Donald B Scott is the director of Advising and Retention Services for Brandman University. He also earned his Doctorate of Education in Organizational Leadership in 2017. Here is the commencement address he gave for the Whidbey Island and Bangor commencements and was scheduled to give to Lacey graduates until the ceremony was canceled because of a storm and power outage.
Good Afternoon, members of the Class of 2017
I want to begin today with a story of a 46-year old man as he realizes the goal of earning his doctorate by the time he turns 50 is beginning to fade unless he makes a decision he has been postponing for 14 years. He had exhausted every possible excuse for not making the decision sooner: he was too busy at work to fit school in, he questioned whether it would really pay off in the end? He questioned whether he was too old. And the biggest mental obstacle of all: he questioned if he had what it took to be successful.
Think back to the moment you first considered earning the degree you are celebrating today. Can you relate to feeling inadequate or unsure about yourself?
This Commencement ceremony is a culmination and celebration of your hard work. The term commencement means to begin – so for the next 10 minutes, I want you to remember where this all began. I want you to remember why you made the decision to pursue this degree while reflecting on those moments when you may have felt you could go no further. I want to remind you about the support you have all around you. And, finally, I hope to inspire you to keep reaching for more goals in your life.
Of course, the man in the story was me back in 2014. I looked at the calendar and realized if I really wanted to attain my goal, I had 3 ½ years and nobody but myself holding me accountable for it. It was time for me to take the first step towards earning my doctorate. That day was a gut-check for me.
I imagine a fair number of you in this room are familiar with the term “gut check.” For those who aren’t, please don’t worry about pulling your phones out to Google it.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary actually defines gut check as:
a test or assessment of courage, character, or determination.
But if you prefer, an online urban dictionary defines gut check as:
Gut check time… I, just like you, took that first step. I made the commitment to earn my degree. I would be lying if I said it was smooth sailing as I got underway. In fact, there were times when I thought the largest butterflies in the world had invaded my stomach. Those first assignments, making technology work, struggling to perfect my APA writing style and logging into Blackboard – anyone else experience those challenges?
Our experiences as students may be different, so let me tell you about the first two years of my doctoral program. They challenged me to prioritize every part of my life and, for the first time, identify and evaluate my personal values. Most importantly, and without recognizing it was happening, those first 2 years prepared me to dig deeper to find a level of personal strength I never knew existed. This experience epitomized the gut-check phenomenon.
I also learned the true meaning of perseverance. I often reflected upon a simple quote that I read early on in my program by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks that reminded me of the importance of recognizing the inner strength it takes to persevere. She described perseverance in this way:
You go on. You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going.
I would ask you to think about what it was that made you keep going? Was it the promise of a better life? Did it represent an opportunity for a promotion or a better salary? Or did this journey represent a chance to fulfill a personal goal? Maybe it was all three? Regardless of which of these options applies, I imagine you had to deal with some sense of vulnerability that ultimately morphed into to a sense of confidence.
After successfully completing my program’s coursework, I had another Gut-check moment– I faced the daunting task of writing my dissertation.
Picture this: it was July 4th weekend almost exactly a year ago and I was committed to using the long holiday weekend to start my writing process. The optimist in my head confidently said, “I’ll have 5-7 pages written by Monday night.” All I had to do was write 1-2 pages each day. Totally doable, right?
The reality as noted in a journal entry I made on July 3rd read,
“It became excruciatingly clear by Saturday that writing 5-7 pages was a dream at best.”
What happened, you ask? The total number of SENTENCES I had written by the end of the weekend was 5.
Let’s break that down a little more slowly so it can sink in: The total number of SENTENCES I had written by the end of that 4-day weekend was 5.
Gut Check moment – this was not going to be as easy as I thought. Remember: the definition of gut-check is:
In doctoral programs, we often talk about our “writing” or “accountability” partners. These partners are generally fellow doctoral students who are about the only other people on the planet who truly understand the rollercoaster of emotions one faces as part of completing this final and ultimate academic challenge in any student’s life.
I think we all recognize how sometimes we lean on others or allow them to push us. We have to remind ourselves – support is all around us – it keeps us real – it is the mirror that makes us realize WHY we are doing this in the first place. So, let’s take a moment to consider and acknowledge the support team that helped you get here.
First, I have no doubt you have similar individuals like my writing partners sitting beside you today who offered you that same kind of support as you progressed through your program. I hope you will take time to think about who they are and acknowledge them and the role they played for you in this process.
Further, I imagine the staff and faculty here at (Whidbey Island) (Bangor) hold a special place in your heart. I feel confident saying they provided their support to you because of their passion for education and their commitment to see each and every one of you fulfill the dream you set out to achieve. I hope you will join me in thanking them for their dedication to you.
Finally, we all know your success would not have been possible without the support of your families and friends. While your classmates and the staff and faculty provided one kind of support, I think we can all agree it was your family and friends that truly made the difference. I imagine they became your biggest cheerleaders throughout this process and pulled you through when you believed you could go no further. I would encourage us to take a moment to thank them for their efforts.
Remember I had 5 sentences written after that July 4th weekend?
My final dissertation ended up being 140 pages long, and while I had no idea how long the final document would be at the time, I can assure you of the overwhelming sense of despair and, frankly, the sense of panic that set in at the end of that weekend.
I share that story not to dissuade any of you from going on to take another step in your academic life. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. My goal is to inspire you to think about the journey you are about to complete as you receive your diploma. Think about those moments along the way when you may have experienced equally low moments like those I had during that July 4th weekend. What did YOU learn from those moments that allowed you to be here today?
I recently read an article in a newsletter called Inside Higher Education about the dissertation process that pretty well summed up what I learned from my doctoral journey. I think it applies equally well to the academic challenge each of you have just successfully completed. The author wrote:
“The dissertation is not a test of intelligence or a measure of human worth. You know what it is? A test of consistency and resiliency. The dissertation chairperson and committee are really asking: ‘How much can you take? After we knock you down, how many times can you come back out of your corner, swinging and writing?’ None of it has any relation to your value as a human being.”
We also can’t forget the words of General George Custer who said:
It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up
This ceremony isn’t an ending. It isn’t called a conclusion – it’s called a commencement
While this ceremony should be the start of an incredible time of celebration it’s also an opportunity to look forward and ask “what’s next?” I encourage you to consider how this experience has influenced your outlook on life. How has it impacted your role as a parent? As a spouse? Even as a good friend? All of us likely remember how interesting it was to review the learning outcomes of each class in our programs. My challenge for you today is to consider what you learned about yourself looking back over the last couple of years and how those lessons will be applied as you move forward in your life.
I want to conclude by acknowledging how firmly I believe each of you represents an emerging area of psychological research around the idea of grit. For those unfamiliar with the concept of grit, I encourage you to learn more about University of Pennsylvania Psychologist Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth. In a 2013 TED talk discussing her research about grit, Dr. Duckworth shared:
Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality
And, as Dr. Travis Bradberry who is known for his research around Emotional Intelligence added:
Grit is that ‘extra something’ that separates the most successful people from the rest.
Today confirms you have set yourself apart from others. You responded to an incredible gut-check, you demonstrated your ability to persevere, and, yes, you demonstrated that quality of grit. But, don’t ever forget those initial feelings of anxiety you had when you started this journey, the support that helped you along the way, and the opportunity for you to consider what’s next in your life.
I am honored to have had a chance to help you celebrate this exciting and important milestone in your life. As the son of a retired Air Force officer, I also want to offer my personal thanks to those of you who serve, or have served, in the military. I truly appreciate your service to our country.
I offer all of you my most sincere Congratulations and my best wishes for the future.