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UT Arlington Fall 2015 Student Leadership Retreat

September 13, 2015


“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

I know it’s relatively early in the morning and it’s a Sunday, so a number of you are probably asking yourselves why you are here and not in bed, so I’m taking a real risk when I ask all of you to close your eyes.

I’d like you to imagine being born in the 19th century, losing your mother when you were 8, your brother when you were 9, and one year later losing your father, who was an alcoholic whom you rarely saw, being married to a person who had an affair and whose mother was extremely controlling and did not like you. You stand by your spouse and help your spouse through debilitating paralysis due to polio. All through you never give up, you keep forging ahead, doing what was needed not just for yourself, but for others as well.

Now that’s resilience in the face of adversity—and yes, you may open your eyes.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure to be here with you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you. Before I go further, though, let me connect the dots between the quote I started with and the story I asked you to imagine. I understand that the topics of the retreat were “Resilience” and “Leadership” and so I wanted to try to stick within that framework.

That quote was by a woman who despite going through all that adversity became one of the best known women in America—a person who not only enabled her husband to become the longest-serving president of our nation, but perhaps had an equal influence on our nation and its well-being as he did, in many ways perhaps at a more profound level. That woman was Eleanor Roosevelt—a person who changed forever the concept of the first lady—she took a stand on racial issues, was the first presidential spouse to hold press conferences, write a syndicated news column, and speak at a national convention. She used the power of communication to ensure that her message was heard by all, and she was not afraid to speak her mind on issues that mattered. She served as a strong advocate for expanded roles for women in the workplace and for the civil rights of African Americans and Asian Americans. Even after another setback, the death of her husband, she pressed on, serving as one of our first delegates to the newly formed United Nations, and following her passion as the first chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, overseeing the landmark drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Unlike some who gain positions for prestige, she sought them and used them to set and implement an agenda—one that has resulted in a lot of good, culminating in her chairing the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women in John F. Kennedy’s administration. Years ago she could have succumbed to adversity, turned back at barriers, but she persevered and overcame them—and we are all better because of her and her shining example.

When asked by a New York Times reporter about his many failures, Thomas Edison, perhaps one of the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs ever, is reported to have said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” What if he had given up after any of his failures—why then we might not have had the benefit of his creativity in the phonograph, the motion picture camera, stock tickers, and even the concept of mass production.

The commonality between these two great Americans is resilience—defined often as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. Those of you who remember high school physics or freshman physics—yes, I know it’s Sunday and that’s a non-physics day—will remember determining the resilience of a body dropped from a height as being the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by compressive stress. How true—external forces cause stress in our lives, obstacles cause disappointment and even fear—but the resilient person moves on, taking these as steps in the path of life, to be overcome and not be allowed to stop one’s progress toward one’s goals.

Fear and disappointment are both very powerful and most often, although not always, negative emotions. And believe me, we all experience them—even those who say they have no fear. It is something that’s common. It’s inherent in all of us. It causes some of us to retreat into our shells, stay quietly by ourselves, afraid to mix with others because doing so might expose us to ridicule, might force us to take a stand, to do exactly what we hope not to ever do—speak in public, express our opinions, ask someone out on a date, drive a car, or take a flight—it stops us from following our dreams. It causes others to put on a shell of bravado—to pretend that nothing affects them, that nothing scares them, and often it causes action without thought, meanness or recklessness as a mechanism to hide that fear.

We face barriers and obstacles every day. Some are small and some are big—but each and every one of them has the potential to have a profound effect on us, and through us on the rest of the world. Think back to a time when you really wanted to do something, you knew you could do it and you were convinced that if you did, you would cause something wonderful to happen for your siblings, your family, your friends, even your community—but something was in your way—and you looked at it and it seemed like a huge mountain in your way—and you stopped. For that one moment, or hour, or days—the world stood still as you debated whether you could climb that steep face, cross that deep ocean—and in some cases you did. In others you held back—and something, someone who would have benefited from our moving forward did not gain from it. Sad—but true.

Fear, barriers and obstacles—we face them every day. Success is not measured by how many we face, but by how we face the situation and what we do during, and after, that moment. It’s how we bounce back from adversity that defines our character. Years ago, as I faced some challenges and looked over the past bemoaning my errors, I came across some words that have always stayed in my mind

“I am strong because I’ve been weak
I am fearless because I’ve been afraid
I am wise because I’ve been foolish”

The past does affect us but it does not define us. Our ability to bounce back, to rise above the challenge—that’s what defines us. As Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing but in rising each time we fail.”

Let me congratulate each one of you—you have reached this point in your lives by falling and getting up, by overcoming obstacles, challenges, and fears—each of you in different ways. You are among the very best at The University of Texas at Arlington—you’ve embraced the roles of leadership and in doing so you’ve taken on the responsibilities and accountability of serving as leaders, role models, and mentors. You are staking new ground, putting aside your doubts, your fears, the obstacles—to develop a new future—for yourselves, and for your fellow students. Through your attendance at the retreat, you’ve each made a personal commitment to bettering yourselves through the service of others. Through your efforts, not only will your organizations grow in strength and thrive, but so will the entire University. Your efforts make our journey to pre-eminence, as a model 21st century urban university, all that easier.

By your presence here, by your being at UTA, you’ve already shown that barriers can be overcome, that you can reach for that golden ring, grasp it and follow your dreams.

I am continuously amazed by the breadth and depth of commitment, dedication, and service that I see from the student leaders here—whether it be in enhancing student life on campus, providing new educational programming for students, engaging in service activities, or in creating a better community—you lead the way for all of us.

In today’s information-driven age, technology-driven globalization shrinks the space between continents, countries, and cultures. Diverse peoples are pushed closer together, sometimes making them reluctant neighbors and often fueling resentment, envy, anger, and mutual disgust. Divides—social, cultural, religious, and political—have been amplified. We are now witnessing intensified conflicts on a global scale—congestion, clash of cultures, and social turmoil—apart from the ever-present competition for resources and conflict for control not just of land and resources, but of ideas and modes of communication. To address these aspects, there is a critical need for the development of leadership—young men and women, like you, who can think beyond boundaries of place, identity, and norms, who have empathy, trust, and mutual respect for diverse cultures and civilizations, who seek to contribute to a sustainable and more humane world, and who do not live in a vacuum but seize important questions, confront them, and develop solutions. You represent this leadership.

Those of us with gray hair often think of you as representing the future, but in reality you are active in influencing the present, in addressing these critical issues, and we gain significantly from what you are already doing. You show tremendous commitment to a sense of public ethos and engagement with the community for the common good, you develop new ideas, better ways of enhancing life at this University and in this community, you build powerful, influential and culturally inclusive networks—you are already building a better world.

You are students at a university that is setting new standards for innovation, diversity, excellence, access, and student success:

  • There are nationally ranked programs in our colleges;
  • We have internationally renowned faculty;
  • We have a student body that this year will cross 37,000 in fall in the state of Texas and probably 54,000 once all online students enroll through the academic year. Just imagine—in two years we will have the pleasure of stating that the second-largest campus in the UT System is—UT Austin;
  • We graduate over 10,000 students a year and have a degree production ratio that is higher than all in the UT System;
  • We can boast of 10 fellows in the National Academy of Inventors—more than the sum at all other UT System campuses combined and fully one-third of the total number in Texas.

All this is due to you, our students. You are the leaders making the demands for ever-higher levels of excellence. You are the ones making the change and in doing so, you are developing the 21st century urban research university.

This room is filled with leaders, individuals capable of making tremendous things happen. Do not for one moment doubt your power as a group, or as individuals.

I am reminded of the words of Robert Kennedy who said, “Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills—against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. ‘Give me a place to stand,’ said Archimedes, ‘and I will move the world.’ ”

You have shown us that you can indeed make a difference—and in doing so—move the world. I’d like to congratulate each of you here today and thank you for your leadership and commitment. Thank you for what you’ve done and for what I’m confident you will continue to do.

Looking at all the faces in front of me, I’m confident that you are ready to take that leap into the unknown, willing to work past your fears—to write a new chapter for yourselves, and for the University. The future is not tomorrow, it is not 2 years or 10 years from today, it is NOW and it’s within your grasp—so reach out and grab it.

Thank you.