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Bill Owens: Graduation Speeches

This is the season for graduation speeches.  Looking at clips on TV of some of those speeches, I saw humor, guitar playing, famous people giving speeches, not so famous people giving speeches, inappropriate statements being made by a certain actor, in my view, all of which brought a question to mind.  Having given a few commencement speeches during my term in Congress, and most recently giving the commencement speech at SUNY Canton in early May, I wonder what the graduates and parents are thinking as they listen to these speeches.  Are they entertained?  Did they learn anything? More importantly, do they even remember?  Having attended my undergraduate and graduate commencement programs, and multiple graduation ceremonies for my children, I have no recollection who any of the speakers were except when John Lewis, a Congressional colleague spoke at my son’s graduation from Law School.  I wonder if my children do?  That is not to say that the speakers weren’t interesting and entertaining people, but most of us had other things on our mind.  Relief, exhilaration, a bank account that was going to be replenished, the ability to enjoy August and January again (that’s when tuition bills come).

I am always curious when invited to give a graduation speech as to why they leave it up to the speaker to pick the topic.  If I am invited again to give a commencement address, I’ll ask what have been the hot topics at the university during the last six months, have they canvased the graduates to find out what they would like to hear about?  We’ll see how that goes! 

We need to explain to students and graduates some of our life experiences and what we’ve learned. Everyone says “work hard” most say “find a passion”, but in today’s world thinking skills, intellectual and emotional flexibility as well as adaptability I think will be the keys to success, as the world is changing at a pace that is difficult to comprehend and plan for.  It also means we need to rethink what it means to have a job.  I recently heard a story on NPR that talked about a medical school inviting the liberal arts graduates to enter medical school because they offer a different perspective than someone with strictly science and math background.  This is not at all to denigrate science and math, but rather the medical school is identifying in my view the need to have a broader prospective and that translates to thinking skills.  Did we teach our graduates how to gather facts, analyze them and reach a conclusion?  That may be the greatest skill that an education can provide.

Delivering your message thoughtfully and succinctly (5-7 minutes is plenty) should be the goal.  I bet that would be a relief to students, parents, friends, and faculty alike. 

By the way, good luck graduates!

Former congressman Bill Owens represented New York's North Country from 2009 until retiring from the House in 2015. The Democrat is now a strategic advisor in the Washington Office of McKenna, Long and Aldridge, and a partner in the Plattsburgh firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher and Trombly.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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