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The Suburbanite
  • Finding words of wisdom for new graduates

  • Walsh University will lead off the commencement season for area colleges with its outdoor ceremony Sunday.  But how do colleges choose the speaker and how does the speaker prepare for such an important job?

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  • Tough crowd.
    Hundreds of young people on a pivotal day, thoughts and emotions pulled in many directions, understandably thinking about what’s next instead of what’s now — this is the audience facing commencement speakers.
    “It makes me very nervous,” admitted Merle Griff, who will speak at Kent State University Stark’s graduation. “I went through my office and asked all the young people, ‘When you graduated, what do you remember about the speech?’ Everyone I spoke to, including my own adult children, said, ‘I don’t remember anything.’ ”
    Griff is founder and CEO of SarahCare Senior Care Solutions, based in Canton. In her speech she will address the seeming irony of someone who works with the elderly talking to young college graduates. Writing the speech posed a challenge.
    “It’s tough. Your crowd is not only the people graduating, it’s their family — and the families are probably listening more closely,” Griff said. “It means so much to them, and your speech becomes part of their overall experience of their child’s graduation. It’s very, very important.”
    Matt Darrah, vice president of North America Operations for Enterprise, will be the commencement speaker at his alma mater, the University of Mount Union.
    “Twenty-nine years ago I was sitting in their chair,” Darrah said. “I want to give them something I would have wanted to hear at that time, something I know now that I didn’t know then.”
    Darrah admits he doesn’t know who spoke at his graduation in 1984, and he isn’t worried about the class of 2013 remembering his name.
    “But I hope they do remember the message,” he said. That message, “Setting Yourself Apart in a Competitive Work Environment,” will include his hard-won tips for career success.
    Walsh University will lead off the commencement season with its outdoor ceremony Sunday. Speakers for the area commencements range from local dignitaries to national business owners. The exception is the University of Akron, where Louis Proenza, president of the university, will be the commencement speaker at all five ceremonies.
    Sounds exhausting.
    “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Proenza said, chuckling. “But I enjoy it, and it’s invigorating.”
    He started the tradition when he became president in 1999, thus has addressed tens of thousands of graduates. Remarkably, he doesn’t recycle his speeches.
    “I might repeat a quotation from Dr. Seuss, but I write a different speech for each ceremony,” Proenza said.
    Are they tough crowds? Are the students a bit distracted?
    “The crowd is usually very respectful,” he said. “But if I need to catch their attention, I may inject some humor.”
    Memorable quotes from commencement addresses:
    “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” — Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941
    Page 2 of 3 - “You’ll find out that nothing that comes easy is worth a dime. As a matter of fact, I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face. Never.” — Woody Hayes, Ohio State University, 1986
    “Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control. We need not accept that view. Our problems are man-made — therefore, they can be solved by man.” — President John F. Kennedy at American University, 1963
    “You know what makes your heart swift, you know what makes your breath catch in your throat, you know what makes your chest tight with anticipation. Go get that!” — Sanjay Gupta, University of Michigan, 2012
    “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.” — J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008
    “As you grow, you’ll realize the definition of success changes. For many of you, today, success is being able to hold down 20 shots of tequila. For me, the most important thing in your life is to live your life with integrity, and not to give in to peer pressure.” — Ellen Degeneres, Tulane University, 2009
    “In the last 30 years our material wealth has increased in this country, but our self-described happiness has steadily declined. Elsewhere, the people who consider themselves very happy are not in the very poorest nations, nor in the very richest. The winners are Mexico, Ireland, Puerto Rico, the kinds of places we identify with extended family, noisy villages, a lot of dancing. The happiest people are the ones with the most community.” — Barbara Kingsolver, Duke University, 2008
    “You don’t actually have to build a rocket or go into space, but please take us somewhere. Please keep us moving. Push us, lift us up. Make us better.”  — Brian Williams, George Washington University, 2012
    “I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous.” — Stephen Colbert, Knox College, 2006
    Reach Saimi at 330-580-8493 or saimi.bergmann@cantonrep.com
    On Twitter: sbergmannREP
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