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.

Spring Commencement
Delaware Stadium
May 25, 2013

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Good morning to the Class of 2013! Isn’t it a great day to graduate?

I’d like to acknowledge the families and friends, faculty, and administrators who’ve gathered this morning to send these graduates out into the world. I’m so glad you all could join us on this very special day.

Presidents often take the podium at Commencement ceremonies to extol the virtues of the graduates sitting before them. They talk about the qualities that have carried them to this milestone—those attributes that have made their diplomas possible and that predict success in later life. Talent is a quality that’s often invoked, as are ambition, passion, and commitment. And I’ve no doubt that you have all these attributes in great quantities.

But when I was a boy growing up in a town next door to Camden, New Jersey, I went around the neighborhoods selling a magazine called Grit. Maybe that’s why I like the word so much, and what it describes.

Grit is a cousin to perseverance—the continued effort to achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.

But where perseverance has just a whiff of meekness—grit is a little burlier, more aggressive, less imploring. Grit is unyielding courage in the face of hardship. Grit is firmness of mind or spirit. While being gifted might get you the football, being gritty is what gets you—and it—into the end zone.

I couldn’t be prouder to be surrounded by so much grit.

Environmental Studies major Bryan Stephan was in a windsurfing accident this past fall. He suffered several broken bones, including his hip and arm. But he kept up with his coursework from his hospital bed, and later at home as he recuperated. He was in constant communication with his professors and classmates—and he completed a maximum course load of 17 credits with a 3.65 GPA, despite his painful injuries. That’s pretty gritty. Bryan’s with us today, along with his family and friends. Congratulations, Bryan.

Shelby Johantgen is an Early Childhood Education major. She and her fiancé Griffin Becker, a Biology and Exercise Science major, had their daughter Cadence three years ago. About seven months after Cadence was born, Shelby returned to UD full-time. She and Griffin juggled full course loads—and schedules that changed each semester—all while caring for an infant, and then a toddler. It could have come apart. It didn’t. Shelby just completed her student teaching; Griffin is starting medical school in the fall; Cadence turns 3 next month; and Shelby and Griffin are getting married this summer. They’re all here with us today. Congratulations—on everything!

Hong Yin is a Food and Agribusiness Marketing and Management major. And a Resource Economics major. And an Operations Management major. She has more majors and minors—five if you’re counting—than it took her years to graduate from UD. (That would be four.) Hong came to UD from China with very little English, and attended the English Language Institute to learn it. She knows there’s a distinct educational advantage in completing so many courses of study. But she loaded herself up with classes for another reason that’s just as practical: She wanted to meet people. She says she’s not from here, so if she takes more classes, she’ll know more people and make more friends. That’s grit. Congratulations, Hong.

Alexandra Bayles is an Honors student in Chemical Engineering. She’s a Goldwater Scholar, and this fall, she starts a PhD program at UC Santa Barbara under an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. I won’t even attempt to explain her research focus. She’s co-authored high-impact papers in her field, and is first author on one in the manuscript stage now. Alexandra is listed as co-inventor on two Procter & Gamble patents. And when she returned to UD after a summer in the P&G labs, the company supplied a $40,000 grant to buy the equipment Alexandra needed to continue her experiments. If all this seems terrifically gifted, but not necessarily gritty, consider that less than 20 percent of chemical engineers working today are women. Alexandra will need some grit. And she’s got it in spades. Congratulations, Alexandra.

And then there are all the graduates here today who are helping others access their own inner grit.

Michael Rowley is an Honors student who double-majored in Exercise Science and Biology, and minored in Dance. Every summer since he’s been at UD, he’s gone to New Orleans, to an arts outreach camp, and he teaches children displaced or affected by Hurricane Katrina … to dance. I think we could all borrow a little grit from those kids.

As their capstone design project, Mechanical Engineering seniors Matthew Klixbull, Devin Prate, Daniel Evans, Chris Leonard, Matthew Durst, and Michael Pfeiffer worked with the Department of Physical Therapy and Yes U Can USA to retrofit a recumbent bicycle so that people with disabilities can use it—so that they don’t have to sacrifice physical activity, and can feel the vitality they did before their mobility was compromised. Firmness of spirit. Grit.

Eighteen brothers of Theta Chi drove up to Manahawkin, New Jersey, four days after Hurricane Sandy had torn it apart. Initially, they were there to help the aunt of one of the fraternity brothers. But, ultimately, they moved house to house throughout the neighborhood, gutting the homes down to their studs—so that a community destroyed could rebuild. Gritty as ever.

There’s our truly amazing Commencement speaker today, Paul Farmer, founding director of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit dedicated to improving direct healthcare for the world’s poorest people. From one clinic in one community, to a health, research, and advocacy network with sites in a dozen countries, Paul Farmer and Partners in Health are building a world rich in compassion and heart, in solidarity, in rigorous morality, and—yes—in grit.

I’m humbled and proud to lead a University full—absolutely full—of people who stare down challenges, whose dogged determination wins out, who are courageous and confident and convinced of their ability to make the future they want. Who are firm of mind and firm of spirit.  

You’ll need this grit. At some point, I promise, you’ll need it. Remember that you have a limitless reservoir inside you. Dig deep and go strong.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013!

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