Sunday, December 26, 2010

Make a Difference

Commencement Address
DeVry University, North Brunswick, NJ
LTC Michael J. Devine III
June 2009

     Thank you Dr. Greveson, Dr. Donaldson, for allowing me the absolute privilege of being able to speak to these outstanding graduates, their family and friends, and the faculty and staff of your university.

     I’m excited to be here because today is the culminating event in a team sport that is, without question, one of our nation’s greatest strategic advantages – the ability to produce thinkers and problem solvers who are capable of truly making a difference.

     Graduates - today is your day and I hope you really excited about that. So let me ask you, are you excited about that?


     I suspected that was the case.

     So let me start by saying Good Morning to the Faculty and staff of DeVry University. Today is also your day. I hope you are looking closely at this tremendous group of graduates and that you see the same thing that I do – the immense potential of our nation’s future. Because of your hard work, mentorship and commitment to making a difference in the development of your students you have delivered a piece of that future. Thank you for what you have delivered.


     Good morning family and friends of the graduates. Today is also your day. Without your love, support and understanding this event would not be what it is for your graduate. Your unfailing faith in their abilities . . . especially during those times when you didn’t want to be patient or supportive about your student’s need to cram for a test, write a paper or participate in a study group... has made a difference. Thank you for what you have done, you too have helped deliver a piece of the future.


     Finally, and most importantly, good morning to the graduates of DeVry University, what an awesome day this is. We are here to recognize an unbelievably important milestone in your lives and to congratulate and thank you for a job very well done. Thank you for your hard work and the unwavering commitment to excellence that brought you here today. We all owe you the greatest thanks because you ARE the future and this country relies upon you to make a difference in the days, months, years and decades ahead. In that sense you are the nation’s most precious commodity.


     When asked if I would come to speak to you today, my first thought was that I’m not old enough to be a speaker at a commencement ceremony because, after all, I just graduated yesterday.


    Unfortunately, I have to admit that I graduated from Gonzaga University just over 17 years ago and drove away from my home town convinced that there was no obstacle I could not overcome as I started my Army career. I was brim full of knowledge, had done very well in school, and was sure that I was prepared for success.

    What I later came to realize was that I really had no idea what it meant to succeed and had never given it much real thought. I challenge each of you, as you walk out of this theater today, to take a moment and reflect upon what success means to you. For many years, I let the Army define it for me in the form of ribbons and promotions, then I defined it by achieving the highest possible job performance ratings, then I defined it by my level of education and still later I defined it as being financially secure.

    While all of those things can certainly be measures of success, I now realize that there are just a few things that remain constant as life progresses, day in and day out. So I would offer to you, as food for thought, what I have settled on as my measures of success.

     First, I believe that every human being must truly love someone. I mean love them unconditionally, without reservation, fear or prejudice.

     Second, I believe that every human being must truly be loved by someone in the same way they give of themselves. Achieving these two conditions make my third criteria, the one I’d like to talk about in more detail, possible.

     The third criteria I use for judging my own personal success, and one I would recommend to you, is a positive answer to the question, “Am I making a difference?” Attempting to answer that question should generate in your mind an entire list of additional questions. Questions like: What does it mean to make a difference? How do I make a difference? Do I know enough to make a difference? The answers, just like setting your own criteria for success, must be sorted out by each of you individually during the personal journey that awaits you after graduation.

     There is no book that will provide the solution set and every day will be a test. What is not debatable is the unlimited potential that each of you possess within yourselves to effect intelligent and productive change in the lives of the people around you. Because I believe that so resolutely I would like to challenge every single one of you in four ways.

     Challenge #1 - make it a deliberate decision, every day, to make a difference in some way. Choose to positively change the strategic course of an organization you belong to, or choose to improve the daily routine of your children. Choose to give your time to feeding the homebound elderly or rescuing stray dogs. Choose a profession where you teach or lead others every day. Or simply choose to look someone in the eye and say, “Thank you”.  It doesn’t matter how large or small, the act of deciding to make a difference itself will set an example that others will follow. That is an investment with huge return potential.

     If you don’t make that decision, then who will?

     So if you will let me brag a bit I’d like to give you an example. This past school year, my wife –who is a 4th Grade school teacher in NC, had a large number of kids in her class that  had struggled in some way through school.  Success in the classroom was simply very difficult for these learners.   Additionally, there were a number of students who faced additional difficulties socially or at home.

     My wife is a persistent optimist . . . I might even use the word stubborn except that I have family in the audience today . . . (Laughter)

     She decided early on that she was not going to let these kids fail in the 4th Grade. To her credit, they did not. Most of the kids who came into her class having struggled academically in the past, demonstrated solid growth by the end of the year.
     While I’m proud of her for that accomplishment, an accomplishment that clearly made a difference, she did something seemingly small following the end of grade testing that really made an impact. She decided to call the parents of each of these children and tell them how proud she was of their achievements. Without exception, the startled parents were so elated that they made decisions of their own to reward their children with movies, a dinner out and high praise.

     So for one night these kids were treated as a prince or princess. They were placed upon a pedestal and recognized for their success in an area where that was not the norm.  It would have been easy for my wife to be satisfied with what she had accomplished with those kids while at school, but she decided that she could make a difference for them at home too.

     Her act was not an accident, but rather the result of a life habit of deciding to take that small extra step to make a difference.

     I challenge you to develop the same habit.

     Challenge #2 - Embrace what you do not yet know. You have just spent a significant amount of your personal energy earning your degree. Your intellectual skills are as sharp as they have ever been, honed by a persistent focus on achieving that piece of paper you will receive today.  It’s time to take a deep breath and celebrate this accomplishment – you deserve that for sure. However, I would argue that even more important than your new degree and more important than your newly developed knowledge base, is your ability to dig into an unfamiliar topic, explore it ruthlessly and make it your own.

     Take special care to retain and nurture that skill.

     As an Army Officer, my job is about leadership. As a leadership professional I have the responsibility and distinct privilege of working to develop and grow Soldiers and civilians as leaders in their own right. Whenever a young man or woman is assigned to, or hired into, my organization I evaluate their potential by their ability to think critically. Their degree is interesting, and certainly an indicator of their intelligence, but the most important skill I look for is their ability to openly admit what they don’t know, explore the topic and add what they learn to their personal toolkit.

     You have been doing that almost every day in the pursuit of your degree – don’t stop when you walk out the door today. Your newly developed talent is too important to your family, your community and our nation to turn it off like a light. Every person is a product of their experience and by remaining open and honest about what you do not know, by remaining willing to intellectually explore new ideas as a lifelong commitment, you will consistently open doors to areas where you can make a difference and ensure that your personal growth never stops.

     Challenge #3 - Be reflective, be generous, and be relentlessly committed in everything you do. Making a difference in the world starts within you. While that statement is probably a bit cliché, it is also a statement of fact. As you already know the world is a frantically busy place that can easily put even the most disciplined person into sensory overload. It is an easy thing to let the responsibilities and activities of day-to-day life consume us.

     In order to preserve your ability to make a difference, it is imperative that you make time to reflect on yourself, your actions and your impact on those around you. No human being handles every situation right. No human being has all the answers. No human being gets through a day without some level of stress and conflict. The only way you can get ahead of this reality is to make time for reflection, and then deliberately decide to alter your approach to life, love and leadership.

     Seek to continuously increase your capacity for making a difference by asking yourself “what can I do differently?” In my own self-reflection, I have consistently arrived at the conclusion that the single most effective thing I can do for myself and my organization is to be generous with my time and focus. I am a task oriented person by nature and I have to work at making time to build interpersonal relationships when the daily tempo is almost unmanageable. By making time to focus on the people around me and relentlessly committing myself to providing what they need to succeed, I have found that they do the same for others.

     Work without generosity of time and focus, without personal commitment to success is simply work. You, and those around you, deserve more. By being reflective, generous and committed you will find that the difference you make is reflected in the actions of the people whose lives you touch.

     Challenge #4- Finally, allow yourself to be inspired by those around you. By taking the time to genuinely appreciate the contributions, talents and achievements of others, you will naturally begin to increase your own ability to inspire others.

     Whether you realize it or not, you are already providing inspiration and that in itself makes a difference.

     As I look across this theater, I am personally inspired by the potential that is represented here. I am inspired by graduates like Mr. <<Name removed 1>> who has refused to be categorized and accept externally imposed limitations on his abilities. Mr. <<Name removed 1>>, your relentless commitment to success has set an example for and made a difference to the faculty and your fellow students.

     I am inspired by graduates like Ms. <<Name removed 2>> who in addition to earning her degree makes time to share her talent as a dancer with others. Ms. <<Name removed 2>>, the generosity you demonstrate by sharing your time and talent has not gone unnoticed and has made a difference.

     I am inspired by graduates like Ms. <<Name removed 3>> who has refused to let personal adversity affect the quality of her coursework and has maintained a perfect G.P.A. while serving in several student leadership positions. Ms. <<Name removed 3>> your dedication to excellence has been an inspiration.

     This theater is filled with numerous other examples of making a difference, but more importantly, it is filled with the potential for countless others in the years ahead. By taking a moment to see the accomplishments of others, small and large, you will be expanding your own capability to inspire and make a difference for others.

     So, I know that there is something significantly more important than my remarks happening here today and now it’s about time to get after it.

     So to close, I’d like to thank the Graduates, their family and friends and the faculty for what you have accomplished and more importantly for what you will accomplish in the future.

     Your potential is unlimited and you WILL make a difference!

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