Kent Fuchs is president of the University of Florida. His speech is below.
And now, we have come to the part of the program known as the commencement speech.
This is the part where someone comes to the podium to make remarks while the graduates listen closely and wonder…
Why does listening to this speaker feel like waiting forever for the RTS bus?
Why does this speech seem longer than the line at Chipotle?
Will I be sitting here for another four years?
Or, if you are like me, you are saying, instead of this, I could be watching Episode 6 of “The Mandalorian!”
Graduates, we are here to celebrate! You are receiving your degree from the University of Florida, and you are the last class to graduate in the 20-teens! It’s celebration time.
However, I also recognize that you may feel some anxiety about what comes next in your life. A quiet, anxious voice may be asking: What have these years in college been building up to?
When I graduated college, I thought I knew the direction of my life.
I was graduating with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. However, in my last two years of college, I had been involved with other students in a local church.
I decided in my final year not to pursue a career in electrical engineering, but rather to attend seminary, divinity school, so that I could be ordained as a pastor, a fulltime minister of a church.
That is what I did, or at least tried to do.
After my engineering graduation ceremony, I drove to Chicago, where I took an intensive summer course on New Testament Greek. That fall, I entered the three-year masters of divinity program, which went fine for the first year – but then I took my first homiletics class on writing and preaching sermons.
I discovered I couldn’t write or deliver a sermon in a way that stirred people’s emotions or touched their hearts. I could inform, but I couldn’t inspire. It’s hard to be a pastor, rabbi or imam if you can’t reach people’s hearts.
To make things worse, my serious girlfriend at the time broke up with me. I was also struggling financially, despite working late nights and weekends as a security guard.
I was heartbroken and my career plans were shattered.
Graduates, if you ever feel this way about your life plans…or if, maybe, you even feel this way today…as your president, I predict that there will be an even better and richer life before you than you can possibly dream, in the midst of your uncertainty and disappointment.
As Baby Yoda might say…when he actually speaks…“Awaiting you, my Gators, a great future.”
As I was worrying about my apparent failure in seminary, I came to realize that my shortcoming could be my strength.
My seminary professors told me that I wasn’t good at reaching people’s hearts with my public speaking, but I could reach their heads.
I couldn’t preach, but I could teach. In fact, I came to realize I enjoyed teaching, and that being an educator could be as important as being a pastor.
This realization, of both my weakness and my strength led me to return to engineering for graduate school, with a new goal of teaching students as a college professor.
Electrical engineering graduate school for me was also really hard, particularly since it had been several years since my last engineering class. I discovered that the students for whom I was a teaching assistant knew more than me.
But I survived and eventually thrived in nearly six years of engineering graduate school.
That moment of painful reckoning in divinity school…
That time I thought I wasted three years and didn’t know what to do…
It was awful.
It was great.
It ended my dream, but directed me to a new path and new purpose.
Not only that, divinity school is where I met my partner and wife, Linda. She was returning an overdue library book, which I needed for a paper I had to write about infant baptism.
I lost my dream of serving as a fulltime pastor, but I gained much more. I got a library book, a life partner and a new direction to my life.
There’s a saying that old men like to give good advice because they can no longer set bad examples.
So I’m going to tell you three things I’ve learned about wrong turns, failures and not achieving my own expectations.
The first thing is that I have a natural instinct to blame myself when something goes wrong. But often the blame lies elsewhere, and the best thing to do is just move on.
I heard this described well just a few weeks ago by UF College of the Arts Professor Andrew Cao, who I met when he gave a talk about directing this fall’s production of “Pippin” by the School of Theatre and Dance.
Professor Cao said he spent years as a professional dancer trying to make it in New York City, experiencing many rejections before he finally reached Broadway, where he danced in many productions, including Aladdin.
He said that for one of the scenes, the actor playing Aladdin has to climb into a tiny, cramped, box.
Actors auditioning for that starring role might be incredibly talented. They might be the hardest-working actors in New York. They might be the kindest, best, most generous people.
But if they literally…not metaphorically…if they literally couldn’t fit in the box, they wouldn’t get to play Aladdin on Broadway – even if they were perfect for the role.
Graduates, think about that story before blaming yourself the next time you fail or take a wrong turn.
Sometimes the problem is the box, not you.
The second thing I have learned about failures or wrong turns is to view them with hope rather than with despair.
I never became a fulltime minister of a church. But my lack of ability to touch people’s hearts and emotions in my public speaking was a real weakness, so I committed to work at getting better.
It has never come to me naturally, and now, four decades since those awful homiletics classes, I still work daily at communicating not just information, but reaching hearts and souls.
As your president, I ask you to be hopeful if you experience those moments of weakness, failure, uncertainty or wrong turns. Think about how you can turn them around.
What step can you take to distill your doubt into determination? Your shortcoming into strength? Be hopeful. Be brave. Then act.
Your ability to get past the natural obstacles of life isn’t just about you.
It’s also about the world we share, which gets me back to that quiet question you may be asking: What has my time at the University of Florida been building up to?
In my case, at my own graduation, I thought I knew the answer. I thought it was to be a minister and to guide a congregation.
I was wrong.
I learned instead that the world beyond college needed me for another purpose.
It needed me not to be a minister, but to be a teacher and mentor. To be a husband and a father.
The world needed me to stand in front of thousands of people dressed like a big orange-and-blue bumblebee!
I was needed to be your university president, to express my love for each one of you, and to express my pride in what you have accomplished by graduating today from the University of Florida.
With your valuable UF degrees, the world needs you to be business and public-service leaders, pastors, rabbis, educators, homemakers, doctors, chemists, historians, parents, lawyers, engineers, marketers…Your lives will go in so many awesome directions…including wrong turns, which will turn into your best turns!
The world needs you to join the countless good people who may not be on the news…or have millions of followers on social media…but who are doing the quiet, good work of holding each other, our planet and the people of our planet high in their hands.
When the days get shorter and the nights get colder, be the fall leaves, displaying your inner glow in breathtaking orange and blues.
Graduates, the University of Florida and the entire Gator Nation will always be there for you. We will always cheer for you. Albert and Alberta will always stand behind you with their big toothy grins and their thumbs up!
I leave you with an old Irish blessing, which expresses my personal affection for each one of you.
May the sun shine gently on your face.
May the rain fall soft upon your fields.
May the wind be at your back.
May the road rise to meet you.
And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.
Until we meet again.
Graduates, congratulations! It is great to be a Florida Gator!