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2023 SUNY Potsdam Commencement Ceremony Remarks

Dr. Suzanne Smith, SUNY Potsdam President
May 20, 2023

Good morning! It’s such an honor to stand before you today as the 18th president of SUNY Potsdam. This is a special place, filled with amazing students, like those of you graduating today. I know that we also have some special people in the audience who currently serve or have served in the armed forces, as first responders with the police or fire departments, or who provide outstanding healthcare by working as some sort of medical professional. If you work in service to others in one of these ways, can you please stand and let us recognize you?

Thank you. Did you know we have students from 18 states other than New York, including someone from as far away as Alaska, and students from both Canada and the United States graduating today? Our youngest graduate earning a degree today is 19, and there are two of them, and our oldest graduate earning a degree is 64 for the bachelor’s programs, and 65 for the graduate level. Our student body is diverse, just as each of you are unique and have your own story to share. Many of you had challenges you faced while attending college, and while some of you completed your degree in four years or less, some of you took a more scenic path towards graduation. It is a point of pride for SUNY Potsdam that we welcome so many first-generation students to our institution. We know what an extraordinary achievement this is for you and for your families. Could I ask all of you who are the first in your family to complete a college degree to please stand if you would like, and let us congratulate you?

Regardless of the path you took, or the journey you traveled, you have all achieved greatness by putting in the time and effort necessary to achieve your degree. I’ve often said that graduation day is my favorite day of the year on a college campus, and that’s true. The air is alive with the energy of your excitement, and it’s contagious. One lesson you can learn from today and take with you in whatever you do moving forward, is to show thanks and appreciation for those that help you along the way. Graduates, I imagine some of you have parents or siblings, grandparents, spouses or children, aunts and uncles, cousins or friends here in the audience cheering you on because they have been a part of the support system that helped you get your degree, or perhaps have even made sacrifices so you could achieve your dream. Let’s take a moment to recognize those in the audience for their support of you during your path to graduation.

You know, you and I actually have a lot in common. We’ve both closed one chapter of our lives and are starting another one. We’re all heading into unknown territory with some idea what we want to do or how we think it will go, but we still have a lot of questions about how things are really going to end up. I don’t know about you, but for me it’s a time full of incredible excitement mixed with a little bit of anxiety and fear of the unknown. After all, we all want to be successful, whatever that word means to you. So, I’ll leave you with a few of the things I am trying to focus on and would invite you to think about how these apply to your situation as well, as you leave Potsdam and start your next chapter.

  1. Put yourself out there and do things that make you uncomfortable.
    The only way to make new friends, have new adventures, and chart a new course for yourself is by trying new things. When we moved here a few weeks ago, our son Sam immediately started exploring downtown, finding a church home, and finding employment. I praised him for putting himself out there so quickly and he said that he’d read that the best way to make new friends after you move is to explore the town and, if someone asks you to do something, always say yes, and that’s what he was going to do. I was really impressed by that.

    It's not easy to put yourself out there because it can make us feel vulnerable. Being uncomfortable is difficult, but I bet if you think back to some of your greatest memories in life so far, there were some moments of discomfort before there were moments of greatness. So, learn to embrace the uneasiness because it’s what leads to growth, change, and opportunities.
  2. Show people that they matter. 
    That’s why I wanted to recognize the people in the audience who helped support you along the way. Try to remember to thank others for their support as often as you can. Wherever you end up next, get to know the people in your work environment, your neighborhood, or where you hang out. And not just the people sitting next to you, but the people who help ensure the buildings are clean and the grounds look amazing. Look around here today. We’re sitting in a stunning outdoor environment. But it doesn’t look this way by itself; it’s the hard work of many men and women who cut the grass and keep the trash picked up, for example, that make this campus and this spot beautiful. We have people preparing food right now for our reception which will be a great place to celebrate after the ceremony. Every single person contributes to our overall success, so do what you can to ensure that every single person knows you are grateful for their efforts.
  3. Remember FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning. 
    I heard this from Major General Thomas Carden, who is the Adjunct General of the Georgia Department of Defense, when he came to speak to the President Jimmy Carter Leadership Program in Georgia, and I love it. After all, we are all going to fail as we try new things and put ourselves out there, but it’s only truly a failure if we allow it to paralyze us rather than to motive ourselves to push forward. Life is hard. We don’t always get it right, and we shouldn’t expect to have things be perfect all the time. So, use each bump in the road as a lesson to help you figure out how to move forward in a more productive way, and eventually you will succeed.
  4. There’s that word again: Success. 
    What does it mean?  I would also challenge you to decide for yourself what success means or what it looks like, and then let that be what you strive for. While well-meaning people will try and help you figure it out, ultimately you are the one that has to live your life, so make it something that reflects who you are, and that feel comfortable doing. As Shakespeare so famously wrote, “To thine own self be true.” That advice is as relevant today as it was when it was written in “Hamlet.”

    Similarly, Former President Jimmy Carter would frequently tell students that they need to figure out what their values are and let them guide everything they do and every decision they make. He said our values should be reflected in how others see us, and in how we see ourselves. And if you can do that, and you are living a life you are proud of, then you will be successful. 
  5. Be a good friend and support system for others.
    I have a brother who is three and a half years older than me. I always wanted to hang around with him and his friends, and of course that’s the last thing any of them wanted. So, I spent a lot of time being told to “scram” and “leave them alone.”  But we had this next-door neighbor who was in his class, and she was someone I wanted to be. She was popular, beautiful and just really kind to everyone. She would let me hang out with her. She took me under her wing and introduced me to all of the people at the high school. She’d take me to Godfather’s Pizza after the football games and I got to hang out with all of people who were popular at that time. And she never once made me feel stupid for being young. Or like I was a pest, even though I am sure I was. I wanted to be Paula Markevich when I grew up. She worked at McDonald’s when she was in high school, and so my first job was McDonald’s. I loved working the drive thru! She was on dance team and flag corps, so I did those things too when I got to high school. She went off to college, and so I decided I wanted to go to college. She’s someone I would have considered one of my best friends for many years growing up because of the way she made me feel—special.
    • What lessons did I learn from this?  
      1. Always be nice to people, even when they might bug you, because you never know how you impact others
      2. That it’s important to support other people in their journeys. I think she was as excited as I was when I made flag corps or got a job at McDonald’s, and her support made me willing to try and do new things. So, seek out a mentor in this next phase of your life to help you figure things out, be open and honest with them about your needs, and lean on them for help and support as you start your new journey. At the same time, be a good mentor to someone going through some of the things you’ve already dealt with and have figured out how to cope with. Be their source of support and guidance.
      3. And honestly, I don’t know if Paula ever knew how much I looked up to her, and how much of an impact she had on my life, but she just did these things because that’s who she is and how she treats others. I wish I had gone back to her and told her how much the way she treated me meant to me, so don’t let those opportunities to thank others for their influence on your journey pass without taking them.

The same is true for you.  It’s likely you made a significant impact on someone in your life while you were at student here at SUNY Potsdam and you have no idea. So, treat everyone kindly, and be the kind of person others will strive to be. That doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes or do stupid things; it just means you allow others to be a part of your journey and support them when it looks like they need a friend and be the kind of person to them that Paula was to me.

So, there you have it. Five, although to be fair I crammed a lot in the last one, reflections for us as we start our next adventure in life. I know none of it was groundbreaking, or even unique, but it does reflect what I believe and who I try to be as a person. I will leave you with a few hopes and dreams for you as you leave SUNY Potsdam:

  • I hope you have an amazing life, full of all the things that make you happy, that you turn to others when you struggle and let them support you, and that you be the person someone else needs in their darkest hour, so they don’t feel alone. 
  • I hope you always believe in yourself, even when it’s difficult.
  • I hope you find your happy place and go there when you need to re-energize.
  • And I hope you surround yourself with people that build you up rather than tear you down. Find “your people,” hold them close to your heart, and believe it when they say you are amazing, because you all are.

And when you’re the one wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, I hope you remember the words that Christopher Robin spoke to Winnie the Pooh: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Thank you. And now, to our reason for being here today… Are you ready to graduate?