Kazmerski to Graduates: "Take Time to Build and Nourish Your Social Support Networks"

As is tradition at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, the address at the fall 2012 commencement ceremony was given by a Penn State Behrend faculty member. Dr. Victoria Kazmerski, associate professor of psychology, shared the remarks below, titled “Weaving a Network of Success” with the candidates and their guests. The college awarded 247 undergraduate and 33 graduate degrees at the Junker Center ceremony.

Kazmerski to Graduates: "Take Time to Build and Nourish Your Social Support Networks"

Dr. Victoria Kazmerski directs Penn State Behrend’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory. Her research interest is examination of memory and language using the recording of event-related brain potentials (ERPs).

"First, thank you to Chancellor Birx, Dr. Light, and Dr. Christiansen for inviting me to speak to you tonight. It is quite an honor to be able to address you at such an important moment in your lives.

Tonight we are here to celebrate the milestone of your graduation. You have worked hard and are eager to move on to even greater things. It’s time to consider what comes next. How can you create a network of success? I’d like you to think about the many connections that come together to create your networks. These connections all contribute to your success as a whole. As the threads are strengthened, so too is the entire network. If connections are broken or weakened, so too is the network.

Tonight I will talk to you about the four levels of these networks and provide a few hints to enhance connections in these networks to further your success.

The first level of networks to consider is at the microscopic level—neural networks. As a cognitive neuroscientist I teach about networks on a neural level and study how the brain is organized to process information.

Our brains have highly interconnected pathways. As we learn and experience new things, new connections are established at the basic synaptic level, meaning our neurons are actually growing. This neural plasticity is essential to success. It is the physical representation of learning. Connections grow and are strengthened with use. New pathways are developed as we weave together ideas and concepts in new ways. It is how our brain repairs itself after damage. The connections that we don’t use are pruned away.

One area that I study is how our brain processes metaphor and other nonliteral language. Consider the title of my address, “Weaving a Network of Success.” Some of you may be questioning the title, considering it a mixed metaphor. I prefer to think of it as an “unconventional metaphor.” These are the metaphors that are not common in everyday language. They are the metaphors that make unique or unusual connections between ideas. They are the ones that make you ponder a bit about what they mean.

The research in my lab and others suggests the brain processes these types of metaphors differently than the more conventional type. They activate broader pathways in the brain. It is likely that such metaphors are driving the brain to make new connections between neurons to understand the meaning.

This brings me to my first hint for success: Strive to make those unique connections. Or to use another metaphor, “think outside the box.” Yes, we can make progress in incremental, carefully controlled steps, as we are often taught in our science labs. However, you might find the most exciting and important moments come from taking a different perspective. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Create new neural networks as you learn and practice new things. Neurons don’t work in isolation. They work in networks, interdependent upon each other. Your brain isn’t done changing just because you graduate. In fact, keeping your brain active is one of the best things you can do to keep a healthy mind throughout life.

A second type of network that is critical to your success is your social support network. No, not just the list of friends on your Facebook page. I am referring to the important people in your life: The friends you’ve made here at school, your family, fraternities, sororities, clubs, and other social groups.

I often teach the capstone course called Advanced Research Projects in Psychology. This is one of those courses students often dread before starting and then after completing it say it was one of the best educational experiences that they have had. One of the key factors for that is the social support networks that they develop. They work together in research teams, but the support goes beyond their immediate teams. Typically many students in the class develop a group identity; teams help other teams. Students identify strengths of members and work with each other to use those strengths to make everyone’s projects better. This illustrates how we can use our social support networks to further our success.

The need for social support networks becomes quite apparent when events such as the recent tragedy in Connecticut or natural disasters such as the hurricane that hit New York and New Jersey occur. To heal, we reach out to those around us. We share our sorrows and extend our encouragement and understanding.

My second hint for success is take time to build and nourish your social support networks. As you move on to new cities or towns to pursue your careers part of your challenge will be to build new social networks, but some of the friends you’ve made here at Behrend will remain close to you for the rest of your life. Research by Diener and others have showed that cooperative and trusting social relationships enhance people’s subjective well-being, that is, your happiness and overall life satisfaction.

The third level of networks that is important in your success is that of your professional network. Graduating from Penn State is one of the best preparations you have made in that regard. You are sitting here tonight as a testament to excellent preparation for your future profession. You will soon be joining the vast network of Penn State alumni who are there to support you. Continue to make wise choices in your professional network. Keep in touch with your classmates and professors.

The last type of network I’d like to comment on tonight is that of a global network. I had the opportunity this past summer to co-teach a study abroad course in South Africa. Fourteen students (including two who are graduating today) studied about and travelled to South Africa. This was an amazing experience. We met prior to the trip for planning sessions, we read about and discussed South African culture. We learned about apartheid and how a small minority can overpower and control a majority.

But the most powerful lessons were those learned while interacting with individuals while in South Africa. We heard Desmond Tutu speak while accepting an award at the International Congress of Psychology. To hear from a Nobel Peace Prize winner certainly makes us think beyond our own personal success and consider the well-being of others. This message was further brought home as our students, who had been hassled by limitations of electricity and Internet in their dorm, toured the township of Soweto and witnessed the lives of those who had no electricity, no running water, and no heat, let alone Internet.

We visited four crèches (preschools) in the townships northeast of Johannesburg. These were being assisted by a foundation supported by a South African alum of Penn State. Seeing the children in these schools, with a positive spirit, eager to learn despite the squalid conditions in which they lived, helped our students see beyond themselves. It helped them to become part of a global network. The students from the trip brought back their concerns and have inspired others to help raise funds for the children they visited in South Africa. They have developed an awareness of the political situation in South Africa, a concern for striking miners and for an ailing ex-President Mandela, who helped to heal the wounds of years of apartheid in South Africa.

This type of global awareness—the development of a ties across the world—will become more important as technology allows or requires us to become more interdependent.

My final hint for success is to think beyond your own personal success and consider how you fit in the global network. Think about what impact you can make to improve the world. When you retire or reach the time of your life where you reflect on what Erik Erikson refers to as the stage of integrity vs. despair, I hope you have achieved success and can conclude that you have lead a life of integrity. That you have worked to achieve strong networks at all levels and have woven tight connections with those around you, in your community, and across the globe.

In closing, congratulations on your graduation tonight. You should feel proud of your accomplishments: Courses completed, problem sets mastered, and projects finished. As you celebrate your achievements, remember you didn’t get here alone—you are part of many interwoven networks. As you set new goals and achieve new successes, make an effort to keep those connections strong. Be proud of yourself, your family, your friends, your community. Be Penn State proud.

Thank you for listening."