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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


The Goal Versus the Process of Getting There

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Commencement Address
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho

December 12, 1998

Good afternoon and congratulations to you, the Class of 1998 graduates. As the first class of December graduates, you can move into the holiday season with a genuine sense of celebration.

What exhilaration and relief you must be feeling. How proud your families and friends are about your accomplishment. Congratulations to everyone.

It is exciting to be in Appaloosa country and an honor to deliver the University of Idaho first ever December commencement address. The University has made enormous strides over the past 10 years, and President Hoover will lead the University to even greater achievements in the next 10 years--into the 21st century.

I hope that although this is Nez Perce country, I can take the liberty of relating a comment by Fools Crow, the Ceremonial Chief of the Teton Sioux. He said, "Quitting is the greatest failure of all."

Surely, graduation is the greatest affirmation that there are no quitters here. You are all winners.

Graduations are also nostalgic events because they are about milestones and about moving on. Being invited to speak at a graduation is both a wonderful and a dangerous opportunity.

It is an honor because you, the audience, are celebrants at the very crest of a significant accomplishment. There is anticipation in the air.

There is an uncharted path of opportunity ahead. I relish that excitement and live vicariously through all the possibilities that await you.

Why danger? Danger arises out of my impulse to wax eloquent on all the important lessons of life, to offer examples from my own reservoir of experience, and to sprinkle all of this with advice, and more advice and even more advice.

Undoubtedly, the danger lies in boring all of you to tears.

So let me assure you that, despite these inclinations, I ascribe to the old wisdom I once found in a Fortune Cookie. The message was, "The more you say, the less people remember."

I have already learned that graduation talks should be brief and compelling.

I have titled my remarks today, "The Goal Versus the Process of Getting There." That title is based on a fragment of wisdom from the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin.

She said, "It is good to have an end to journey toward, but in the end it is the journey that matters."

An insight that is so simple, but so perceptive, can change the way in which we understand and appreciate our lives.

It is so important in today's world when you, as a 1998 graduate, will very likely change careers seven or more times before you retire.

I graduated from Purdue University in the mid-1950s, and the world in which I started my career in science, was a world vastly different from the one you know and must navigate through today.

Nevertheless, there are some perspectives about life that are so fundamental that they are useful across generations.

I grew up in the earliest days of television--pre Flintstones even. You have grown up in a world heavily influenced by the personal computer.

The chip is the universal key and facilitator of your era, in the way that electricity was for my parents' era and the two "teles"--television and telephones--were for mine.

And, remember, the enormous changes between your era and mine cover a period of only about 40 years! How powerfully that indicates the pace of change in contemporary society!

Almost everything in today's era is happening at revolutionary speed. My field of the biological sciences has been almost completely transformed since the 1970s.

Biotechnology applications are so commonplace that we forget that biotechnology is a field that did not exist when I was an undergraduate.

Biotechnology has important implications and applications in agriculture; a point that I know is well understood in this wheat and legume heartland.

The biotechnology industry of today was started less than twenty years ago and now employs more than 130,000 technically skilled workers.

Recently, a member of Congress spoke similarly about another field. He said that information science and technology have given new meaning to the term "one world"--undreamed of when the term was first coined in the last century.

The information revolution will reorient and redefine our culture and economy in ways we can barely imagine.

The Internet is younger than biotechnology but has imprinted all our lives much like a kind of societal DNA.

The term "surf the Net" is part of our daily lexicon. People surf the Net today the way we used to walk to the library.

The major difference is that the Net is much more comprehensive, and frequently more current, than most libraries.

Its variety and immediacy pose a mixed blessing--anything and everything you want to know but not enough hours in the day to pursue it.

Increasingly, people bank on the Net, buy on the Net, bargain on the Net, and build careers on the Net.

The information and biological revolutions have created jobs that didn't even exist when I graduated college.

Already, some of you have probably written software programs, or digital music, or dabbled in creating computer graphics.

And yet, what Le Guin tells us is still true--the journey or the process of getting to where you want to go is what really matters.

Each of you has goals, hopes, dreams and even fantasies to which you aspire.

In a graduating class of such diverse colleges as Education; Letters and Science; Agriculture; Mines and Earth Resources; Engineering; Forestry, Wildlife, and Range Sciences; Art and Architecture; and Business and Economics, your individual goals, taken collectively, describe an entire society.

Some of you have moved straight through your undergraduate studies into your master's degree work and are poised on the precipice of the world beyond the campus.

Others have come back to earn graduate degrees after some time in the workforce.

No matter which path you have chosen, this graduation marks a goal that has been achieved, a step up to a new rung on the ladder, that you have reached.

To get there, you worked hard, even perhaps struggled, and very likely overcame various adversities.

But once we make it to our own desired summit, we have a tendency to forget the process of climbing that got us to the pinnacle.

If, however, we listen to Le Guin, we hear her instructing us on a very different way to view the same scenario.

The real richness of achievement lies in the process of achieving. Your life will be a continuous process of learning. You haven't finished--you've just begun.

The struggles, the long lonely hours, and sometimes years, of experiences, tribulations, detours and disappointments--they are the journey, and the journey can be more significant for our lives than the actual goal.

It is, in fact, the journey of getting to the goal that teaches us about our own strengths, our ability to solve problems, our tenacity to prevail. At some point these qualities make us wise.

You must be wondering why on this grand day of celebration I am drawing you back, asking you to reflect on the hard part?

It is to urge you to appreciate and even relish the struggle you have undergone to get to this place today.

To say to yourselves when you are the most discouraged in the swirl of the world of your future that "this is the journey."

I ask you to value and remember that the journey is what gives texture and meaning to your lives.

This is one reason why we are fascinated by Christopher Reeve, the physicist Stephen Hawkings, and Olympic athletes like Picabo Street and Ekaterina Gordeeva.

It is their very lives that present the greatest lessons. Their journeys show us how to manage the struggle. Their journeys make their lives a triumph.

Well, here we are at my conclusion, and I find that I have given you advice, and more advice, and more advice. I only half-apologize.

But more importantly, I want you to know that the future is yours, and my generation is now in the hands of your generation.

I believe in what you can and will do. I am confident in that future.

Congratulations again, and the greatest of good luck to all of you on your respective journeys.



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