Northeastern University Graduation – 04MAY12


I am so jealous of the NEU class of 2012. My commencement speaker back in 2010 was the CEO of American Express – I listened to about five minutes of her speech before turning to the book I had brought… it was just that dull. I mean, I’m sure she had interesting information to share, but it wasn’t interesting to me, so I didn’t listen. But when I heard that the class of 2012 was getting Colin Powell to speak… well, I made sure that I’d have a ticket to sit in on that speech. I ended up getting one of my friend Allison’s spare tickets – thankfully her family only needed three, and since every student is issued four tickets… we were in business.

I slept a bit late that day, but thanks to some lucky traffic and my outstanding knowledge of driving around Boston I arrived just after the graduates had finished filing in, and the president was just starting in on all of the honorifics and honorary degrees. By the time I had found a seat, the people being honored were just starting to talk, and so I had just about ten minutes of relaxing before the main event (in my mind) began and Colin Powell started speaking.

First things first – he is obviously a public speaker, and obviously knew what he was doing. Instead of following the standard “joke, serious, story, advice” pattern that most speakers stick to, he meandered through a whole series of subjects… subjects that somehow all flowed together logically, yet were unexpected. I learned a lot about him, in that half-hour, and gained a lot of respect for the work he had done and the impact he had made on the world. And, most importantly, I came out of it with a new and renewed sense of purpose… a stronger drive to accomplish something.

So without further adieu, here’s a quick rundown of his speech:

  1. Colin Powell busted out of Engineering school. I did not know this… but it makes me feel a bit special for finishing where he didn’t. But now I have to live up to being a four-star general…
  2. He’s a lucky SOB – a random blind date he went on shortly after commissioning as a 2nd LT led to a 50 year (and running) Marriage.
  3. He had the graduates stand up to wave to their parents as a way of saying “thank you”. This is Genius. Not just for enforcing that he’s a friendly/family guy, but by making people move – when people sit still, they tune out. When they’re standing and moving, they pay attention.
  4. He did tell funny stories (not jokes, but stories), such as how he tried to play hookey from his own graduation by going to a nearby bar. But his mom not only noticed he was gone, but knew where he had went… going so far as to send his cousins over to drag him back.
  5. He was funny in a self-deprecating way – he mentioned his own GPA being almost exactly a 2.0… purely because he had a nearly perfect 4.0 in his ROTC classes. To be honest, a 4.0 in ROTC couldn’t actually help much, at least at Northeastern, since a semester is worth ~16 credits, and most ROTC Classes are only 1 credit… but it was still a good way for himself to bring us up to his level, and to make him (a prestigious general) more believable.
  6. Loving what you do is important, as is accepting that your career may take unexpected turns. Colin Powell mentioned that not once did he, as a child, dream of becoming the Secretary of State. But he loved being a soldier, and worked hard at it. And thus, excelled. Do what you love, simply because you love it, and rewards will somehow follow.
  7. Work in Politics – not necessarily at the national level, but at the town level. This spoke to me, since it really epitomises the idea of “You may not be able to do everything at once, but you can do something at once.” Too many people (myself included) ignore politics because we feel we can’t effect it. Not true, we just have to start small before working our way up.
  8. Compromise. He used the ultimate example of “The founding fathers, sitting around a table in Philidelphia, compromising”. And it was, and still is, legitimate. Being stubborn is important, but being stubborn to the point of destroying any chance of success… that’s unacceptable.
  9. The “Free World” means economics, and that means companies. This was a rather interesting section of his speech, and a section that I feel a lot of people may disagree or find fault with. The basic kernel that I took away from it is that, while our government is important, it’s role is more the protector of our economy, than the other way around. His point seemed to be that the cold war wasn’t won by democracy, but rather by capitalism – people realized that they too could be rich, and wanted a part of the action. And this is still true: the “Arab Spring” wasn’t fueled by democratic leanings, but instead by a desire for the wealth and power of capitalism.
  10. We need to win the “education arms race” and create a country of college graduates if we plan on continuing to compete in the global market. Simple and true.
  11. We, as graduates, need to give back to the community in order to help America succeed. The way to do this, at least as a start, is to tutor children. His point was that a persons success is decided very early in life – if someone learns to enjoy learning, they will do well… but if they aren’t in an environment where they can learn and grow, they will fall behind. Thus, as graduates, we should work with Big Brother Big Sister and other organizations to help “in danger” kids to become as successful as we are.
  12. “Fixing the world vs. simply helping a child”… the idea behind teachers. To reiterate the above point, Colin talked about how, if everyone works together to help each other, that is far more effective than any single person can be… even if each of us only helps one other person, that will make a greater impact on America than any President or General can.

And with that, he quietly finished his speech and stepped down… though the amount of cheering forced him to get up again and take an extra bow or two before the rest of the ceremony went on. The northeastern “Nor’Easters” a capella group sang, awards were awarded, and the recession of the graduates commenced. It was nice, and normal, and boring… especially when compared to the commencement speech.

Looking back at his talk, I am honestly amazed at how good of a speaker Colin Powell is… and that’s saying something, since I expected him to be very good. The way that he wove everything together… each idea on its own was strong and moving, but not necessarily connected to the others… until he pulled them back in. It was almost like he was sending out various strands of a net, that he pulled tight at the end of the talk. It was excellent.

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