Final Exercises 2018: Sullivan Saturday Speech

President Teresa A. (Terry) Sullivan
Commencement Address, May 19, 2018
University of Virginia

Thank you, Mr. Rector.  I’d like to begin these remarks with a story about a British explorer, a man named Sir Ernest Shackleton. In the early 1900s, Shackleton led an expedition with an ambitious goal: he was attempting to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the South Pole, which is a journey of about 1,800 miles.

As Shackleton’s party approached Antarctica in their three-masted ship, named “Endurance,” disaster struck. The ship got trapped in-between massive chunks of floating ice, and began to be slowly crushed. The 56-man crew escaped in lifeboats to a nearby ice floe. They camped for two months on the ice, waiting for rescue.

The situation looked dire … and then things got really bad: the ice floe began to break apart beneath the men. Drowning seemed imminent, so Shackleton ordered his men back into lifeboats. After five days sailing across stormy seas, they reached an uninhabited island, about 350 miles away.

The tiny island was far from any shipping lanes, so Shackleton knew their chances of being rescued were slim. If they left the island, they might die; but if they stayed on the island, they would certainly die.

So he ordered his men back into the lifeboats again! And they set out for South Georgia Island, which was a center for whaling stations in those days.

The island was 720 miles away. The men sailed for 15 days across raging seas, riding out a hurricane along the way, in constant danger of capsizing in their 20-foot boats, before finally making it to the safety of South Georgia Island.

Talk about a tough trip! How could a team of 56 men stick together through this disastrous journey? How could they keep their cool and continue to cooperate? Why didn’t the crew members turn on one another and self-destruct? 

The story of Shackleton’s journey is told in the Alfred Lensing book, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.” Several years ago, first-year students in the Engineering School’s Class of 2011 read this book as part of a common reading experience. The purpose was to understand how Shackleton built such a strong, resilient team.

So how did he do it?

When he was preparing for his journey to Antarctica, interest in the expedition was high, and Shackleton received more than 5,000 applications for jobs in his crew. Many of the applicants were highly-qualified, highly-trained seamen — men who had spent their entire adult lives working on the open seas, men with incomparable maritime skills.

Once he had confirmed that an applicant had the necessary technical skill and training, Shackleton looked for other qualities. He looked for men with affirmative dispositions; men who seemed unlikely to panic in the face of difficulty; men who could roll with the punches — in other words, resilient men.

As you prepare for life and work after graduation, you will need to be as resilient as Shackleton and his crew. You have acquired deep knowledge and training at UVA, but knowledge and training alone are not enough. You will need to be resilient, because you will face challenges in your own journey. And we must acknowledge that you’ve faced more than your share of challenges already, as students at UVA. 

Most of you entered UVA as first-year students in the fall of 2014. In your first semester, you experienced the disappearance and death of second-year student Hannah Graham. The same semester, you lived through the difficult period that followed publication of a recklessly-reported Rolling Stone article that was later retracted. Over the years, you have experienced other challenges and moments of crisis, including two mistaken arrests of UVA students by ABC officers … and the attack by white supremacists on our Grounds last August.

With each, you faced the glare of the national spotlight. And each time, you showed your strength and your resilience.

Of course I experienced those setbacks with you, and I know what it is like to encounter unexpected obstacles and crises.  No one’s life on this planet is entirely smooth and without adversity, and preparing for this adversity is the key to being resilient. 

What helped me to be resilient? 

Faith — By faith I certainly mean your faith or spiritual tradition, but not narrowly defined.  I also mean the reliance on your deepest values.  What means the most to you makes meaning in times of chaos.

Family and friends — Everyone needs a support network.  Human beings do not thrive in isolation, and we all need loyal people we can call on when the chips are down.  As you make transitions in your life, such as the big one coming up this morning, don’t cut yourself off from the people who have supported you here.  Stay in touch.  A relationship can grow cold and fray if it is accessed only when there is trouble. Nourish your relationships.  And be a good friend to others, too.   

And finally, flexibility — There is nearly always more than one way to reach your goals.  If one route is blocked, don’t be afraid to try another. Sometimes the most creative solutions come when your original plan has been derailed.  There is truth in the observation that necessity is the mother of invention.  Sir Ernest Shackelton had wise words on this topic, when he said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

Resilience is a survival skill, and research has shown that young people who are resilient often have three qualities:

First: They are autonomous. All of you, by participating in UVA’s long-standing tradition of self-governance, have built and strengthened your sense of autonomy.

Second: resilient young people have problem-solving skills. Rather than retreating from the problems you faced, you rushed forward to seize upon them as opportunities to provide leadership. And in the process, you’ve left UVA a better place than when you arrived.

And third: resilient young people have a strong sense of purpose and an optimistic view of the future. All of you have shown a strong sense of purpose and a zest for the future during your time as students here. Consider two examples from your class:

Bridget Anderson is a double-major in astronomy-physics and computer science, and a Goldwater Scholar, from Great Falls, Virginia. She showed her sense of purpose last summer, when she traveled 8,000 miles to South Africa to work with a team of astronomers to study the far reaches of our solar system beyond Pluto. Bridget will continue to explore her purpose in graduate school at McGill University next year.

Micah Watson is a Ridley Scholar from Wichita, Kansas, who double-majored in Drama and African-American Studies. She showed her sense of purpose when she wrote her first play, titled “Canaan”— a coming-of-age story about a teenager and his Washington, D.C., neighbors during the Civil Rights Movement. This spring, Micah won The Kennedy Center’s National Undergraduate Playwriting Award for her play, and now she’s planning to pursue an advanced degree in dramatic writing.

Finding your sense of purpose can involve struggle and encounters with adversity. Two of our student-athletes exemplify this truth. Isaiah Wilkins, who publicly revealed his struggles with depression and yet mentored elementary students all year long, while still – obviously – being an elite athlete.  Isaiah’s willingness to be vulnerable helped many people acknowledge mental illness, but we will never know how many. Then there is his teammate Devon Hall, overlooked by many in the basketball world, but overcoming the skepticism anyway. These young men are models of resilience and character.

In a book titled “Mindset: the Psychology of Success,” the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck discusses two distinctive mindsets that shape how we live our lives ...

People who have a fixed mindset believe that basic human qualities, such as intelligence or talent, are fixed traits that cannot be developed beyond their natural state. When people with a fixed mindset confront an obstacle, they give up, believing that they are not naturally gifted in that area or have no talent in it.

But people who have a growth mindset believe they can continually develop their abilities through hard work. Viewed from this mindset, native intelligence and raw talent are just starting points. A person with a growth mindset cultivates life-long learning and a hunger for achievement.

Setting out for the wilds of Antarctica with his 56 men, Sir Ernest Shackleton had a growth mindset. Hold onto your own growth mindset as you venture forth. Changes are coming in our world and our economy that will throw new challenges your way — whether it is machine learning or new international alignments. Don’t let your response be “I can’t do this,” or “I can’t learn this.” You know from your doing and learning at UVA that you can.

Today, as we applaud your achievements and watch you step forward into the future, I’m reminded of a poem by one of our great American poets … one who has a special place at UVA.

In our Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, we have one of the finest collections of American literature dating from 1775 to 1950. The library contains every piece of fiction, poetry, and drama, and every essay published by an American in book form, up to the year 1875 — as much as it’s been possible to assemble these pieces. And for the remaining years up to 1950, the library contains a nearly-complete collection of the works of every major American writer. Within this treasure trove, we have nearly 400 separate pieces of the manuscript of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass,” including the earliest surviving portion of the manuscript.

In “Leaves of Grass,” there is a poem titled “Poets to Come.” In this poem, Whitman was speaking directly to the rising generation of young poets and scholars who would follow in his footsteps. He calls them “a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known.”

Looking out at our graduates today, I see another new brood, “greater than before known,” certainly “athletic and continental”— but also tech-savvy, business-minded, politically-astute, service-oriented, along with all of the other qualities that define you.

At the end of Whitman’s poem, he paints a picture of himself receding into the shadows as the next generation steps forward to take his place. With his work done, he says to the young scholars that he is “expecting the main things from you.”

For the faculty who have taught you at UVA; for those who have guided your research and scholarship; and for all of us in the generations ahead of you, our role is similar. We have helped you make the most of your natural ability. And now we step aside as you step forward, and we watch you go forth — expecting the main things from you.

In fact, we expect spectacular things from you. Accept the great challenges of this century. We expect you to solve the difficult problems that have confounded us in our time; to find the disease cures that have eluded us; to develop solutions to wicked environmental problems; to seek reason and cooperation in our nation’s public discourse, without stifling dissent and disagreement.

As you take your degrees today, you embody our greatest hopes. We have great faith in the future, because we have great faith in you.

As you leave here to embark on your future, you carry our best wishes with you.