July 28‚ 2003 Commencement Speech

Georgia (Jul 28, 2003) —  Dr. Siegel, honored guests, distinguished faculty and graduating students. 

Thank you, Dr. Siegel, for your kind introduction and for inviting me to speak this morning.

Good morning and congratulations graduating students! This is your day. I always love the atmosphere of graduation day – there is a feeling of joy and the anticipation. We begin the ceremony with much pomp, there is a little lull during the commencement address, and then you walk across the stage. You will leave today with that special piece of paper that symbolizes accomplishment – symbolizes all of the time and work you have put in to earning your degree. And my message to you today is that we are proud of you! The folks up here in front are proud of you, the faculty is proud of you, and those friends and family members up there are proud of you.

Quick poll – and the first part of this is for the bachelor level students, not our grad students. How many of you completed your degree – from beginning to end – in the traditional 4 or 5 years, or less?

Alright! You are the students who saw the goal and went straight for it – much to the joy – and probably relief – of your parents or spouses. You knew what you wanted, and you didn’t waste any time. We are proud of you!

How many of you took a bit longer – 5 to 10 years – to complete your degree? Ah, you are the students who had to juggle priorities. Many of you had full-time jobs – you had families to take care of and community commitments. But you did it! You persisted – and today you graduate. We are proud of you!

How many of you are graduating more than 10 years after you began. You are the students who warm the cockles of a faculty member’s heart because you truly know why you are here. Many of you started college early but got sidetracked – dropped out for a while – perhaps got married, had a baby, took a job or were just not ready for college - but eventually you realized the value of a college degree and came back. Or maybe you did college on the installment plan – one course a semester. We had a student a while back who did that – she took 25 years to graduate. She started college at age 50 and graduated at 75. Whichever way you did it, you persisted over the long run and we are really proud of you!!

And finally, how many of you are receiving a graduate degree today. Fantastic! You have chosen to go on, showing us that learning need not – and in fact doesn’t – stop after a bachelor’s degree. You have achieved a new level of success, and we are proud of you!

Commencement means beginning and, whether it is a bachelor’s or a master’s degree you have earned, you are beginning a new phase in your life. But I want to take a few minutes to reflect back on what you have gained from college. You are a different person than you were when you began this endeavor. Some of it, of course, is maturity – you are older and you have had more life experiences. But I put it to you that you are also different is ways you would not have been if you had missed the college experience.

Of course, you have a deeper knowledge of your discipline – and most students think that this is the primary goal of a college education – that which makes them more employable. You know the basic skills, the structures of thinking and the vocabulary important in your discipline. You can “walk the walk and talk the talk.” And that, in itself, is an accomplishment. But if that is all you get out of a college education, then why do we require you to take all of those other courses – health, history and political science and so forth – what we call the General Education courses? Wouldn’t it be cheaper for the tax payers of the state of Georgia to just set up a two-year career training program that allowed you to concentrate on just management or just education or just pre-law?

And the answer, of course, is that a college education gives you so much more than ‘job training’ ever could do. So how else are you different? What else have you gained? This morning I want to touch on about five attributes you have gained, or in which you have grown

The first is that you have a better understanding of how the world works. Most of you took a science course. You may not remember details, like the structure of an atom, but you did learn how science works. As a result, you understand why sometimes scientists disagree on things like the value of mammograms or how much global warming is caused by human activity. You also know enough to evaluate studies reported in the newspaper and make your own minds up on their validity. And you took an economics course. I didn’t – I made the mistake of carefully avoiding both economics and political science – today they are two courses I really wish I had taken. So you have a much better understanding of the economic system in our country. This means that when President Bush decided that a good strategy for increasing the number of jobs was to cut taxes on dividends, I had no basis for understanding his reasoning – I had to have a student explain it to me. But you had a framework for analyzing the idea and the ability to determine whether or not you thought that this was a good idea.

The second attribute that you have developed is more complex thinking skills and problem-solving techniques. Not all problems can be approached the same way. The analytical techniques of science require different reasoning skills than those needed to solve a problem in philosophy or in the arts or literature – but all may be useful in solving a problem in the area of communications. In addition, you have had practice in applying these skills in a variety of settings. Research tells us that most people don’t transfer skills without practice. That is – they learn it in one context but don’t apply it in another without practice in doing this. Your college education required this practice. For example, you learned basic hypothesis testing in science, but you also used it in psychology, economics, sociology, education – maybe not by that name, but you did use the same basic skill of inductive reasoning. Your thinking skills have been enhanced.

A third attribute in which you have grown is the ability to express yourself and your ideas, and to communicate with other people – and if you don’t believe me, try comparing an essay you wrote in high school with one you wrote a few weeks ago. You are better able to present your point of view and to argue it effectively. And the change isn’t just in written and oral communication. You have a better grasp on how symbols, such as those in an algebraic equation, are used to express relationships. You know that the arts – music and theater and paintings – are a form of unwritten communication. The artist is telling us something. And finally, through studying a foreign language or anthropology or geography or sociology or psychology, you have a better understanding of others and are better able to convey your meaning to them and, in turn, understand their answers.

A fourth way in which you are different is that you have a greater potential for creativity. Creativity often results from the combination of two or more disparate ideas – ideas from very different venues – into a new and useful thought or process or object. Let me give you a simple example of what I am talking about – not a modern one, but one I think you will remember in the future Johann Gutenberg was a goldsmith and mirror-maker back in the early 1400s, so he know a lot about metals and dies and punches – devices used to give shape to things. He was also somewhat educated, so he knew the value of books and information. Since he lived in a country well known for its wines, he was also quite familiar with the wine press. Gutenberg put all of these ideas together to come up with the printing press – arguably one of the top ten most influential inventions of the last thousand years. I certainly don’t expect any of you to invent the next printing press, but you get the idea Robert Harris says, “knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding.”

And finally, and to me this is the most important change, you see and understand the world more broadly. Your focus is less narrow – less black and white – you see the world in many colors. In many of your courses, your ethics have been challenged – you have been presented with conflict situations and asked to analyze them and make difficult choices. Should we develop the oil resources in sensitive environments, should incorrigible juveniles be incarcerated with adults, do tax policies favor the middle class too much – questions that make you define principles and apply them. And in many of the courses I mentioned earlier, you learned a lot about other people – people who have different backgrounds than yours – people of different races, religions, ethnicities and cultures – and you were asked to see the world from their point of view. Malcomb Forbes said, “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.” I’m not implying here that you started with an empty mind, but that you are leaving KSU with a more open one.

As a result of your college education, then, you really are a different person than you would have been without one. Why are these changes important? Studies show that people with a college degree hold better jobs, which is the reason most students give for going to college. In addition, college educated people make better citizens. They are more active in their communities, they volunteer more, they are more likely study issues and to vote.

Perhaps more importantly to themselves, people who graduated from college are happier. They are happier because they have more confidence in their ability to think about the world, to make their own minds up about major issues, and to make important decisions for themselves and their families. They are happier because the world makes more sense to them – they can better predict what is in their future, and they have more options on how to deal with what they see.

College educated people are also happier because they have been exposed to good literature and the arts. Many people don’t realize this until they have been out of school for a while, but eventually they find themselves reading more books, attending more concerts and plays, and visiting more art exhibits – maybe doing more traveling. Their college education planted the seeds for this enhancement.

And finally, people with a college education are happier because they know how to learn, and they continue to acquire new knowledge and skills throughout their lives. I know that seems strange now, when you are so happy to have classes and books behind you, but that changes with time. Most major universities, including Kennesaw, have thriving continuing education programs that cater to the demand for ongoing learning. Elderhostel was established to meet this demand by our senior citizens. I’m never happier than when I have something new to tackle. Remember my lack of an economics course? I’m now listening to tapes of economics lectures. And last spring, when I announced my retirement, my students asked me what I would do with my time. I told them that I really want to be a docent - a guide - at a local history or art museum. They said, “But Dr. Schiffer, you teach science. What do you know about history or art?” I chuckled a little, then said, “I’ll have to learn more about those, won’t I?” I am really looking forward to starting this soon.

So – you got a lot out of your college education. And in case you think that all of this just happened, take a look at your college catalog some time. You will find all of those attributes I mentioned listed, in one form or another, among the goals we at KSU have for you.

So in a few minutes, when you pick up your diploma, remember that it represents not just all of your time and work, not just the accomplishment of fulfilling all of those requirements, but it represents a new you – someone of whom we at KSU are very, very proud.

Thank you. 


A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu