’s ok and it is perfectly acceptable. (Those of you who know what jobs you would like—plumbing, heating and air conditioning, mechanic—have probably already started down that road, and good on you! This is directed to those who will be moving on to colleges and universities. I will get back to you in a minute). Colleges and universities have something called “general education” programs. These are not, contrary to many undergraduates, there to bore you into submission. These course have been chosen by the faculty because 1) they offer important skills such as writing and speaking in public, or 2) because these present ways of viewing the world. Scientists see the world very differently than those in the humanities—you need to learn both ways of seeing. General education courses also present you with a chance to sample several different fields. Keep your mind open to the possibilities presented to you and choose your courses because they seem interesting, not because they seem easy (both judgments can sometimes be wrong). Find something than you are passionate about studying. The jobs will come.

What are employers looking for?

4. Expect to learn more than just your major.

Employers are interested in more than just a limited skill set. (OK, everyone come back now.) When you do finish your higher education, whatever form it may take, you will be applying, with everyone else, for the same jobs. Assuming that your credentials are all equal—you took the same classes and received, roughly, the same grades—how are employers going to decide who to hire? In 2011, researchers at Oklahoma State University listed the top three attributes that employers looked for in applicants. The three?—Writing skills, communication skills and critical thinking skills. None of the three are the exclusive property of any one major (although I would point out that Communication as a degree program does focus on all three of these—please pardon my shameless plug). All three of these can be developed in almost any major on any campus (although the basket weaving folks are still short on the writing side of things).

Extra- and Co-curricular activity

Have you, or do you plan, on doing some sort of extra- or co-curricular activity?

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5. Expect to do more than you are told to do.

Be ready to move beyond just the “required work.” There are several ways in which you can work to improve all three of skills employers say they want, but all of them require you, dear graduate, to take on more work and more responsibility. Colleges, universities and technical schools offer several types of programs or projects that will help you increase these skills. For example, you can conduct research. Doing original research will allow you to present or publish your findings. You can team up with a professor or instructor and do joint research. You can get involved with extra- or co-curricular activities on campuses and work in the university or wider community. Do service learning projects with non-profits and help to create a better school or organization or community program. All of these will help you with critical thinking, writing and communicating. All of these will show potential employers that you have the necessary talent and drive to help them. And all of these require you to step outside yourself and do more than what is required. Work on building yourself and bringing your community with you.

6. Expect things to be fluid.

Finally, be prepared to change. Many students change majors once they enter into college. That’s normal, that’s to be expected and that’s a good thing. You will be doing whatever it is you will do after graduation for a very long time—it is important that you love what you do and think that it is important. But also be prepared to change as the world changes. Both the society and the culture are changing rapidly and not always for the better. You will be in the midst of these changes. You will need to determine what is important and what can be jettisoned. Hold on to those values and beliefs that you hold dear but let go of those things that do not matter. Learn how to decide which is which.



And, in conclusion, I am the only thing standing between you and leaving.

I wish I could tell you the three things that will make you wealthy, happy, famous, intelligent and good looking. If I could, I would be wealthy, famous, intelligent and good looking. But I am happy. I am happy because I found something that I feel makes a difference in the world overall, even if I feel that some days that difference is “eh.” I am happy because I have found a path in life that allows me to do what I feel is important. And I am happy because my gown has three stripes, which is more than most of the people on stage with me have (you got to find your happiness where you can!). And I wish you happiness, whatever form it takes.


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