Office of the President

Dr. Patrick T. Harker is the 26th president of the University of Delaware. He also serves as professor of business administration in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

Winter Commencement
Bob Carpenter Sports and Convocation Center
January 8, 2012

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I can’t imagine a better way to begin 2012 than by congratulating the Class of 2011. Today, we honor, as well, all the families and friends whose encouragement, love, and support have gotten you to this milestone day. I think they deserve a round of applause.

I want to begin my brief remarks this afternoon with some good news for the graduates now entering this nation’s workforce. We found out on Friday that U.S. unemployment has dropped to 8.5 percent, the lowest rate in nearly three years. The country added 1.6 million jobs this past year, and for those filling them, 2012 looks a lot brighter than 2011 did.

And yet I can’t tell you the economy you’re graduating into is booming. I won’t guarantee you a clear road from here on out. I can’t offer assurances that you’ll race up the career ladder two rungs at a time.

But I can say with confidence that you have a much better shot at success than most. Last year, the share of UD graduates still looking for a job six months after Commencement dropped to 2 percent. That’s about half the unemployment rate among college graduates nationwide, which is already half the rate of the overall population. I assume the parents here today will want a copy of those stats.

But we’re not here to celebrate a diploma. Because your time at the University of Delaware has given you more than a college degree. It’s given you a capacity and a willingness to learn, and to keep learning. It’s that inclination to grow that smooths a bumpy road; that helps you find a detour rather than a dead end; that makes the career ladder climbable, even if it’s not the ladder you started out on.

What has shocked so many people in this recession, what’s dislocated them, is the upending of a plan—a rock-solid, sure and steady plan. I know you have a plan, and I bet it’s a good one. Your classes, your major, your internships and networks—they all fed and furthered your plan. And I’m not suggesting you abandon it. Parents, you heard me say that, right? I’ll send you a transcript.

What I am suggesting is that you acknowledge that plans change—by your own doing or by circumstances beyond your control. And I’m suggesting that in that moment, you remember that you can dare and you can risk, you can jump from the known into the unknown, and from the safe into the scary because you can learn. And in learning, you cultivate flexibility and adaptability in a life that demands them, especially now.

Last year at this ceremony, our Commencement speaker was UD alumnus and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. And to the graduates beginning their next chapters one year ago, he said: “Your education may be a part of everything you do. But then again, it may not. To be free,” he said, “is to know that at any time in life, you can choose any new direction, and any new goal.”

My new direction ultimately brought me to the presidency of UD, after a pretty long stint running a business school. This isn’t the typical career path for a civil engineer, and it’s not one I envisioned for myself when I crossed the stage at my own Commencement. You’re free to rewrite your script; you’re free to film the alternate ending.

I understand that this day is a major milestone. We wouldn’t recognize it with pomp and circumstance if it weren’t. So I can understand you hitting this point, this clear demarcation, and thinking: “I’m done.” But you’re not, of course. (You’re not beginning either, as some of us might imply when Commencement rolls around.)

Like the rest of us, you’re somewhere in the middle—I hope closer to the start than the finish. And it’s on this path—in this pursuit of new knowledge, new ideas, and new skills—that you’ll find the freedom that Gov. Christie talked about.

And not just the freedom to quit one career and take up another. But the freedom to learn things only for the sake of learning them, for the sake of simple discovery. The freedom to develop your talents—talents your job might not fully exploit. The freedom to connect continually with new perspectives and new people. The freedom to open your mind, to satisfy your curiosity, to know yourself and others—humans and human nature—better. The freedom to be fascinated—again and again. To be interested, and interesting. The freedom to find your own meaning—meaning you might not derive from your career. The freedom of true fulfillment.

More than 3,000 Delawareans my age—50 and over—take courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at UD. That’s where they come together to learn—learn the Classics, learn Mandarin, learn the French horn, learn cloud computing. Their jobs don’t depend on it. But their joy does. Art, architecture, cinema, history, geology, technology, microbiology—it’s a rich curriculum, but there are no grades. Imagine that. No grades. Just learning. Talk about freedom.

So I guess what I’m saying is there’s no rush. There’s no finish line. There’s only infinite knowledge to explore—and many years left for exploring. I hope you do.

Thank you and congratulations!

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