Read Jonathan Hall's Commencement Address, "Breaking Good"

Penn State Behrend faculty member Jonathan Hall, a senior lecturer in physics, urged the Class of 2015 to seek opportunities for service to others in “Breaking Good,” his address to graduates and their guests at the college’s spring commencement. The ceremony was held Friday, May 8, at Erie Insurance Arena.

Greetings everyone, especially our graduates and their families.

When Dr. Birx asked me to give the commencement speech, the question that came to my mind was, Does getting a diploma change you? If it does, that would be useful information for our graduates. So I did some research, and here is what I found.

B.J. Novak, the television writer and actor, said this about graduating: “I spent four years in college. I didn’t learn a thing. It was really my own fault. I had a double major: in psychology, and in reverse psychology.” [Rim shot from percussionist]

The most famous example of what happened to someone when they were given a diploma is from The Wizard of Oz.  The quest of the scarecrow is to have a brain, and when he asks the wizard for one, the wizard replies: “Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where (people) go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: A diploma.”

And when the wizard hands the scarecrow his diploma, the scarecrow quickly blurts out “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture! I’ve got a brain!”

What the scarecrow says sounds vaguely like the Pythagorean theorem, but it is a badly mangled version of it. It is the wrong kind of triangle (isosceles instead of right), the wrong sum (that of the square roots instead of the squares), and it does not make sense that the square roots of the longest sides add up to the square root of the shortest side. It is wrong in several different ways all at once. In short, the scarecrow gets his diploma, and the first thing he does with it is he speaks nonsense!  So, when you get your degree this evening, how do you end up not speaking nonsense?

A hint of the answer is that we already know that the scarecrow does have a brain, and that he also knows how to put it to good use. When Dorothy was hungry and picked an apple from a tree, the tree objected and took it from her. The scarecrow quickly summed up the situation and came up with a solution. He called out, “Come along, Dorothy—you don’t want any of those apples,” to which the tree asks, with more than a little irritation, “Are you hinting my apples aren’t what they ought to be?”

Feigning innocence, the scarecrow replies, “Oh, no! It’s just that she doesn’t like little green worms!” This incites the tree to throw its apples at them. To help his friend, the scarecrow learned how to use reverse psychology! 

Later, when Dorothy is a captive in the castle of the wicked witch, the scarecrow is the mastermind of the plan to rescue her. How did the scarecrow develop his talents? Lamenting that his head was full of straw never helped him get any smarter. But when his attention was on how to help others, that is when he developed his talents and, along the way, he achieved his life’s goal.

So here is my proposal for your consideration: Service to others is a great way to develop your talents. Now, the script from a 1939 MGM movie is not evidence to support this. It is used as an illustration.  But you don’t have to look far to find actual examples: Alexander Graham Bell is famous for inventing the telephone; he is less well known for being a pioneer in optical telecommunications, aeronautics, and hydrofoils. So what was it that started him on the path to become a prolific inventor? Bell’s interest was in improving methods of communication, especially for those with deafness. His mother and his wife were deaf. Serving the needs of others is what started him on the path to develop his talents.

Many of you have already begun to develop your talents by service. It is a source of Penn State pride that there are so many instances of service by our graduates that it is not possible to mention more than a few examples. Some of your graduates have spent spring breaks helping to rebuild housing in areas of poverty and natural disaster, learning skills from how to drywall to how to restore hope. Others have helped THON raise funds to help children with cancer. Some have volunteered at the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home and learned how to help with problems faced by the elderly and veterans; others have delivered leftover food from the dining hall to help feed the hungry. These are a few of the many experiences that you have used to develop your talents beyond those that can be learned in the classroom. In your service, you have developed skills that have made you more capable of meeting the challenges of life, and will assist you in making a better future.

Some of you are starting careers that by their nature are about service; nursing and teaching are just two of many ways people devote their lives to service. But even if the occupation you choose is not specifically service oriented, there is always room for service in the choices we make in deciding what to do with our lives whether at our work, in our homes, or in our community. 

In the future, many of you will become parents.  In the world today I can think of no greater need and no greater service that a person can provide than in making sure a child is loved and cared for. Raising a child requires that you develop a multitude of talents— just ask your parents for details! 

Why I believe this is worth sharing is because soon after I received my diploma, I became a Peace Corps volunteer teacher in Sabah, Malaysia. At that time in Borneo, in the more isolated villages, school, particularly for girls, often ended at the sixth grade. In towns there were high schools, but due to a lack of qualified teachers education for many students ended at the ninth grade. But if they had trained teachers, the students made the most of the opportunity.

One of my students, Mohammed bin Mokhtar, was the shortest student in his class—his feet did not touch the floor when he sat at his desk—but he was the quickest at math. One day after school, while taking a walk along the beach of the South China Sea, I met his family. They lived in a small bamboo hut thatched with palm. His father was an invalid and his mother supported the family by digging clams and selling them at the market. Their possessions included a few clothes, sleeping mats, two cooking pots, and books. His mom had never attended school, but she knew that education was the key to her children’s future. From what little they had, his mom insisted on sharing a watermelon from their garden with her son’s teacher. A few years later, Mohammed graduated from college, and ever since he has been a math teacher. His story is just one of many students who, given the chance, were able to continue their education beyond high school. They were then able to become teachers or nurses, or trained in other occupations with which they both supported their families and helped to meet the needs of a developing nation. I witnessed the power of education to unlock the potential of a generation, and I am glad that I was able to be a small part of it. The experience of working together with people of different cultures for a common goal shaped my life for the good, and every day I am thankful for what I learned. 

Service to others is one of the best things that I have ever done for myself.  Helping others is only part of service; it also helps us to become who we want to be.

Tonight you receive your diplomas in recognition of your talents. We look forward to the graduates of the class of 2015 developing and putting your talents to good use for yourselves, in service to others, and for the future of all of us. Godspeed.