Graduates learn about the power of mentoring
By Eric Coker
“Dear Graduate: FYI UR R DONE & GRADUATED. OMG. NOW GOI, GBTW, YOYO. VCDA, HAK & BTW – DLTBBB.”
This text message was spoken by honorary-degree recipient Owen Pell '80 as an example of how Binghamton University and other schools could communicate to graduates instead of holding Commencement ceremonies.
“For those of you not versed in text messaging,” Pell said, “or who are over the age of 25, what I just said was: ‘Dear Graduate: For your information you are done and graduated. Oh my God. Now, get over it, get back to work, you’re on your own. Vaya con dios, amigo, hugs and kisses, and, by the way, don’t let the bedbugs bite.’
“Sound and precise advice,” he added. “But we don’t do that.”
Commencement ceremonies, Pell told students, instead show the importance of mentoring.
“This ceremony marks the beginning of your becoming great mentors for this University,” the lawyer and philanthropist said.
Pell’s lesson was just one of many the Class of 2011 received during four ceremonies held May 21-22 in the Events Center. The weekend saw more than 3,200 degrees conferred and featured the largest Graduate School ceremony in school history and a Harpur College afternoon ceremony that saw nearly every Events Center seat filled.
Students also heard from President C. Peter Magrath; honorary-degree recipients Terence Keane, MA '76, PhD '79, a scholar/researcher and clinician; David Orr, an environmental leader and educator/writer; University Medal recipient William Chen, a landmark researcher instrumental in establishing the relationship between the University and IBM-Endicott; and student speakers Nicole Rouhana, Sharif Khalil, Yann Ilboudo and Nathan Satin.
“As a student, professor and executive officer, I have been a part of eight universities, all of them outstanding,” Magrath said. “I can say without hesitation that Binghamton University, which I’ve had the honor of serving twice, matches all of them and exceeds some in its quality, students, faculty, staff and everybody who works here.
“Those of you graduating today are graduating from an A+ university – and I consider myself a tough grader,” said Magrath, who also had parents and family stand up for a rousing ovation from the crowd.
Speaking to students at the Harpur College morning ceremony, Pell weaved text messaging, Eminem and The Wizard of Oz together in a 13-minute address about the power of mentoring. Pell, who has achieved national and international prominence as part of the U.S. delegation to the Holocaust Era Assets Conference, noted that Amazon.com has nearly 2,000 titles on the important topic.
“Each of you can dramatically alter your chances of success by finding good mentors and by being good mentees,” Pell said. “Whether you realize it or not, Binghamton has taught you about mentoring and what it means to be a good mentee.”
Mentoring is about someone challenging the mentee in order to raise him or her to a higher level of skill or maturity, Pell said. It isn’t always pleasant and it does not guarantee success. It is “a dance” between two people and the mentee must demonstrate that he or she is eager to work and ask questions.
“It is only by not being afraid to ask questions that you show that you are not afraid to be wrong or to speak up,” Pell said.
Pell also emphasized face-to-face communication in mentoring.
“Any meaningful relationship has to move beyond e-mails or text messages,” he said. “Perhaps more than any generation, this will be a huge challenge for you, who have grown used to speaking with your thumbs or in shorthanded bursts of 140 characters or less.”
Pell used two pop-culture examples – 72 years apart – to show the timelessness of mentoring. In Eminem’s 2011 hit song "I Need a Doctor," the rapper is trying to communicate with a mentor, producer/rapper Dr. Dre: “Can’t make a decision, you keep questioning yourself/second guessing and it’s almost like you’re begging for my help./Like I’m your leader. You’re supposed to be my mentor./I can endure no more I demand you remember you are.”
“The song shows that mentoring is a conversation and also a moment like graduation day,” Pell said. “When the mentee is grown up enough to act like the mentor.”
Pell then went back to 1939 and the classic film The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy and her three friends search for a wizard who can help the teen return to her Kansas home.
“When they finally get to Oz and meet the wizard, he does what any good mentor would do,” Pell said. “He does not give them what they want but demands that they earn it by killing a wicked witch – who has already been trying to kill Dorothy and her friends. He also insults all of them for good measure. Tough love.”
When Dorothy and her friends destroy the witch and return to the wizard, they see he is an ordinary man. The wizard points out to the brain-seeking scarecrow that he is “aiming low” and rewards him with a diploma.
“In that final act of mentoring, the wizard closed an important circle by recognizing and celebrating what the scarecrow had already: the brains he had to help Dorothy,” Pell said. “That is really what we do here. More than just celebrating your brains and academic achievement, we are celebrating the relationship that all of us on this stage hope has been built with all of you.”
Binghamton University has offered knowledge, experience and lessons, Pell said, and the mentees are now ready to become mentors in the world.
“This ceremony celebrates and recognizes the moment when you moved beyond the University and when we sent you off to do great and wonderful things,” he said. “By showing the world that a Binghamton graduate is special – and capable of special things – you will give back to the University.”
In other Commencement highlights:
• Senior Class Council President Cory Jankow announced that the Class of 2011’s gift to the University will be a pavilion near the entrance of the Nature Preserve.
• Orr told students that their “great work” is to “bring order to the chaos.” His advice included finding worthy heroes; having physical, intellectual and moral courage; taking everyone with you when you succeed; seeing the big picture; and learning to laugh.
He also reminded students of the things they learned in kindergarten: clean up your messes, share your cookies and hold hands when crossing the street.
“As you grow into adulthood, your messes get bigger, the cookies get bigger and sharing gets harder, and the dangers grow more real and serious.”
• Chen stressed that the research being conducted at Binghamton University will be crucial in the growth of electronic packaging and devices such as smart phones and tablets.
The Class of 2011 will be part of advancing technology, he said, thanks to creativity and design skills.
“With great faculty and students, you are a vital part of the supply chain of knowledge,” he said.
• Keane discussed the importance of the book A Sense of Where You Are on his life. Written by John McPhee, the 1965 book profiles Princeton University basketball star (and future New York Knick and U.S. senator) Bill Bradley. The book is still a “powerful metaphor for an academic and scientific career” now, Keane said.
“Understand what the goal is, assembling a group with similar goals and complementary skills, knowing the strengths of your academic team, relying upon team members to do the things in which they are expert, providing leadership when needed, and letting others lead when it’s their time will yield academic success, personal satisfaction and the excitement of discovery throughout the course of your career.”