Thank you Chancellor DiStefano for the kind introduction and welcome to all of the family and friends of the graduates.  To you, the class of 2013, congratulations on your achievements.  I’m delighted to be with you and share in this very special day.

You’ve received a first class education from a top rate University.  And as I began preparing my remarks for today, it offered up a moment for some self reflection.  First, I was seated in this very events center 19 years ago, receiving my PhD degree in December of 1994.   I’m very proud to be counted as a Forever Buff and I greet you as part of the larger fellowship of CU alumni.

However, I also struggled with the message that I wanted to deliver today, especially since 99% of you probably won’t remember this message.  In fact, I surveyed many students as I walked the hallways in my academic building and I found only one person who remembered parts of a graduation speech.  He shared this humorous story…

A commencement speaker is a lot like the deceased at a funeral.  You need them to carry on with the proceedings, but you don’t expect them to say very much…

So, I will do my best to keep my comments brief and I would like to begin by sharing a famous story, a classic.  Perhaps it is one that you have heard before.  It is about a daredevil and his high wire act…

In 1859, the Great Blondin announced to the world that he intended to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope.  Thousands of people came to watch, and halfway across his 1000 foot rope, Blondin stopped, steadied himself, backflipped into the air, landed squarely back on the rope then continued to the other side. Throughout the year, he became quite the showman, performing his act crossing the Falls again and again — once blindfolded, once on stilts, and once on a bicycle.

Just as he was about to begin yet another crossing, this time pushing a wheelbarrow, he turned to the crowd and shouted “who believes that I can cross pushing this wheelbarrow.” Every hand in the crowd went up.  But then, Blondin pointed at one man.
”Do you believe that I can do it?” He replied, “Yes, I believe you can.”
”Are you certain?” said Blondin. 
”Yes,” was the reply.
 “Absolutely certain?”
”Yes, absolutely certain.”
”Thank you” said Blondin, “then get into the wheelbarrow.”

Now, you are all successful students, coming from diverse backgrounds to the Flagship University in State of Colorado.  Like that man in the crowd, you know a lot of things.

My first point is that also like that man in the audience, there will be times in your life whenknowing things won’t matter as much as how you respond to the unanticipated, scary or unexpected — and when that happens you’ll have to decide whether or not to get into the wheelbarrow.

For me, getting into the wheelbarrow was jumping on a plane heading to West Lafayette, IN to attend Purdue University.  I grew up in a small town in North Dakota and I chose to leave the comforts of my extended family and friends and head east to a University where I didn’t know a soul.

I also decided to major in chemical engineering and I’d never even met an engineer before, let alone know what I could do with a Chemical Engineering degree.  I came to college armed with my small town education and echoes of my parent’s “you can do it” commentary.  Perhaps some of you today share a similar experience. (NOTE:  please thank your parents, family or friends… whoever helped you reach your goals today).

Fortunately, colleges in the US provide us with maps and outlines of courses and schedules of what to do, what to check off, to get our degrees. When I began my journey, I had little knowledge of what would define success, other than a career that could pay off my college loans and provide me with a decent standard of living.

But one event changed my life.  I knocked on the door of a faculty member, Professor Nicholas Peppas.  I was a tentative, shy student, but Professor Peppas welcomed me, advised me, opened my mind to the possibilities… He took the time to listen to me, and I learned about opportunities…

Since that time, I marched through my bachelor’s degree, doctoral degree, postdoctoral studies, traveled the world and I’m a Professor now.  A Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at one of the best Universities in the world.  But sitting where you are today, I knew nothing of these career choices.

So my second point is that there is going to come a time in your life when in order to succeed you will have to trust — when you will have to make a big leap of faith — and when that time comes I hope you will set aside your fear and get into the wheelbarrow.

So, I am a Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Colorado.  I must confess that it’s a far cry from my childhood aspirations.  In fact, do you remember answering the question as a young child “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  For some of you, you may have aspired for:

  • the improbable…..  a major league baseball player, a rock star, the President, the richest person in the world, a movie star
  • maybe even the impossible….. a fairy princess, your favorite superhero: spiderman, batman, superman, Cookie monster
  • or perhaps you’ve already overachieved like my nephew who wanted to be a garbage collector at age 5 and is now studying for a business degree….

I fell into engineering because of serendipitous circumstances, but the more I learned about it, the more I knew it was right for me.  Engineers use science and technology to solve society’s problems.  Engineers help us live healthier lives with new medical products, have access to clean water and air, tackle energy and sustainability problems, and develop products that make our lives better.

I get to use Science and Mathematics to make a difference in the world.   I focus on tissue engineering…. Where we are trying to eliminate the pain of arthritis, treat the complexities of heart disease, or even alleviate the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease.

But I became a Professor, because I wanted to teach; I had a passion for helping others learn. I wanted to inspire students (at least that was what I thought).

And this is the last part of my story, whatever strong belief you now hold about what it means to be successful, I hope that you are open to the possibility that you may have got it all wrong.  When this happens, I hope that you accept your new awareness when it comes, with both gratitude and humility.

Mine came the first day on the job at the University of Colorado.  Roughly 30,000 students came armed to CU with minds full of questions, an enthusiasm for learning, and unrealized dreams.  Just like my knock on Dr. Peppas’ door 22 years ago, forever changed my life…  I get those knocks from students every day, and I must confess that I often do more learningthan teaching.  And these students (YOU!) inspire me.  I am so very fortunate to count myself as a CU faculty member; I am surrounding by some of the best and brightest students in the world.

Well that’s pretty much all I have to tell you. Go get started on all
of your successes and failures and all of the other great things that you will do in your life. Live it to the fullest and when the time comes — don’t be afraid to jump into the wheelbarrow.