Thank you, President Roberts, for the invitation to be here today and give the commencement address. I am so honored to celebrate this special occasion with all of you! Your journey has included highs and lows, worries and celebrations, laughter and tears - congratulations parents, you made it!
Graduates, congratulations to you - you did it! I know your family, the faculty, and the entire Auburn Family are proud of you. Today, you not only receive a prestigious degree from one of the best universities in the country – and certainly the best in the State – but you also become Auburn Alumni.
This occasion is especially meaningful to me because I’ll soon be the parent of an Auburn graduate. My oldest daughter Olivia is a junior and rides on the equestrian team. A big shout out to the AUET ladies graduating today - we will miss you greatly! I’m just a year away from sitting in the stands, bursting with pride, and looking forward to the advice our commencement speaker will give to Olivia and her classmates. As I thought about the life-changing wisdom that I would offer you today (all in seven minutes or less!), my mind kept going back to two things – Auburn and Attitude.
I want to start out with something very Auburn - a big War Eagle! Wow, that was a good response. I think you are ready!
I have to admit, those two words didn’t mean as much to me when I was sitting where you are now as they do to me today. The words War Eagle are more than a greeting, they are more than a battle cry. No two words better capture the pride in the degree you receive today, or the common set of beliefs that guide us; or the traditions and memories that have brought you laughter and joy. More importantly, those two words mean there is a bigger family out there, one that supports you, cares about you, and wants you to succeed.
The Auburn Creed certainly makes Auburn special. The Creed is a set of beliefs that we strive to live by. Today, I want to leave you with some thoughts about our belief in the human touch. The Creed says:
I believe in the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow men and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness to all.
It is hard to believe that George Petrie wrote this in 1943. It speaks to us today, because we need the human touch now more than ever to overcome the issues that so often divide us. In particular, I want to share four things you can do as you leave this Arena today that are impactful and personify the belief we all share.
Give respect to everyone. This seems so basic, but with the amount and intensity of disagreement today, it can be hard to put into practice. Respect has to be given to get it in return. Manners and politeness are not a weakness. Respect requires listening, empathy, understanding, and being open to differing opinions. Respect does not require agreement, but it does demonstrate your character.
Connect with people, not to people. The operative word here is with. Connecting with people happens in person. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, people fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other. Personal connections matter. They make big problems small and small problems go away. If the last three years have taught us anything, it’s that our connections with people are the most important gifts in life.
Be humbly confident. As you walk across the stage today and into the next steps of life, you should be completely confident in your knowledge, skills, training, and the value that you bring to the table. At the same time, you need to be humble. There’s a great quote that says, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” Know that you always have more to learn, that others are valuable as well, and you can't do anything without other people.
Leave everything better than you found it. And I mean everything - your work product, your services, your organization, your community, and especially people. Have a positive impact on the people around you. People won't remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.
As you go out into the world, I encourage you to uphold the values of the Auburn Creed by practicing these fundamentals in your life and say War Eagle loudly and proudly, wherever you are, to every person in the Auburn Family you see.
As for Attitude, have you ever heard the saying – you can’t control your situation, but you can control your attitude about how you deal with it. COVID gave you a VERY non-traditional university experience, and each of you found ways to keep moving forward. You learned in different ways and supported each other through the hard and uncertain days. Because of this experience, you are more resilient, more fearless, and more open to doing things differently. Although it was extreme, it won’t be the last time you face adversity, hardship, or disappointment.
There will be a job you didn't get, a team your child didn't make, a situation that tests your resolve. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Weakley, told us that when the Lord closes a door, he opens a window. Said another way, in times of challenge or disappointment, look for the opportunity. It all comes down to your attitude about the situation. Of course, that advice didn't mean very much to us as fourth graders. But as I progressed through my life, I’ve come to appreciate Mrs. Weakley’s wisdom more and more.
Looking back on my life, I have applied this advice so many times and I can tell you from personal experience that it is hard to flip the script. It’s hard to move from disappointment to hopefulness and possibly anger to excitement. In the heat of the situation, it is hard to look away from the door, hard to even want to find a window, and hard to recognize the window that could be right in front of you. To flip the script, you have to intentionally change your attitude. I call it having an attitude adjustment with myself. Once that happens, it is amazing how the possibilities become clear and your outlook on your situation improves. In fact, other people will notice your attitude toward the adversity.
I used this advice early in my career when my group reorganized, and I moved from reporting to the department head to reporting to a peer. I could have focused on the closed door and what I thought I had lost – not being in certain meetings, not having the department head’s ear or seeing him regularly. Instead, I intentionally decided to find my window. My attitude adjustment allowed me to see my new boss’ years of experience and extensive network as opportunities to learn, grow and develop deeper credibility. He willingly gave me greater insights into our business, he helped me take advantage of his network, and he became an advocate for me and my organization, which carried a lot of weight. He did all of that because of how I handled the situation. In addition to those opportunities, the change in attitude made me happier and more fulfilled, and soon afterward I had a promotional opportunity.
If my daughter Olivia had not had a bad accident while barrel racing, she would not have turned to reining and would not be riding on a 3-time SEC Championship team. I just had to work that in somehow – we ARE the everything school.
If I had made cheerleader at Auburn, I would not have had time to be an SGA Senator, where I developed my leadership skills and the public speaking skills that help me here on this stage today.
I could go on and on – example after example. But you get the point. When disappointments happen, they might seem like the end of the world, but they aren’t. Adjust your attitude, find your window, and you will see that these challenges become just bumps on the road of life.
So, the words I want to leave you with are simple – Auburn and Attitude. Auburn has provided you with the foundation for success in life. Now it is up to you – with the right attitude – to see just how high you can fly.
I wish each of you success in whatever you do and wherever you go from here and I hope to see you soon, here on the Plains!