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Spring 2013 Commencement Address

President Charles W. Steger

May 17, 2013

Thank you. I am deeply honored to be your Commencement speaker. For me personally and as President, it is a tremendous privilege to take part in the celebration of your accomplishments. A milestone in your life, and the most joyful moment in the academic year.

First and foremost, I wish to join with your parents, other family and friends in offering you my sincerest congratulations on the accomplishments that we have come together to celebrate this afternoon. Like them, I have the utmost pride in you and confidence in your future.

You will be confronted with an amazing array of problems and issues — ones we’ve been unable to resolve and ones yet undiscovered. Addressing these issues will require not only high competence in the professions or disciplines you have chosen, but the capacity to think in new ways and to offer creative solutions that society will depend on for its success. Commit yourself to a lifetime of learning.

My message to you today is a simple one. Have a plan for your life, but be alert to new opportunities as they arise and be open to altering your path. Sometimes, great opportunities come just from being in the right place at the right time. And then, most importantly, be mindful that your successes are seldom, if ever, solely your own. Be aware of the role that others play in your success, and thank them. And, be sure to call your mother.

For more than 40 years, Virginia Tech and most importantly you — our students — have been my abiding passion. I left a career in the private sector to pursue my passion for teaching and profound belief in the transformative power of education.

These 14 years that I have had the privilege of serving as president have been the highlight of my career in higher education.When I sat where you are, many years ago, I could not have foreseen the path that would bring me to this podium today.

I knew — as you do — that I had gained an invaluable education as a Hokie, an education that gave me the confidence that I could go out into the world — capable and ready for what it had to offer. Though I’ve been told I have a great imagination, I never dreamed of the experiences I would have or the turns my career would take.

Who would have envisioned an architect becoming a vice president for development? But, as it turns out, being a fundraiser is useful experience for being a university president. Most of all, I never envisioned all the things that could be accomplished by working with and for so many great people.

Earlier this week, I announced my plans to step down as President of this great university. Together with our stellar faculty and staff, we have now achieved most of the goals that I set out during my inauguration speech in 2000, and we have also seized opportunities as they arose to advance the strategic goals of the university.

I set a goal to become one of the top research universities in the country, and we grew our research program from $192 million in 2000 to $450 million today.

I set a goal to continue to seek out students of increasingly high academic abilities and to make a Virginia Tech education affordable for all who could gain admission. Then, we expanded our financial aid programs, created the Funds for the Future initiative, and completed a major fundraising campaign, surpassing the billion-dollar goal and raising funds for scholarships, fellowships, and facilities.

And you who are graduating today are testament to the caliber of our student body.

And, as you look around the field at your fellow graduates, you will see a much more diverse group than you would have in 2000.  I set a goal to increase our underrepresented student population, and even since 2005, we have increased our underrepresented undergraduate enrollment by 55 percent.

I was also thrilled to learn a couple of days ago that the number of underrepresented students in our fall 2013 entering class is up 9 percent over last fall’s entering class.  And, the Principles of Community, which did not exist in 2000, is now an integral part of the Virginia Tech culture.

I set out to address the critical space needs, and we have added more than 3 million square feet of space valued at more than a billion dollars to the university since 2000, primarily for much-needed new classrooms and instructional space, research, student services, and athletics.

I committed to improving the university’s fine and performing arts spaces, and we will soon see the completion of the amazing new Center for the Arts.

While we did not envision a relationship with Carilion Clinic in 2000, we seized the opportunity several years later to partner with Carilion to establish the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine because of the unique research enterprise it would enable us to create in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, which is now doing groundbreaking work in brain research.

Nor did we have any plan in 2000 to leave the Big East, but we seized the opportunity when it arose to realize a 50-year-old dream to join the Atlantic Coast Conference. 

Did you notice that in referring to all these successes, I always used the pronoun “we”? We followed a plan. We seized opportunities that we could not have foreseen. And we have been successful. And together, we laid the groundwork for the “Plan for a New Horizon” that will guide the university’s future.

So, I would like to publicly express my admiration and gratitude to our outstanding faculty, staff, and alumni for their commitment to this university and its missions—and most of all to our students. The faculty have been your teachers and mentors, and they have brought national and international recognition to the university through their teaching and scholarship and they have rejoiced in your accomplishments.

This Commencement ceremony is a time for us to celebrate your individual and unique successes. All of us gathered here today are brimming with pride in your accomplishments and full of anticipation for the opportunities that await you. And, we hold great hope for your future success.

But the truth — if we dare to admit it — is that our successes rarely are ours alone. Yes, success certainly requires determination, hard work, good judgment, knowledge, talent, and a host of other traits that an individual must possess. But no matter how brilliant you are or how hard you work, your success will nearly always depend in part on others.

You know how hard you worked to reach this milestone today — the papers, the research projects, the all-nighters at the Math Emporium. But, that is just a part of the picture. You likely had parents or other important adults in your life who stressed the importance of an education and study skills and who helped to finance your education.

What about the grandfather or the elementary school teacher who inspired you and helped to instill in you a sense of self-confidence? Or the classmate who shared their notes with you when you had to miss a class?

And, were there any occasions when, for one reason or another, you couldn’t pull your own weight on a group project and another group member stepped up and covered for you? And, I would wager that in any group project you were involved with, the end product turned out better when all of the group members contributed their ideas than it would have if you had done it alone.

When you go out into the workforce, the first person who will contribute to your success will be the employer who sees your potential and decides to give you a chance to prove yourself. And, once you are hired, hopefully you will have a few mentors along the way to guide you.

Throughout your career, other people will play a critical role in your success — or lack of it. You will have to work with and through other people, so it is vitally important to be willing and able to relate to them. No amount of technical expertise or computing capability will substitute for your developing the ability to listen to and to truly understand the points of view of others, which grows ever more challenging as the global marketplace permeates every facet of our lives.

You have had an opportunity through your education here to live and study with people from different socio-economic backgrounds, geographic regions, cultures, races, ethnicities, religions, and continents.

Carry the Principles of Community with you when you leave here. If you treat people genuinely with dignity and respect, they will be there for you. If you act with fairness and honesty and follow through on your promises, you will likely inspire them to do the same. If you ask more of yourself than you ask of others, they will give more than you ask of them. If you value their contributions and freely acknowledge them, their contributions will multiply. If you take a genuine interest in their goals and aspirations and struggles, they are more likely to look for ways to be your ally — even when you don’t agree — rather than your adversary.

Developing a sense of values is a life-long task. It is important to know what you believe. Ethical dilemmas do not come with flashing lights. They often come in subtle ways. It is important to develop a belief system to guide you through life.

My point is that achieving great success doesn’t require that you be superhuman, but rather that you simply be human.

And most successful people, real achievers, are life-long learners. . . constantly seeking new skills, insights, and ideas. They’re the ones Thomas Edison had in mind when he said, "If we did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves."

I have great faith in your future and in the future of our alma mater. Virginia Tech is a dynamic university with an indomitable spirit, an entrepreneurial culture, the creativity and the ability to leverage our strengths, and the willingness to take calculated risks that sets us apart from other universities and propels us forward. The promise of this university eclipses all the challenges.

Just as I couldn’t when I sat here on my commencement day, you cannot imagine the journey that lies before you. It will be challenging, and it will be exhilarating. Find your passion and dare to pursue it. I expect that you will continue to amaze yourselves and all of us with what you accomplish in the years ahead.

But, all of that can start tomorrow.

For today, one final point. No matter how extraordinary they may be, life’s accomplishments are so much more fulfilling, so much more meaningful when shared with loved ones. So, revel in the joy of this very special day . . . Celebrate your accomplishments. . . Celebrate all those lives that have touched yours and helped bring you to this point. Rejoice with your family and friends. Your success today is also a tribute to them.

My heartfelt congratulations to the Class of 2013. Go out and invent the future!