In my professional role, I get to represent 31 private colleges and universities in Florida and also serve as national chairman this year of an organization that represents close to 1,000 private colleges and universities across the country.
I am immersed in higher education policy, focused on what is going on in both Tallahassee and Washington and how both funding and policy can affect the operations of our schools. So it is not often that I get to dive into the more personal side of higher education. Aside from an occasional stint as an adjunct professor or guest lecturer, my daily contact with students is limited.
So when I was asked to be the commencement speaker for Flagler College’s branch campus in Tallahassee, I jumped at the chance. I enjoy speaking to auditoriums full of people. I don’t suffer from the glossophobia highlighted in the computer commercial where a poor young man has to look up “how to ask out a girl.”
I usually speak in a more professional setting and not to those for whom I really spend my professional time trying to assist. That group is the students at our schools.
So indulge me, and let me tell you about students today. Who are they? From where do they come? Why are they pursuing higher educations?
In preparation for my address, I asked the Dean of Students to get me some stories; real people I could weave into my remarks, bringing relevance to this very important occasion. I knew that, in large part, the students I would be addressing got to where they sat after dealing with a host of problems and issues. I knew they were mostly students who had worked their way through school, most using the great 2+2 system in Florida, taking advantage of Florida’s excellent state college system for two years and then transferring to Flagler College.
So I knew I was talking to people who had struggled and persevered. How then could I bring words to the occasion to celebrate their journey and leave them thinking how much their efforts meant to those around them.
Most people believe that students at private colleges and universities are from higher socio-economic status, from families who are immersed in what higher education means and convey that to their children.
This could not be further from the truth. The real story in Florida and in most every other state is that the private, not for profit, colleges and universities serve the more diverse populations.
For example, if you compare the percentage of students at Florida public universities with the Florida private institutions, the number who are eligible for Pell Grants or come from families with an annual income of less than $60,000, 8 of the top 10 are private schools.
If you compare minority enrollments in the same way, 15 of the top 20 are private colleges. Likewise if you compare the percentage of the students who are over age 25, the top 10 are all private. So I knew going in that I was speaking to a highly diverse audience, many of whom were the first in their families to even go to college, much less graduate.
So when I received the stories from the Dean, I was not surprised by the difficulties these graduates had conquered. I was moved by their stories and humbled by being able to speak with them, not to them.
How could one convey motivation to people who had overcome working full time, raising families, and going to school at night full time? How could I hope to touch their hearts with my words when they had overcome life-threatening illnesses, family tragedies and divorce?
Using their stories, I cheered them for what they had accomplished, yet admonished them to not stop here; not yet.
Surely these students deserved a rest before moving on. Surely they deserved time to spend with their families. But just as sure, the drive, perseverance and motivation they have displayed should be bottled, served up to others as examples of the strength of the human spirit.
So that is what I conveyed to them. I urged them to use what they have created, setting examples for others in their families and most importantly their children.
And I used the words two students wrote to me, sharing their thoughts for the day so those in the audience could know that they were not alone; that opportunity awaits those who are willing to work hard and never give up.
“Never give up on your dreams just because of complications in your life.”
“If you can imagine it, you can dream it; dream it and you become it.”
I spoke to them but they taught me so much more.