Fall 2022 Commencement

Penn State Behrend's Fall 2022 Commencement was held Friday, December 16, at Junker Center on campus. The college awarded 230 undergraduate and graduate degrees at the ceremony.

Graduates and their guests heard addresses by Dr. Massimo Verzella, associate professor of English composition, and Joseph V. Snyder, retired president and co-founder of Process and Data Automation. The text of the commencement addresses are below.

See the Fall 2022 Commencement Program

Dr. Massimo Verzella

Language is Alive: The Power of Face-to-Face Conversation

Dr. Massimo Verzella

Now that you are graduating, I can reveal a secret to you: Teachers learn a lot from students. International teachers learn even more.

During my years at Behrend, students taught me very valuable college slang. Essential words and expressions like:

  • Full send! Full send is when you give your best, “you got to full send at the gym.”
  • Flex for bragging, in sentences like “this dorm is a no flex zone.”
  • That’s cap is used to convey disbelief, as in “stop capping, dude!”
  • But my favorite is sus, an abbreviation for “suspicious,” a word related to the online social game Among Us. My English composition students love the word sus – everything was a bit sus. My accent was a little bit sus. So, my name went from Massimo to Sussimo for a day. Then we studied how 70% of English words come from Latin, and it was less sus to have an Italian as a teacher of composition.

Language is alive! It’s a living creature that is constantly changing, developing, evolving! 

And yet, let’s be honest, we all like to complain about language. Once we’re done complaining about lake-effect snow, we start complaining about English, about texting, and new slang. 

Every year, the language police create lists of words that should be banished. 
2022 lists contain expressions like:

  • “The new normal”
  • “Asking for a friend”
  • “You’re on mute”

And new words like:

  • Totes for “totally.” Totes was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016. This is the example I found in the dictionary: “Oh look, Jennifer Lo and her man are totes happy.”
  • Yeet for throw, used to emphasize forcefulness and a lack of concern for the thing being thrown. Be prepared, next year at Halloween, kids will ask you to “yeet the treats!” Yeet is also used to express excitement. This word was added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in September 2022!

These words are fun! Why should we banish them? 

All languages change because they are not fixed and pure. Languages and cultures are messy and hybrid. We should embrace this messiness and fluidity.

The problem we face with language is ambiguity. Language scholars agree that it’s in the nature of all languages to be ambiguous. Words have so many different meanings depending on context, tone, and many other factors!

Language becomes even more ambiguous when people cannot see us. Email, texting, writing itself, in general, are examples of dis-embodied communication. 
We lose our bodies! 

Then we add emojis to compensate for losing our body. The loudly crying face is the most used emoji, currently. It dethroned the tears of joy emoji. 

But even with emojis, so much is lost when we don’t see each other. Our conversations cannot always be in writing or mediated by machines.

Misunderstandings are very common in our digital lives, a bit less common when we take the time to meet for a conversation.

Think of this: Language has existed for at least 80,000 years. But language arose as speech; humans talked because we are genetically predisposed to talk. Nobody needs to teach us how to speak our native language. 

In contrast, writing is a technique that was invented much later. If humanity had existed for 24 hours, then writing came along at about 11:00 pm. We are primarily speaking creatures, conversation creatures. And we need our body as an additional language to understand each other. 

As Penn State graduates, all of you will be successful, but you might face little problems in your professional life. Many can be solved by talking, asking questions, asking people to have face to face conversations. Being together and sharing a space has not been possible for two years during COVID. I’m sure we all appreciate the gift of company a bit more, now. And the value of conversation.

So, try to be a good talker, and a good listener too. Don’t play Among Us or Fortnite when your boss is talking.

Yeet, that would be totes sus! 

Dr. Massimo Verzella, an associate professor of English composition at Penn State Behrend, studies communication strategies between native and non-native speakers of English. 

Joseph W. Snyder

Life Lessons from Behind the Mask

Joseph W. Snyder '97

Thank you, Chancellor Ford, for that introduction. And thank you all for allowing me to join you this evening!

I’ve become almost an expert at Behrend commencement ceremonies—I was in the audience for the past two spring ceremonies, cheering on two of my sons as they graduated. And I have to say, the seats on stage are much more comfortable than the seats in the audience—especially on that cold, rainy outdoor ceremony in 2020!

So. What advice can I give to you, the class of 2022? Should I share the Dad wisdom that I impart on my three adult children? Should I speak to you as an engineer, as a business owner, as a fellow Behrend grad? 

Nah. I want to talk about scuba diving.

You may be thinking: It’s Erie, in December, and this guy wants to talk about scuba diving?

Please—bear with me. 

I’m an avid scuba diver and diving instructor. And you’d be surprised how closely the rules underwater also apply to life on land. 

The first rule of diving: Use the buddy system. 

This is one of the fundamentals in dive instruction. When you’re diving, you’re in an environment that can be unforgiving if something goes wrong. That’s where your buddy comes in. Your buddy can help you double-check your gear, and can address small problems before they become big problems. 

The same can be said of life. Find people you can trust, people who will have your back. And make sure you have their backs in return. Those relationships can be the foundation of a network that can serve you well in your career, or even stay with you as a constant presence throughout your life. 

Rule two: Always be aware of your surroundings.

Picture yourself underwater on a dive. What’s around you? Fish and underwater plant life, sure. But how far away is the surface? Where is your buddy? Which way is the current flowing? What dangers lurk? One of the most important things we learn as divers is to maintain a global awareness of surroundings, to refrain from making any pre-judgments about an environment, and to be willing to adjust plans as conditions change. 

In other words: You’re asking for trouble if you make a rigid plan about a dive and don’t adapt to what is actually happening beneath the surface. Instead, you have to “go with the flow.” Take a moment to observe—and appreciate—your surroundings. And always, always keep looking around you to be sure you’re ready for whatever situation arises. 

And rule three: Communication is key.

It goes without saying that there isn’t much verbal conversation underwater, right? So divers learn very quickly how to use other ways to communicate. You develop signals. You become experts at reading body language. And you discover that sometimes, the best way to understand others is by quietly observing them. 
That can show you who is prepared, competent, and focused. And, on the flip side, it can show you who acts impulsively, who is unprepared, and who might be out of their element. If nothing else, this may help you better understand your dive buddies—or your work colleagues. Worst-case scenario—this may save you or someone else in the event of an emergency.

So: What do these scuba lessons have to do with you?

You might not realize it, but you’ve already started honing these skills, thanks to the pandemic. You’ve learned to be a good partner—protecting not just yourself but looking out for the health and overall well being of others. You’ve certainly learned to pay attention to what’s going on around you and have adapted time and time again to changing situations. And you’ve come to appreciate the value of communication.
This is why I was so honored to be asked to speak to you this evening. You are a unique class. 

When you started your studies at Behrend, life was—well, it was normal. You studied in classes and labs. You went to basketball games and Midnight Bingo. You ate at Bruno’s and hung out at bars (and yes, we know you went to bars!). 

And then—there was none of that. Overnight, almost, everything changed. You were forced onto Zoom. You had to exist behind masks—not scuba masks, but COVID masks. You had to develop a whole new way of learning, of communicating, of socializing. 

Now, here we are again. The pendulum has swung back, mostly. You returned to campus, and to classes, and to crowds. Is this “normal” again? I’d say it’s “the new normal,” but as Dr. Verzella just told us, the language police might come after me for that! 

Through it all, the ups and downs, and back and forth, you’ve demonstrated that you have the essential skills vital to a successful career—or a safe dive. 

I urge you to go forward into your futures with confidence. 

As graduates of Penn State Behrend, you have the education to prepare you for your future—the tools that you expected from your college experience. And as young people who succeeded amid a pandemic, you also have a little extra—unique life lessons in adaptability, and the experience and knowledge to overcome any obstacle that is in your way.

Time to dive in!

Joseph W. Snyder is a Penn State Alumni Fellow and the retired president of Process and Data Automation, the company he co-founded in 2002.