Commencement 2012: Graduates get a 'letter' from the president
By Eric Coker
President Harvey Stenger has much in common with the Class of 2012.
More than five months ago, Stenger was facing the unknown: A new job at Binghamton University that not only required finding a new place to live and new friends, but left him wondering if he would be successful.
Members of the Class of 2012 will soon be facing the unknown, as well, whether it is at a new school or new job. In a personal letter read at Commencement ceremonies to his "newest friends and colleagues," Stenger assured graduates that they will overcome their uncertainties and fears like he has.
"In four or five months, you will still feel a little bit lost, a little bit lonely and a little bit homesick," he said. "But you will also feel a sense of achievement. It's difficult to imagine right now, but it will happen. I know it will happen for you, because I know how great this University is and how it has helped prepare you for uncertainty and unknowns. Our faculty, staff and your fellow students have been instrumental in that preparation. You will find yourself referring back to those experiences to gain the strength and confidence when you need it most."
Stenger's first Commencement address as president was one of several highlights in a weekend that saw the University award more than 3,300 bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Undergraduate ceremonies were held in the packed Events Center on May 20, while the graduate ceremony was held the night before.
Besides Stenger, speakers included honorary-degree recipients Mary Wakefield, Paul Turovsky '73 and Steve Karmen, who received a standing ovation for his address. Students Jennifer Tomas, Benjamin Summers, Michelle Eberhart and Janathri Nanayakkara, and Alumni Association board member Heidi Goldstein '81 also addressed the Class of 2012.
Stenger told the class members that it is his "custom" to read a letter to someone he is close to, such as his family, friends or colleagues. He urged students to fight their fear and uncertainty with "good planning, energy, enthusiasm and confidence."
"Uncertainty and fear can be considered a weakness, but I encourage you to use it as your source of energy," he said. "When I wake up each morning, I get up early enough so I can get in some 'my time,' whether it is to read the newspaper, have a cup of coffee, go for a run or write in my journal. I put on my game face, study the day's agenda, imagine each encounter I will have, their uncertainty and unknown outcomes, and go for it."
Some of the rules Stenger has tried to follow during his days at the University include smiling from ear to ear; being a good listener; learning about his surroundings; and taking his time before making a decision.
The hardest things Stenger and the students will encounter, he said, are the unexpected: criticism, making mistakes or solving the problems of others.
"We will take those unexpected bumps in the road as ways to learn about ourselves and how we respond to problems and even crises."
Stenger urged the class members to "reconnect with your past" by re-engaging with family and friends on the weekend.
"Find time to see them face to face, not just on Facebook," he said. "The friends we leave behind will be some of our best friends for life and that requires an obligation of effort."
As the father of two daughters, Stenger said he has learned that his advice to them is best received through a story about his own decision-making – and its consequences.
"After being a father for 25 years and a professor for 30, I've learned to know that my remarks will fade quickly from your memories," he said. "So I don't expect you to remember my advice. But maybe you will remember the story about my first semester at Binghamton. And that's the best I can do for you. Sincerely, Harvey."
Wakefield, who serves as administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, offered Harpur College graduates four lessons that she has learned during her career.
The first lesson: "Lean into change: Don't shy away from it."
In an increasingly connected world, "far-flung people, places and things" will be influenced by the students' work, she said at the May 20 morning ceremony.
"From my vantage point, the opportunity to shape change is very exciting," she said. "Embrace change. Help to shape it – for yourself, your family, your community and even the world."
The second lesson: "Where others see limitations, you look for the opportunity."
Wakefield said she was able to use her knowledge and skills as a nurse to help inform the development of healthcare legislation, even if it meant taking a pay cut.
"If you look for them, there is a galaxy filled with opportunities waiting outside the doors of this building," she said. "Opportunities in small, rural towns and in large city centers."
Lesson three: Replace "I can't" with "I can" or "We can."
"When it comes to something important, 'I can't' isn't the answer," she said. "What I've learned is that the real difference you make – and how other people view you – has more to do with your attitude than with your money, clothes or your car."
Lesson four: Find ways to lend a hand – and reach out for one when needed.
Helping others is some of the most important work the class members can do, Wakefield said.
"Simply put, America's progress and America's promise, depends on you and others like you," she told the students. "In keeping with the finest tradition of this academic institution, clearly from the Class of 2012 we should expect extraordinary things."
In the afternoon ceremony, Turovsky said he was "honored and humbled" to receive his honorary degree and speak to students.
"I never dreamed when I graduated so long ago that I would ever have the opportunity to return to my alma mater to deliver a commencement address," said Turovsky, who is the founding principal of real estate investment management firm True North Management Group. He also is chair of the Binghamton University Foundation Board of Directors and chair of Binghamton University's fundraising campaign, Bold.Brilliant.Binghamton.
Turovsky discussed the importance of a liberal-arts education and the role that it will play in students' professional lives.
"There is nothing wrong with students of the liberal arts going on to become doctors or lawyers or teachers or even getting a business degree to become an accountant," he said. "What is important is that you recognize there are many other possibilities and choices filled with enormous opportunities. The next step for you is to find out what some of them are."
Turovsky, for example, transitioned from a being a student in Latin American history to a career in business in which he manages more than $700 million in assets for institutional investors.
"I implore you to persevere and search for the right first opportunity," he advised. "Ask everyone you know what they do and what the details of their days are like. Think creatively about links between classes that you have taken and potential job or career opportunities. Volunteer or take an internship if that gets your foot in a door that you think is promising."
Whether it's learning about history, literature or sciences, the liberal arts have provided students with an excellent training for future success, Turovsky said.
"A liberal arts degree is certainly not the only path to professional success and may not be the clearest or easiest path, but you certainly should not look at it as an obstacle that cannot be overcome and you should definitely concentrate on turning it into an advantage, which I am sure that you can."
Turovsky's final pieces of advice could apply to all Binghamton University graduates: Rejoice in the day, embrace the coming challenges and appreciate the valuable experiences you have had.
"It took me more than 20 years after graduating before I returned to this school and started to re-establish my relationship as an alumnus," he said. "I regret that it took me so long to do this. So I would hope that you won't follow that same path but instead continue to stay connected and do everything you can in the years ahead to help others gain access to the excellent educational opportunities that this fine University has provided to you."
Goldstein extended several challenges to members of the Class of 2012: take advantage of membership in the Alumni Association, network with other graduates, stay connected to the University and pay it forward, pursue a path that ignites passion, and write a six-word story on what Binghamton University means to them. She encouraged the new graduates to post those stories to the Alumni Association Facebook page and tweet them on Twitter #bearcats4life.
"Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story using only six words," Goldstein said. "In connection with that, each [alumni] board member was challenged to write a story about his or her experience at Binghamton using only six words. My story came to me instantly: best four years of my life. I challenge you to consider the meaning of a six-word story we all have in common: Binghamton students once, Binghamton alumni always."