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Commencement Address by Dr. Patrick D. Gallagher

Public Relations
Posted: Monday May 12, 2014

Dr. Patrick D. Gallagher
Acting Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce
Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology
Chancellor-elect, University of Pittsburgh
Saturday, May 10, 2014

Thank you

Thank you Brother Norman. (It is really something to hear someone say such nice things about you! A little embarrassing, but nice.) To come to Saint Vincent College – really the home of my own alma mater: Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas – and to be honored with the highest honor that a college can provide – is remarkable. I want to thank you, thank the Board, and thank the faculty of Saint Vincent for this remarkable opportunity. I’m just delighted to be here today.

I am also deeply honored – and thrilled – to be given another great honor, namely to join you on this very special day and be your Commencement speaker. So, let me start with the very obvious: to the Class of 2014 – you made it! Congratulations!

I also want to acknowledge your fan club assembled with us today to join your celebration. Unlike when I was in your shoes 29 years ago at Benedictine, I find my perspective now is probably closer to your parent’s since my oldest son will be doing what you are doing next year (hopefully!). I know that your parents are bursting with pride at your accomplishment today. It’s a hard thing, but a wonderful thing – to watch your own children become adults – and there is no more dramatic transformation than during your college years. It may not seem that way to you – but it is dramatic for us. So I know they are very proud, and very pleased for you. (They are also pleased for themselves since paying the tuition bills may be over for a while….) Why don’t you join me in giving them a hand for all of their support and love.

On diplomas
OK. You did it. Now what?

I don’t know about you, but if I correctly remember my own graduation at Benedictine College, I was sitting there feeling pretty happy (ok, deliriously happy) about being done, a little sad at the many goodbyes, and frankly, a bit freaked out that I really didn’t know what I would be doing next. I’ll be honest, I had not focused too much on life after college at that point. I guess that makes some sense, since if I’m even more honest, I didn’t really have much of a sense of what I wanted to be when I started at Benedictine!

A quick recap of how I had gotten to that point: I was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and went to St. Pius High School, but my main focus at that time was volunteer work that I was doing with an organization called Amigos de las Americas (Friends of the Americas), a non-denominational group that works in Latin America providing health services during the summer months. Think of it like Peace Corps, but by students 16 and over, for a few months, rather than by college graduates for a few years. So when I graduated from high school, I had been in the program for two years. First, as a volunteer providing dental education in Mexico, and spending the summer after graduation as a team leader on a well and latrine construction program in Honduras. It was a remarkable experience of service, independence and adventure. I was on my own, working with other volunteers from around the country. We ran the program – no adults – so we were doing some pretty adult things: working with local government officials and community leaders, managing our budget, ensuring the safety of our volunteers (it was a tough time in Honduras due to the conflict in nearby Nicaragua). I was taking some of my first steps into leadership. I was working with a remarkable group of individuals, and I was really independent.

This experience really affected my approach to college. How? Well, unfortunately not in a very noble way! In choosing my college, I had three major goals:
1. Independence. I wanted to go to college as far from home as possible!
2. I didn’t want to spend time looking for a college. A sad but true fact – I selected Benedictine sight unseen, based almost entirely on the work of a highly effective recruiter who was in Albuquerque that year. In fact, 5-6 out of our graduating class of 200 attended Benedictine that year! (Brother Norman – pay attention to your recruiting staff!)
3. I wanted to go back to Amigos for another year, so I wanted a roommate from Latin America.

Obviously, not the most long-range goals were driving my choices.

But it worked out. I loved Benedictine and thrived in school. I can’t say I had any more focus, but ended up with a dual degree in physics (I figured it was as close to engineering as I was going to get and seemed like my “job” degree), philosophy (I just liked it), and a minor in mathematics (it seemed to come along for the ride in my physics courses). Well armed with these degrees, I sat in my chair like you are right now and made plans for my future. I had three goals:
1. Don’t go home yet.
2. Stay with my friends.
3. Try to figure out what to do with my degree… perhaps teach.

(I hope your planning is going better….)

But it worked out. Later that summer, I was working in Topeka, Kansas, with my former college roommates, and I was taking some classes to enable me to start teaching. Then a funny thing happened. As I was --- wait for this --- waiting tables, the former dean of Benedictine College shows up and sits at my table. I decide that this is too good to pass up, so placing a napkin in front of her, I ask: “Hello Sister Hope, what can I get you to drink?” I didn’t know this at the time, but this was one of those junctures that comes along every once in a while and defines the rest of your life.

It turns out that Sr. Hope had recently been appointed the Principal of Bishop LeBlond High School in St. Joseph, Missouri, and was in search of a science teacher. Her past teacher of many years had unexpectedly retired and she knew that I was working on my teaching credentials in Topeka and she had come to see me. By that fall, my life had completely changed: I was teaching high school chemistry, physics and mathematics and even coaching cross country track (a fact much more humorous if you ever saw me run!). It was both one of the most difficult, and most enriching experiences in my life. It also changed my life. But not by becoming a high school teacher. Instead, I learned more about myself and was able to make some choices that I couldn’t make right out of school. The next year I was enrolling at Pitt to start my doctoral work in physics.

Why do I tell you that story? My goal is not to encourage a lifetime of random chance, but to illustrate that often the opportunities are not readily predictable. However, when they do occur, you need to be prepared and able to take advantage. Your education, and the degree you are about to receive help make that happen.

So a diploma really is valuable. (Those of you paying off loans can breathe a sigh of relief!) That’s the good news. In fact, the value of a college degree has never been higher in this country. Or perhaps more accurately – the cost of not having a college degree has never been greater. A recent Pew research paper, noted that on “virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time—young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education. And when today’s young adults are compared with previous generations, the disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high school diploma or less formal schooling has never been greater in the modern era.” It may not feel that way to you though as you look for a job. Why? Because most of that disparity in outcome between those with college or advanced degrees and those with a high school education or less is largely being driven by the falling earning potential of those without a high school diploma, not as much by a fast rise in the earning potential of those with degrees. Additionally, since I was your age, the fraction of the population in your age bracket getting a college degree has nearly doubled. In a competitive job market, you are simply not as “unique” as you once might have been.

Diploma as a key
Your formal college education – your diploma – can be thought of as a key. And that key opens up real doors of opportunity. Think about it: imagine the possible futures awaiting you without that degree. It’s dramatically smaller. However, opening a door of opportunity is not the same thing as achieving your goals. In fact, sometimes – and my own life experience is a good example – you don’t even really know what doors you are going to encounter. Furthermore, what’s on the other side of the door may be just another journey with many more doors. That’s what happened to me:
• Becoming a teacher opened a door to the possibility of an advanced degree;
• My physics degree opened a door to a research career;
• My research career opened a door to a management career;
• My management career opened a door to public service in a leadership position – at NIST and at the Department of Commerce;
• And my government experience opened a door, back to education – and serving a remarkable university – The University of Pittsburgh.
That key you will receive today in your diploma is very valuable, but it’s only a beginning. It doesn’t promise happiness. There is no entitlement: you aren’t owed anything. But – the richness of possibility has been greatly expanded.

Now, if you’re paying attention – you’ll realize that I’ve managed to give you some lofty good news about your achievements, and also managed not to give you a single piece of good advice! (If I had heard this speech 29 years ago, I can’t say that I would have found it helpful as I pondered what I would be doing next.) That’s a fair accusation. The problem is that in my experience, the possibilities are too many to predict. My life has unfolded not according to any plan that I laid out long ago – in fact, it has never even unfolded according to any plan I had even 5 years earlier!

But I didn’t want to repay your kindness in honoring me with this opportunity today without trying to share something that might be useful. To do that – I want to look backward, not forward. So, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to close your eyes and – just for a quick moment – forget about all the joy and positive things that you’re feeling right now. Forget the parties, the caps, the gowns, the family, everything and try to think about the sad part about a Commencement. What is it that you will most miss as you leave Saint Vincent?

OK. Open your eyes. Now – and be honest – how many of you thought of the classes, homework and tests that contributed to your diploma as things you will most miss? I thought so. You see, I’m also about to leave. My “commencement” as the next Chancellor at Pitt, means not only an exciting new beginning, but also a – frankly – pretty painful departure. These moments are always bittersweet. So what will I miss most? Interestingly, it is not the many “cool experiences” of my job. I have a great repertoire of stories about being a scientist, cool equipment, running a nuclear reactor, attending great ceremonies, working with a Secretary of Commerce, riding Air Force One, meeting the President, etc. These are all really cool. They are not what hurts – and that is important. I believe that the pain is a message, and it’s at the things that matter most: what has value.

I happen to work with a lot of people in my job, and that includes many opportunities to talk to people about why they stay in a job – why they leave – and what they will miss when they do. It turns out that the things that hurt – those values – are pretty common. In fact, one of these days you’ll attend someone’s retirement party and you’ll probably hear a common set of values – a common set of three values:
1. The satisfaction of the work;
2. The relationship with your colleagues;
3. The mission

Service to America
This week, across the federal government was Public Service Recognition week. Senior government officials and leaders from every agency were spending time to recognize and honor the contributions of all of our employees whose job is serving our nation. We’ve been meeting with new employees, recognizing work and just taking the time to remind each other about why we serve. One of the highlights for me was on Tuesday. I represented the Commerce Department at a breakfast ceremony announcing the 33 finalists for the “Service to America” medals. The “SAMMIES” are to government what the Oscars are to the movie business. Each year the Partnership for Public Service recognizes a group of amazing government employees in a number of categories at a black tie gala in September. These people are the “rock stars” of the government world, and they are remarkable. This group includes scientists exploring the mysteries of the Antarctica, law enforcement agents that solved crimes of unbelievable brutality by prison guards, lawyers combating human trafficking, spies saving hostages and first responders protecting our communities from fires and saving lives and rebuilding communities after hurricanes and other disasters. (They should really get more recognition than they do.) As part of this event, there are short videos of past winners who reflect on their work and its value. One of last year’s awardees was a NASA scientist named David Lavery who led the Curiosity mission on Mars. He said that the key to making a difference was to do something that you truly love. He said if your work becomes your passion then you will make a difference. This is almost backward from the way we usually think of things – but it is a very wise observation!

This is one of the values I feel and often hear about. If you talk to the highest achievers – they never sound like they are talking about work! They don’t ever talk about paychecks, or benefits or days off. Instead, they talk about the excitement of discovering something new, the challenging problems, the chase. They don’t talk about work; they talk about their passion for what they were doing.

We are all born with innate talents and abilities – some are obvious, some take a lifetime to discover, others a lifetime to develop. I believe that we are also born with a need – specifically a need to use those talents. When you do something that uses those talents and abilities – when there is that “fit” – then a mere job becomes a vocation. It is fulfilling and it changes everything: you become passionate about what you are doing. I also believe that real value comes not just from using your talents, but growing them. It is the work that extends you, pushes you and lets you grow new “muscles” of ability that is the most satisfying.

The second value I mentioned was co-workers. I suspect that when I asked you to close your eyes and think of what you will be missing, that your first thought was your friends. Listen to any retirement speech – you can even listen to my goodbye speeches in a few weeks – and the common thread will be the acknowledgement of colleagues. I’m not talking about your buddies. I’m talking about something quite different.

In every job or vocation I’ve ever had – I was not alone, but part of a team. Even the most gifted individual depends on teams that support, challenge, inspire and enable their achievements. Even the most technical line of work turns out to be all about the people! We are born to be part of a community. Your co-workers do more than help you, they are not mere spectators or acquaintances – they are partners with you and share your journey. By sharing challenges – being in the trenches together – by supporting, helping, struggling together, watching each other’s back, sometimes even saving your life - you will build bonds with this community that define you and are a major source of value. In fact, if you read stories of veterans returning from active duty, you often hear that the most painful thing about coming back into civilian life is the loss of those deep bonds of camaraderie that develop between men and women who literally placed each other’s life into their hands. It is hard to rediscover that sense of community in civilian life.

Serving a good cause
Finally, there is the sense of “mission”. What do I mean by that? Most simply, I mean the purpose of work. Purposeless effort is just action. We all need a purpose to drive us and motivate us. It can be simple – “I want to finish this race”. It can be selfish – “I want to be rich.” But the most powerful goals are something very different. A mission means that your work is in service of a goal that is bigger than you: being part of a great cause.

I have lived my professional career in government. I’ll admit it, when I first joined it was because of things like the type of work, the location, the pay, etc. However, what has kept me in government so long was a conviction that I could contribute and make a difference – that I really was serving the public interest. Whether it was advancing science, or helping manufacturers compete, or working on satellite programs that are the basis of life-saving weather forecasts – it was very important to me that I was serving our country. It sounds trite – but it’s real and all of the surveys we do of our employees confirm that’s why they stay in public service.

I think that our lifetime journeys are enhanced if we are striving toward a goal that is bigger than us, because it forces us to be more than we are. It doesn’t matter what greater good you are serving:
• Protect your family;
• Raise your children;
• Improve your community;
• Heal the sick;
• Educate our young people;
• Protect the weak;
• Serve your country;
• Promote peace;
• Or even save our planet.

Your journey, and all the hard work that it will entail, will be all the richer if it is in the service of a great purpose. Perhaps it won’t be realized in your lifetime – perhaps it will. But if you can honestly say that “you made a difference” – then you will find an enormous sense of fulfillment and value.

So, I really can’t begin to tell you what doors of opportunity that your key will open. However, I can tell you that you also have learned some values that can guide you – and those values have grown immeasurably from your experiences here at Saint Vincent. Some of the most important learning you experienced wasn’t in the classrooms of your college experience – they were happening all around you in the full experience of your college life.

I suspect that you have learned a great deal about yourself. Compared to four years ago, you either know or are learning more about your unique abilities and gifts – whether those are gifts of intellect, social ability, emotional perception or physical ability – it doesn’t matter. The right vocations are those that fulfill you – the ones where your talents really contribute. Look for fit!

I suspect that you have built ties with your classmates that are much richer than the friendship of a four-year acquaintance would suggest. The shared challenges of living, growing and learning together have formed a community – a band of brothers and sisters (to use the veterans terminology) that will create bonds of lifetime friendship between you. Look for the right community!

And I know that you would not have made it this far if you were not striving toward a great goal. What you have accomplished this far is already too much effort and commitment to be sustained by a small goal. You may not have a specific “calling” in mind yet – I know I didn’t – but you probably do want to “make a difference.” You wouldn’t be here today if you didn’t serve a great cause.

So, the advice I can give you is this: when life presents some doors of opportunity to you and you are facing one of those “forks in the road” – look to the values of Saint Vincent. Seek the doors that will fit with your talents and gifts – that you can be passionate about. Seek the doors that lead to a strong, supportive community. And seek the doors that lead to serving a great cause. If you do those things, I can’t predict where you will be going, but I can predict that it will be a journey of great fulfillment, great love and one where you will make a great difference.

It has been a great honor to share this day with you. Once again – congratulations and good luck!