Penn State Behrend's Spring 2023 Commencement was held Friday, May 5, at Erie Insurance Arena. The college awarded 632 undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Graduates and their guests heard addresses by Dr. Greg Dillon, professor of polymer engineering and science, and Dr. Ala Stanford ’91, ’97, a national health policy expert. The text of the commencement addresses are below.
Dr. Greg Dillon
It is one of the greatest honors of my entire career that I get to talk to all of you on a day that is filled with joy … anticipation … possibilities. I’m sure many of you will look back on today as one of the happiest of your life. I get to share that with you? What an immense honor.
So, what can I say that will have any chance of being remembered beyond about 8 o’clock tonight?
I’d love to be able to give you the meaning of life. Wouldn’t that be something? Learning the meaning of life from a guy with a funny accent and an even funnier hat!
I can’t tell you the meaning of life. But I can tell you what has given meaning to my life. It couldn’t be simpler. It’s love.
I’m talking about the most expansive definition of the word. Love of family, friends, your Alma Mater, your country, your planet – it’s your planet now! But today I’m mostly talking about the love of what you do. Your profession.
You are about to embark on a series of activities that, collectively, we call a career. You will likely spend anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 hours engaging in these activities. They simply must be enjoyable, exciting, rewarding.
Soon you will have your Penn State degree. I want you to view it as a license – a license to pursue a career that will make you happy. One you will love. You’ve earned that license. Isn’t that why you came to college in the first place? Now, never give up that pursuit.
In academia, we spend so much time talking about success. It is a simple definition for me. In my job, the only rational measure of my success is your success. If I’m not helping to make those 80,000 hours happier, I’m in the wrong line of business. I can’t define success for you. But I will be arrogant enough to offer you a working definition.
I often ask my students who Roger Bannister was. Not a pop quiz. Roger Bannister was the first man to run a track mile in under four minutes. As a medical student at Oxford, one of his senior professors asked him why he put so much effort into such a frivolous activity as running. His answer was pure poetry. He simply said that running offered him “an opportunity to do something exceedingly well.”
“To do something exceedingly well.” It is usually forgotten that Sir Roger Bannister was knighted by the Queen for two reasons: first for his contributions to sport — no brainer — but also for his contributions to neuroscience — brainer! It seems Dr. Bannister did more than one thing exceedingly well.
I only tell that story to encourage you to embrace your own capacity for excellence. Will it happen every day? Of course not. You are a human being, not a machine or a robot. But I can promise you that you’ll never really regret giving your best. It will bring you joy.
That leads me to my working definition of success — for you. It is — ready? — to be happy doing your best. To have fun doing your best. Not bad, huh? I’m kinda proud of that. I think I did that “exceedingly well.”
I have had many titles in my career. From farm laborer to professor. From glass picker (ask me what that is) to principal engineer of advanced development. As the seventh child of a bricklayer and a hairdresser, I’m happy to say that all my jobs have brought me joy. I’m proud of all of them.
Through that breadth of life experience, I can tell you that you will soon hold a qualification that is second to none. I mean second to NONE. You are now part of a gigantic global family that is Penn State.
I will never, we will never, stop caring what happens to you. We will rejoice in your triumphs. We will lament your sorrows. It is impossible to express how wonderful it is when our graduates return to see us. So please don’t be a stranger.
If we have indeed contributed to your 80,000 hours of happiness, then we will be bold enough to ask a favor in return. Make us better. Tell us what we do right and what we need to improve. Be our conscience.
Finally, to our students, I want to say that today I’m no longer Dr. Dillon. I’m your friend Greg. And today, I’m truly happy, excited and impatient to see the amazing things I know you will do. Now go transform the world — but have fun doing it.
Dr. Greg Dillon, professor of polymer engineering and science at Penn State Behrend, studies materials and manufacturing, particularly polymers and advanced composites.
Keep Learning and Remember Your WHY
Dr. Ala Stanford
Good evening, Chancellor Ford, family, friends and faculty of the graduates of 2023 of PennState Behrend. Congratulations!
Thank you so much for inviting me to share your very special day with you as you complete your undergraduate and graduate degrees from Penn State Behrend. My topic and take away for you today: Keep Learning and Remember your “WHY.”
If I seem excited, it is because I am for you all and your futures—but also because I started my college career right here, at Penn State Behrend. We all have our reasons for why we chose the university we did, but for me: I was 17 years old and coming from Philadelphia. I just wanted to be as far away from my parents as possible! But little did I know it would give me the foundation for everything in my life.
In Erie, there were things that I will never forget—like lake-effect snow. The cold weather was not like any cold I had ever experienced. Being a Lion Ambassador, and meeting great friends of the university and prospective students.
But the most valuable memory were the friendships and interactions. We, students and faculty, were different and from locations from the south and east and even west coast. And we each brought those experiences to Erie. And sometimes, we clashed.
But what I hope for each of you is that you have learned at least one thing from someone who is different from you and/or dispelled one stereotype about a person and/or their culture once you got to know them. Those interactions help us when we get out in the real world—to be more understanding, more open to collaboration, kinder and gentler to others when we walk in their shoes. And if you didn’t have that experience? No worries—there is still time. In this world of at times injustice and senseless strife, use your own moral compass for right and wrong. Think: Is this how I would want to be treated? Or someone I love to have this experience? We will all—the world will—be better for that.
Class of 2023: You lived through the pandemic. You will forever be able to tell the story from beginning to the end, and have that historical reference, to your children and grandchildren and the lessons learned about how we emerged more resilient. How it reminded us the value of life, how precious it is and how what’s most important are not things.
So let’s start there. What is your WHY—why you came to college? What motivates you to get up every morning? And what are you doing to bring you closer to fulfilling and surpassing what your WHY is?
I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor. Why? Helping others fueled me. I’m a bit of an empath. I love science, and that satisfied my intellectual curiosity. And finally, I was tired of being poor, and I hoped to one day to have everything I needed and most of the things I wanted.
I came to learn my WHY from a single token, that had the value for one bus and a subway ride.
As a 9 year old elementary school student, one day per week, I went to a different neighborhood on a college campus and took a class, when you were considered mentally gifted and academically talented. These classes allowed me to leave my inner-city neighborhood and my under-resourced public school and go to a college campus. It seemed like a totally different world, palatial even. One simple token to go to West Philly. One subway ride away led me to a dream, a dream that I fulfilled. Just that exposure allowed me to see things differently, allowed me to be creative, and manifested aspirations that I did not know were possible. That turned into becoming a physician, which allowed me to give back to the community that gave so much to me.
I challenge each of you to be open to grasping proverbial tokens in your lives, that create new experiences for you. That bring you closer to your WHY, stretch your mind and enhance your life.
Your degree is one token, at least to your first stop. But I hope just the beginning as you expose yourself to different worlds, literally and figuratively.
It’s not to say this will not be without challenges or failure. But from that mishap, an opportunity will present: To study differently, to revise your résumé, to share the experience to mentor others so they won’t make the same mistake. Each day to wake to see a new day is a chance to fulfill your WHY and be a perpetual student.
My WHY was to become a physician. I achieved that. However, the ability to be responsible for providing care to 100,000 people in the middle of the worse pandemic in history—I would not have envisioned or even conceived it.
hat is the power of one idea—my belief that everyone deserves access to quality care—that in a public health crisis you help the most vulnerable. Turning an idea into action. In my quest to help others, I refueled my own WHY. By continuing to learn as a perpetual student, from my patients. They taught me how best to care for them. It’s how I saved more lives in a parking lot than I ever did in the operating room.
The equity in health that I sought for all is how I was appointed by President Biden and how it’s now a full circle as I am honored to provide the graduation address at a school where I started college 35 years ago.
As challenging as the pandemic was, COVID taught us many things, predominately just how precious life is. To be in the moment, not consumed by our phones and computers. But rather to be introspective to what matters most—about what we want and need—and force us to look into each other's lives and listen to the response not just with our ears but with our eyes and watch their body language when we ask someone how they are doing.
This brings me to taking care of you. Find your place to be still. For me, it’s four places: One, an empty church. Two, an operating room. Three, a library. And four, nature—by the water and among flowers. Even in the winter you can find a place to center yourself.
Now that you are done with college, what’s your goal? How do you want to change the world? As you acquire different jobs, keep the main thing the main thing. Becoming a doctor allowed me to spin off and do a lot of things some of which had nothing to do with medicine.
Some of you may not know what you want yet—whether that be engineering, business, biology. Do you see yourself as a professor or developer or entrepreneur? Don’t focus so much on the time it will take to achieve it, and be sure to celebrate the victories along the way.
I once had a young patient, maybe 10 years old, say: “Dr. Ala, how long did it take you to become a pediatric surgeon?” I told her after high school, it took 18 years. She was aghast and asked: “Why did it take so long? Did you have to repeat a grade?” I chuckled and said no.
But how long will it take to get to your WHY? As long as it takes. And for some of you, your WHY may be found in the journey, not the destination. As everything you do should be bringing you closer to that goal, your main thing. Some of you know what you want, and some of you don’t—and that’s OK. But being a continuous learner will bring you closer to figuring it out.
As I conclude to you magnificent and blessed graduates of 2023: Take a moment this weekend to celebrate you. Pat yourself on the back. If you know what you want, fantastic—keep it the main thing as you make decisions and pursue opportunities in your life.
Keep taking a subway ride. Use your token to expose yourself to somewhere different, and be that perpetual learner of new things, new cultures, and new professions.
Be selfish sometimes and do internal checks to make sure you are OK, and find a place to be still.
With that, the Class of 2023—again, congratulations! And keep learning and remember your “WHY.”
Dr. Ala Stanford, who began her college career at Penn State Behrend, received her undergraduate degree and medical degree from Penn State. She is a pediatric surgeon and health equity advocate and is the founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and the Dr. Ala Stanford Center for Health Equity.