Undergraduate Commencement Address

I was doing some job searching online today and inadvertently came across the text of the speech given at my Undergraduate Commencement by Denver Health CEO Patricia Gabow:

Graduates, parents, and faculty thank you for the honor of sharing in your joy today. After four years in a classroom I know the last the thing the graduates need is another lecture—but mine is short- only 200 power points and just a take home test! In fact, my goal is to be short and hopefully sweet- sharing with you only three tidbits of wisdom from a great philosopher—Fiori Colonna. I am sure none of you-even the philosophy professors -ever heard of him but his insights were profound. These insights came not in long dense sentences that, in my expert medical opinion, can trigger a coma, but in short, crisp sayings. This great philosopher was my grandfather.

My grandfather was born in 1889 in southern Italy – a mountainous region crushed by poverty. As did many Europeans in the early 1900’s, at sixteen he booked steerage passage from the tough docks of Naples to the United States. Like other immigrants, then and now, he was expecting to find streets lined with gold. America, the land of opportunity, did not make success quite that easy. My grandfather used the one gift he had extraordinary musical talent and started his American journey playing in a circus band. I will get back to this concept of a gift in a moment. Even as a non-English
speaking adolescent he knew America could offer more. He studied to obtain a teaching certificate and spent the rest of his life as a public school music teacher. And from this comes the first saying. I can still hear my grandfather’s words—”My girl, if you get an education in America, there is nothing you can’t do.”

Today 1232 of you receive not just a college degree but also see the culmination of a world class education. Now you must take my grandfather’s words to heart and remember there is nothing you cannot do. Given the economic times and the challenges America faces here and around the world, you may doubt this as a reality, but even now it remains true -your education will open many doors – doors to traditional careers like teaching and medicine and doors to new technologies and industries- but like my grandfather- you must find the door and walk through it. Doors will not come to you- just like streets are not paved with gold. This saying has been true for me – my education and my willingness to push open some partly closed doors enabled me to break the glass ceiling and become CEO of a model health care system. So use your education as the path to your door.

While education creates exciting spaces for you to enter—it also creates responsibility. Here at DU you learned to think critically- you must bring this skill into our society. In this time of absurd partisan sound bites and unfounded blogs- we need informed citizenry to preserve this land of opportunity . You must be knowledgeable and you must vote. My grandfather, my parents, my husband and I, and my children never missed voting. Yet in a recent mid cycle election more people voted in American idol than the election—do not be one of these so called citizens.

Let me return to my grandfather. He had such an influence on me because I lived with him. My father was killed in world war II and my mother lived for more than a decade with my grandparents. For me the tragedy became a blessing of knowing my extended family. Which brings me to my grandfather’s second saying – Again I can hear his words—“My girl, not everything bad happens to harm you.” Everyone of you have had or will have something bad happen. My grandfather knew that good things can emanate from what at the time may seem very bad. Many cultures see this truth. In fact, you can Google “what is good” and find this story:

A farmer has a prize stallion; thieves steal the stallion. His neighbor tells him what bad
luck but the man replies “Who knows what is good and what is bad.“ A few days later the
stallion escapes and joins a herd of wild mares bringing them back to the farmer. The
neighbor comes to rejoice with the farmer, but the man repeats “Who knows what is good
and what is bad.” The next day the farmer’s son breaks his leg breaking a wild mare. The
neighbor brings condolences to the farmer who repeats his saying. The following week
the army comes to the village to conscript soldiers but passes over the farmer’s injured
son—and the neighbor says to himself in fact “Who does know what is good and what is
bad.”

Forty years ago on a ski trip in Aspen –I jumped off a diving board wearing a very small pink bikini and landed on another swimmer—sounds pretty bad—but that swimmer asked me out, later proposed and we’ve been married ever since— so who knows what is good or bad.

The final reflection relates to the concept of a gift. Perhaps, my grandfather’s favorite saying was, “If you have a gift and you don’t use it no confessor on earth can absolve you.”

Let’s deconstruct this For most Americans the concept of sin—of voluntarily doing wrong –is not something we think of – hence we don’t think of the need for confessors to relieve of us of the burden of wrongdoing. Even without the concepts of sin and absolution, we all know that there are times that we make bad decisions which negatively impact us and others—My grandfather’s point was that the most unforgiveable act you can do to yourself and to all those around you is to squander your talents. When each of you choose your majors you were thinking about your talents and now you must hone that decision into a career, a commitment, and a journey which will produce good for you, for your family, for the country and the world.

In closing, regardless of your ancestry, you have grandmothers and grandfathers, parents, uncles and aunts who possess the wisdom derived from your culture which is captured in their old sayings—learn these, use them in times of celebration, turn to them in times of sadness—let the old wisdom be a lens to see this new world – to show you the way forward through life. Value your education, see opportunity in both the good and the bad, and find your path and walk it with fortitude and joy and by doing this make your country and this world a better place because you were in it—Congratulations to all of you and to your families.

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About Joel Portman
Network Builder. Diversity and Inclusion Advocate. Social Media Enthusiast. Lover of family, friends, the outdoors, travel, and learning. I have experience working in the healthcare, education, diversity/inclusion, retail, and non-profit industries with organizations ranging in size from five people to Fortune 500. I am an MBA graduate of the University of Denver.

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