of Deborah Hersman
National Transportation Safety Board
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
May 14, 2005
Thank you Dr. Luciak for the welcoming introduction. It is a real pleasure to be back at VA Tech. I recall my years at Tech with great fondness. While many things about the campus have changed in the last 13 years since I graduated, we probably share many experiences central to college life: leaving home, making decisions and making mistakes, and making new friends. Many of these college relationships will endure beyond your time in Blacksburg. my husband and some of my closest friends were a product of my four years at Tech. So your time here will be more than an education, but the foundation of your life as an adult.
When I was invited to speak to you, I considered it a real honor as a former student of this department. I have spent weeks thinking about what to say to you that would have an impact. I consulted with friends and colleagues, looked on the internet, but perhaps the best dose of reality came from my husband, when he told me, "Deb, nobody remembers the speaker at their graduation or what they said. Remember, how you were in that hat and gown and summer was coming and you just wanted to get out of there. Just keep it short!" Well, he was right, I don't remember who spoke to my class, so I will try to keep it short and all I want you to remember about what I will say to you is some advice about life: And, that is to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. First, I would like to congratulate everyone on this momentous occasion. Achieving our goals is a very rewarding part of life -- being here today, surrounded by friends and family, should give you all a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. You have worked very hard to reach this goal.
This is truly a special event, and it is a privilege to have been invited here to share it with you today. Take a minute and look around. Capture this moment in your memory. For students, parents, and faculty, this is a major destination along the journey of life. Think about all of the years you have spent waiting for this day, and while some have spent more years than others thinking, this is a moment to remember. Drink it in, don't wish it away to get to lunch, get packed, or get on the road home.
This ceremony celebrates the successful completion of an important stage in each of your lives but it also marks the beginning of a new journey. Many of you are likely to be continuing your education, enrolling in post-graduate masters or doctoral programs, while others of you will be serving in the armed forces or taking the first steps in your professional careers. Having been in your shoes, I can relate to the many stresses and pressures that accompany this time of transition, which calls for both reflection and forward thinking for the future.
Many of you, I suspect, are still trying to find your place in life -- determine the right career path; plan the best course. Most of the people in this room, including the parents and faculty, can relate to that. There is no final decision on who we are or what we can achieve. I can tell you that when I was in school, I did not know what the National Transportation Safety Board was, let alone think about a job that would require a Presidential appointment and a Senate confirmation. However, whether it was working in politics, public policy, or transportation safety, I have always enjoyed my work. It has been like being in school, every day I learn new things, I am exposed to new ideas, and I am surrounded by people that share their knowledge with me.
Many of you will have the opportunity to define your future in the coming months, for those of you still making up your minds, I would urge you to consider public service, it is an honorable and rewarding path. Since much of your time will be spent at work, I would encourage your to think about this Chinese proverb, I once heard, as you make your decisions:
If you want to be happy for a week, buy a fattened pig.
If you want to be happy for a year, marry a pretty girl.
If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, do a job that you love.
Throughout your lives, facing difficult challenges, making important decisions, and choosing one path over another are to become all too familiar tasks. However, from your presence here today it is obvious that you all have the vision to set desired goals and the determination to follow through and achieve them. You have received an excellent education here, so face tomorrow's challenges with the confidence and self-assurance you've derived from your time here at Tech.
It has been said, that college is something to be completed -- at least your parents have been hoping so for the last four (or five or six) years -- while life, on the other hand, is something to be experienced. As such, you will find life has somewhat less defined measures of success -- at least in the sense there is no one giving out grades. For the first time, you will be given the opportunity to set your own priorities and select the tasks you wish to undertake -- defining success as you go along by your ability to meet these stated goals.
Each generation has its own challenges to face, and unfortunately your generation is not lacking in its share of unique and demanding challenges. In the short time since I was a student here --and I do stress "short" -- many things have changed, not only here at Tech but around the world. When I first entered college, I remember watching footage of the Berlin Wall coming down and you all will no doubt remember the day you sat with friends and watched the footage of September 11, 2001. New challenges have emerged. From terrorism to environmental preservation to the recent onslaught of really bad reality TV shows, there exists a number of serious issues your generation will have to address. However, with the first-rate education and practical experience provided by Tech, I have no doubt this class has the talent, diligence, and vision to face the challenges ahead.
In sum, life after college will be quite a departure from the last four years, especially in the sense that each of you will have a greater say in choosing what to devote your energies. I ask each of you take the time to enjoy life's many journeys that await you. Continue to set high standards and challenging goals for yourselves. But also remember to do what you truly enjoy. Don't be afraid of taking detours and avoid becoming so bogged down in reaching a specific destination that you fail to look out the window every now and then. I'm not suggesting you throw out the road map; only that you allow yourself the freedom to take pleasure in the journey. So when you take an unexpected detour or miss the avenue you were looking for, do not panic for oftentimes it is during these perceived "missteps" that we stumble upon the greatest opportunity. Do not be afraid to experiment, try new things, and depart from the conventional path -- create your own!
Before sending you out into the "real world" to embark upon the next exciting journey, I wish to impart a little piece of advice. And, that is to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
Embodying this advice is one of my favorite poems, The Station, by Robert Hastings. Today, I leave you with his words (with a few minor modifications) on how to live life as we go along.
Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the continent. We are traveling by train. Out the windows we drink in the passing scene of the flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls.
But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. Once we get there our dreams will come true, and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering -- waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.
"When we reach the station, that will be it!" we cry.
"When I GRADUATE FROM TECH."
"When I GET A GOOD PAYING JOB!"
"When I put the last kid through college."
"When I GET TENURE."
"When I reach the age of retirement, I shall live happily ever after!"
Sooner or later we must realize that there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.
It isn't the burdens of today that will drive men mad. It is the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are the twin thieves that rob us of today.
So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more, cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.
Again, congratulations to the Class of 2005. Today is your day! Revel in your accomplishment! I wish you all the best in the future!