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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation

"Pay it Forward"
Graduate Commencement Address
University of California, Irvine
Irvine, California

June 7, 2008

Thank you, Chancellor Drake, for that very flattering introduction.

I also wish to thank Provost Gottfredson, Dean Boyd, and the distinguished deans and faculty for allowing me to join you in today's celebration.

Most importantly, my thanks to the graduates, and your families and friends who have supported you in your educational journey. Congratulations to all of you on this proud day!

I'm sure many of you thought this moment would never arrive!

Just think, your parents will finally stop asking every time they call, "When are you EVER going to graduate???"

On the other hand, your parents are graduating today, too -- from providers to venture capitalists!

I'm extremely honored to be the very first graduate commencement speaker at UC Irvine. As the Chancellor just noted, this campus-wide event is the start of a brand-new UCI tradition. No pressure, though!

In researching this address, I decided to find out more about other UCI traditions. I found that your school mascot is an anteater named Peter, a creature that must inspire fear in the hearts of your athletic opponents.

I discovered that many UCI undergraduates live in Middle Earth, which I thought was mostly the realm of Hobbits, but here it turns out that Middle Earth is populated by freshmen. I'll have to look at their feet more closely.

I also found that many UCI alumni have achieved notoriety, including the winner of "Survivor: Panama." Such survivor skills would be very helpful in Washington!

Now I know that people expect commencement addresses to offer inspirational advice to usher you into the next phase of your life. The trouble is, polls show that most people cannot remember who their commencement speaker was, or what they talked about. You all have the additional problem of keeping your commencement ceremonies straight, since by now you've graduated several times!

So rather than giving you advice that you've already heard in a previous address, I will instead take this opportunity to offer you a very simple challenge:

Use the opportunities and gifts you have been given to help other people. In other words, pay it forward.

To illustrate, let me pose these questions: What will you be doing twenty years from now? What will the world be like? What will be your greatest accomplishment by then?

When I was a young man, I went from high school in New Castle, Pennsylvania, to work on the midnight shift of a molybdenum ore crusher in Climax, Colorado. My supervisor offered me the kind of wager I couldn't refuse: he agreed to pay my first semester's tuition if I would just try one semester of college. His terms were simple -- if I finished the semester, I owed him nothing. If I dropped out and returned to work, I would pay him back for the tuition out of my wages. I'd never thought about college before, but this seemed like an opportunity I couldn't pass up, even though a semester's tuition at Colorado School of Mines was then only seventy-five dollars.

Now maybe I would have gone to college eventually, but the path I would have taken would certainly have been different if my boss hadn't taken an interest in my future and offered me that challenge. How could I possibly have dreamed then that twenty years after beginning my freshman year, I would be a tenured full professor at MIT. Consider the return on that investment!

What I got in return for his faith and investment in me was priceless, and over the course of my career I have come to realize that the best way to pay him back is to pay it forward.

Imagine how rewarding it would be to have such a life-changing impact on someone else's life!

What stories can you tell about people who have taken an interest in you, and changed your life?

What stories will people tell about you, decades from now, about the difference you made to them?

Some of you will become teachers or professors, and you can challenge a new generation of learners to reach outside of their comfort zones. You can encourage their strengths, feed their enthusiasm, and watch them exceed their own expectations.

Others of you will eventually become managers, and you'll be in the position to challenge your associates to excel. May you have the wisdom to motivate them to outshine you.

The world is changing rapidly, and we face perhaps some of the most significant challenges our species has ever encountered. How can you best use the skills and specialized knowledge you have gained in your years of graduate school for the betterment of humanity, and the planet? We're going to need your help!

Today, you receive a graduate degree from one of the highest-ranked public universities in the world. You have been given the opportunity of a lifetime. You seized this opportunity, and on behalf of the entire nation, I am here to say that we couldn't be more proud of you.

Now it's your turn to help others follow your example. In doing so, you honor the support you have received from your community, your family, and your friends.

Once again, congratulations to each and every one of you on this milestone achievement.

Now let the celebration begin!