Final Exercises 2018: Sullivan Sunday Speech

President Teresa A. (Terry) Sullivan
Commencement Address, May 20, 2018
University of Virginia

Thank you, Mr. Rector. When I delivered commencement remarks yesterday to students in the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, I shared a story about a British explorer named Sir Ernest Shackleton. In the early 1900s, Shackleton led an expedition to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, via the South Pole, which is a journey of about 1,800 miles. He and his crew encountered numerous life-threatening setbacks. On the way to Antarctica, their ship got crushed by ice, and sank. They had to camp on an ice floe for two months. Then the ice floe broke apart, and they escaped in lifeboats across 1,000 miles of stormy seas before finally reaching safety. Shackleton and his men were able to overcome these challenges because they had a singular, defining quality — resilience.

Today, I will speak again on the theme of resilience. And to begin, I’ll share another story, this one about a different explorer — one who was born here in Albemarle County. This young man did not matriculate at UVA, because UVA did not exist in his time; he was born in 1774. But if he’d been born later, he would’ve fit right in with you — the Class of 2018 — because he shared many of the qualities that you possess, as individuals and as a class. He was intelligent. He was entrepreneurial. He was resourceful, and fearless in the face of challenges. 

Meriwether Lewis was born just a few miles west of here. If you drive west on Route 250, you will soon come across a historical marker along the road marking his birth place. When Lewis was just 28-years-old, the President of the United States — who would later create this University — appointed him to lead the Corps of Discovery. The mission was to explore the lands and rivers of the western part of the continent, following the Louisiana Purchase. To prepare Lewis for the expedition, Thomas Jefferson sent him to Philadelphia for a crash-course in all of the subjects he thought would be necessary for the journey. Working with the nation’s leading scholars, Lewis studied botany, zoology, celestial navigation, linguistics, map-making, medicine, and other fields. He spent the spring of 1803 preparing himself for the journey, experiencing the finest education available in America. By the spring of 1804, his meticulous preparations were complete, and the expedition got under way. 

But Lewis quickly began running into surprises and setbacks of all kinds. He met unexpected geographical barriers, broiling heat and freezing cold, treacherous waterfalls, and unfamiliar animal species — such as the massive grizzly bears who seemed to roam the West with impunity. [Lightly] These bears were noticeably larger and more anti-social than the easy-going black bears at home in Albemarle County; they seemed to have anger-management issues. The point is:  In spite of his thorough preparation, Lewis encountered a great many surprises that he and his teachers had not anticipated. Therefore, in addition to his excellent education, one of his most critical assets was his aptitude for leadership.

Four years ago, when we formed a new institute to equip students with leadership skills, we named it for Meriwether Lewis. 100 students have now served as Lewis Fellows since the program’s inception in 2014. Among this weekend’s graduating students, 24 students are Lewis Fellows. Over the years, Lewis Fellows have had a lasting impact on UVA, in numerous ways: by designing the new student space at 1515 University Avenue; by creating welcoming spaces for African American students; by focusing on mental health with the Nursing School, and in many other ways. 

As students at the University of Virginia, all of you have received a great education in a broad range of subjects from the nation’s top scholars — just as Meriwether Lewis did in his day. Your education will remain valuable to you for your entire lives. But also like Meriwether Lewis, you will encounter setbacks and surprises in the “real world” after graduation. So, as you prepare for your journey, I encourage you to take with you two qualities that made Meriwether Lewis such a strong and capable leader. 

The first quality was his curiosity. Meriwether Lewis didn’t begin his formal education until he was a teenager, but from a young age he was deeply curious about the world around him. By venturing out to study the wildlife here in Albemarle County, he developed a life-long interest in natural history. His curiosity helped him develop his skills as an outdoorsman and hunter, and those skills came in handy throughout his life. He was both an observer and an analyst of what he observed.

During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, Lewis served as his private secretary, and his curiosity led him into conversations with the politicians, writers, artists, and great thinkers who came to visit the president. His curiosity became an instrument of lifelong learning. And of course, later in his life, when he led the Corps of Discovery across the continent, curiosity was the driving force. One story perfectly illustrates this point:  In the winter of 1804, the Corps of Discovery took shelter in the safety of a military fort in North Dakota to wait out the weather, and in the spring they embarked on the final surge of their quest — the search for a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The land ahead of them was a vast, uncharted expanse. None of the settlers who had migrated over from Europe knew what lay ahead. Because the territory was uncharted, it was marked on their maps with a single word: “Unknown.” At the moment in the journey when fear of the unknown could have held Lewis back, curiosity about the unknown — the desire for discovery — drove him forward. Curiosity has been the driving force in your work as students here, as you’ve explored unknown territories in your classrooms, labs, and studios. In your academic study, in your research and scholarship, in your creative work, you have fearlessly ventured into the unknown.

A second quality that Meriwether Lewis had, and that all of you have, is resilience. Several years after Meriwether Lewis led the Corps of Discovery across the continent, Jefferson reflected on why he had chosen Lewis for the job. This is what he said about the young man:  “Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction ...” We could say the same thing about today’s graduating class — this is a class with undaunted courage, perseverance, and a clear sense of purpose. And we must acknowledge that you have faced more than your share of challenges along the way.  

Many of you entered UVA 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 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.  Earlier I mentioned the explorer Sir Ernest Shackelton. He had wise words on this topic, when he said, “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”

You will need to take your resilience with you into the careers and communities you will enter after today. In every field represented here, the rate of change and innovation is accelerating, and it will continue to speed up. McKinsey & Company published a report on the technologies that will have the most radical effect on the global economy in the years ahead. The list includes advanced robots with human-like dexterity; next-generation genomics; autonomous vehicles, and other innovations. How will these technologies shape and define the future world of work? When we consider this question, we tend to think that only certain industries will feel the impact. For example, it’s obvious that the proliferation of autonomous cars could dislocate millions of people who work as professional drivers. 

But what about doctors and lawyers? Your professions and others are also being re-shaped by new technologies, in a constant flux of innovation. For example, until recently, it was difficult for robots, because of technological limitations, to perform surgeries involving soft tissue. But researchers have designed an autonomous robot that has components for precise, sub-millimeter positioning, suturing, and 3-D imaging — fully capable of soft-tissue surgery with oversight from surgeons. Meanwhile, in the legal profession, tasks such as document review and the production of contracts are increasingly automated. No industry is immune from the transformational effects of innovation. And because of this, being adaptable and resilient will be essential for your success. 

Many of you have already demonstrated your resilience in your personal lives. For example … Graduating today from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is Kim Johnson, who grew up in a tiny town in California, dropped out of college at age 19, then served for 20 years in the US Marine Corps, before returning to UVA to complete her degree this spring.

Graduating today from the Curry School of Education is Mike Marsella, who was diagnosed with a tumor on his spine as a teenager, recovered and became an elite runner in high school, and came to UVA as a member of the track team. During his second semester, Mike suffered a brain injury. He recovered and returned to running again, and later broke the 4-minute mile.

Graduating today from the School of Law is Joe Charlet, who was orphaned as a child, grew up on remote Hatteras Island in North Carolina, and later lived in foster care. At age 16, he pleaded in court to assume legal control for himself — and this experience got him interested in studying law, which led him to his seat on the Lawn today.

Each one of you here today has your own story of resilience in the face of setbacks. This quality, when combined with the excellent education and the technical skills that you’ve acquired here, will be essential as you begin your lives after graduation.

As Thomas Jefferson prepared to send Meriwether Lewis forth with the Corps of Discovery, he said, “I have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.” 

Today, those of us sitting on this stage, and the faculty gathered here, and your parents and family members — we say the same thing about you: We have no hesitation in confiding this enterprise to you. In this case, the “enterprise” in question is a big one: it’s your future … and the future of our nation and our global society. Because of the excellent education you have gained on these Grounds, and because of your commitment to the principles of self-governance, leadership, and service, you are exceedingly well-prepared to embrace the enterprise before you. 

And even when you face setbacks and challenges — and you will certainly face them, just as you have faced challenges here during your time here — your curiosity and your resilience will drive you forward.

You carry our best wishes with you as you go.