2011 Graduate and Professional Commencement Address by Sunne Wright McPeak
President Brother Gallagher and Faculty, Graduates and Your Family and Friends, it is an honor to be invited to participate in this Commencement, which is the first time that the ceremony includes all the Graduate and Professional Programs here at beautiful St. Mary's College, a very special place in Contra Costa County and an outstanding asset to higher education in California. This is the third time I've had the opportunity to address a graduate programs commencement at St. Mary's, the first time in 1984 and again in 1996. I've observed over these 27 years that the ages of you graduates have remained about the same, but I've gotten a lot older. I've gone from thinking I'm just talking to my peers to feeling quite "motherly" towards all of you. Indeed, I'm proud as a parent of your accomplishment in completing your graduate education program and obtaining your degree and have great hopes and expectations for all that you're going to be able to do to make the world a better place. And, it is an added bonus that so many of you will remain living and working in this region, adding to our economic competitiveness and quality of life by virtue of simply being among us. But, as much as I enjoy commencements, I want to begin with a few confessions (and where better than here?):
First, I enjoy graduation ceremonies much more when I don't have to speak, so you have my apologies.
Second, when I received the invitation for today I accepted because my good friend Tim Farley asked and I wanted to support St. Mary's College, but I did note that the event was scheduled for the day after the predicted Rapture, so thought there was an outside chance that I'd be pre-empted by more heavenly forces.
Third, I feel inadequate to address you because there's nothing I can say that you don't already know-and know better than anyone else about yourself: each of you has within yourself the wellspring of wisdom, ability and conviction you need to successfully walk life's journey.
Three Simple Lessons
Thus, I'm simply going to share some reflections from my own experience and leave you with 3 simple lessons about achieving your dreams and reaching your potential:
1. Have a dream that you share with others. Have a vision for what the world around you can be and what your role will be to achieve it.
2. Take personal responsibility for achieving that vision and leaving the world around you a better place. Be a leader at work and in your community.
3. Value family and friends. Being sincerely and honestly connected to other people is essential for true happiness and personal contentment.
I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley on a small dairy farm with very modest means.
But I was blessed with parents who loved their children and put them at the center of their universe. They also valued education and wanted for me and my brother more than anything else that we'd be able to go to college, something they weren't able to do. My father did go for a semester but then dropped out to volunteer in World War II. My uncle actually went here to St. Mary's for a short while before doing the same. My parents always told us, "You can be anything you want to be," but education is the key. They were right-just as you know and why you're here today. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, which has made all the difference in my life-not just acquiring knowledge, but also being challenged to think more deeply and having the opportunity to interact with people I'd never otherwise meet, including my husband, John, who also was the first person in his family to graduate from college and did so with an engineering degree. But he wasn't personally fulfilled as an engineer, so he returned to college at age 42 to become a teacher-making his passion his vocation-and he was a great teacher making a huge difference in the education of hundreds of students.
Growing up on the family farm there wasn't a lot of interaction with other kids, so my Mom sent me to Sunday school to "socialize" me before kindergarten-and I got "religion" along the way, coming to believe that with God nothing is impossible. Whatever your personal beliefs, having faith in a higher power beyond ourselves- however you describe it or whatever you conceive it to be-can be a source of inner strength that keeps you going and gets you through very difficult times. Whenever things seem totally out of control and problems appear insurmountable, I just pray. For me, prayer is both my last and first resort, because we mere mortals can use all the divine intervention we can get.
Leadership and Responsibility
I also believe that we have a responsibility to use our God-given talents to help others-and to leave the world a better place-and to do our very best in every endeavor-at home, at work and in the community. It is in this realm of business and public service that I can bear witness to the ability of each of us to be leaders to improve the world around us and to change the course of history. In its most basic form, leadership means taking personal responsibility to make something happen. In the workplace-be it in the private, public or nonprofit sector-fulfilling that responsibility requires focus and discipline-charting a course with a specific work plan coupled with accountability for results. Leadership also means inspiring others to do their very best and to rise to meet whatever are the challenges. Leaders usually begin by listening to their colleagues or the people they serve to forge a common vision and agreement for action, and then tap into their abilities with high expectations. People always will rise to the occasion when asked.
You learned a lot about the theory and required skills while here at St. Mary's. Now put that into practice each day-write down what you will achieve today, this week, this month, this quarter, this year-and continuously monitor progress and measure results, adjusting course as needed to drive to the goal line. Believe it or not, as obvious as this discipline and practice are, it is too often the missing ingredient at work or in tackling major problems in society. When I served in state government as Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, I had responsibility for 14 departments and 6 operating programs, working with 42,000 employees. Without any new money or people, we were able to turn around and improve performance in every department and save taxpayers millions of dollars. The most notable example is that when I was appointed as secretary the wait times at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) were an average of about an hour. Working with the 7,800 public employees of the DMV-listening to them, setting goals, holding us all accountable-we were able to reduce the median wait time to 21 minutes within a year. It was just simple leadership by many of us that made the difference. And, the truth is, things were so bad in State Government that I didn't have to be very good to be appreciated or effective-so just imagine what you can do!
The Power of One
Know that each person counts and that one person always can make a difference. In fact, history is replete with such examples. Thomas Jefferson was elected president by 1 vote in the electoral college. California was admitted to the union on a margin of 1 vote. Rosa Parks stood up for equality simply by sitting down on a Montgomery bus in 1955, sparking a turning point in the civil rights movement. The importance of one person plays out in small ways in everyday life that add up to big moments in history. In fact, just observe that in every meeting or gathering there will come a point when someone speaks up with a proposal that resonates with the majority to become a turning point, causing something to happen that otherwise wouldn't. Someone takes personal responsibility with the courage of their convictions.
This lesson was made clear to me in my first election for Contra Costa County supervisor in 1978 when I was the outside challenger regarded as a long shot at best by the political establishment, but had a very dedicated group of supporters and enough commitment to make things better to at least try. I won the plurality of votes in the primary election by just 2 votes. While I still had to go through a runoff in the general election, that slight margin had a tremendous psychological edge. And everyone I saw claimed to be one of the 2 votes-which, of course, they had every right to do because had just 2 people not gone to the polls that day, the ultimate outcome might have been very different. By the way, 2 of those voters that day were St. Mary's own Tim Farley and his brother.
As American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead is renowned for observing: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
Readiness is All
Keep in mind that a dream or vision is much more likely to be realized when backed up with hard work and focus on your goals. In life, the biggest challenges (and opportunities) often are those we can never anticipate nor imagine. And when the unexpected presents itself, you may not have a lot of time to react but will have to call upon what you know to be right in your gut, which only comes for continuously trying. When Apollo 13 developed problems two-thirds of the way to the moon, Flight Control Officer Gene Kranz made the first key decision within 45 minutes that was pivotal to saving the crew. As you'll recall from the movie, his leadership made NASA keep working the problem that got those three Americans back alive because he would not give up, saying "failure is not an option." When the U.S. Airways plane hit birds taking off in New York, Contra Costa's own Captain Sullenberger made the crucial decision to land in the Hudson in less than 30 seconds. The more you plan, focus and work hard, the better you can handle the unexpected circumstances.
As you leave with your degree today and ponder the career opportunities in these uncertain economic times, please take heart in your own abilities. There are some encouraging signs for a recovering economy, but this recession has been sobering, reminding us that we cannot take for granted past strengths. Fortunately, statistical trends are not destiny, and it is entirely possible to restore California as the Golden State once again with great promise and rewarding opportunities, especially for all of you with a good education. When I enumerated my confessions earlier, I should have disclosed that I slept through Econ 101 in college, so I've had to spend the last two decades learning about California's economy-figuring out how we compete globally and what attracts capital investment that generates jobs. A big part of the answer is that we compete by adding knowledge and innovation to goods and services. Thus, your graduation is a competitive strength and, by definition, is enhancing your own job prospects. However, in order to continue to attract capital investment, California also needs to reinvest in education and infrastructure to be world-class, with total reform of how government operates to deliver a higher return on investment for taxpayers and better results for the people served. Conventional politics are almost irrelevant and anachronistic in a global economy. "Left" or "Right" is not the direction we're trying to go: we seek to go forward. California is entirely governable if elected officials just listen and move government closer to the people-empowering Californians to improve their schools, communities and environment. I urge you to become involved in the governing process in whatever way inspires and energizes you. As the League of Women Voters say, "Democracy is not a spectator sport"-take advantage of the privilege we have to govern ourselves to be one more opportunity to better our world.
"Dust and Sweat and Blood"
When I spoke at the Commencement in 1984, I shared the following quote from Theodore Roosevelt to underscore the importance of being involved:
"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. "
This quote still provides much inspiration and solace for when I'm coping with failure and regrouping to take another run at a challenge. It also was the topic of an interesting life experience for me.
Immediately following those graduation ceremonies I flew to Washington, D.C., for meetings with a group of 15 people drafting the party platform for a convention that year. In the meeting was the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and I was given the task of debating him on a policy matter. He paraphrased the same quote but attributed it to President Kennedy. Being the upstart from California, I responded by saying that I, too, like the quote but it was from Teddy Roosevelt. After an animated exchange, I simply reached into my briefcase, retrieved my speech and read the entire quote, causing such surprise that he gave me a courtesy vote on the matter being debated. As fate would have it, tonight I'm on a plane for Washington, D.C., but I'm prepared because I have my Saint Mary's commencement speech.
As much as I want to instill confidence in yourselves and call upon your leadership, at this age I also want to share that "time flies even when you're not having fun," so it is important to take time to enjoy and share life with the ones you love. Tell your family and friends often why and how they are important to you. Hug them and count them among your blessings.
Lessons From Baseball
In concluding I can't help but think about the new St. Mary's baseball stadium being built and call upon a little baseball philosophy. It is named in honor of alumnus former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto, and Ken and Jean Hofmann are leading the fundraising campaign. These are civic leaders who have made a big difference in their communities. And, baseball is such a great metaphor for life because the players with the most homerun scores also have some of the highest number of strikeouts. You cannot hit the ball over the fence unless you're in the game swinging at the pitch.
And, when in the future you're pursuing your dreams, leading projects at work or in your community, and supporting your family and friends, and run up against hurdles or become discouraged and are tempted to give up, keep in mind the advice from that sage American philosopher Casey Stengel, who said:
"They say it can't be done, but that don't always work."
You have the ability to do whatever you put your mind to-to accomplish amazing things-and to lead California into the future and back to greatness. We're all counting on you.