About Me

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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Commencement Address: "Dare to Dream!"

Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey

Dr. Brouder, Dean Smith, Dean Randerson, Dean Burchard, Coach Burchard, Director Sheehan, Faculty, students, graduates, alumni, parents, families, and friends. It is an honor and a pleasure to share with you on one of the most important and life-altering days in the lives of the men and women who sit before you. In December of 2000, I, too, sat here, feeling the powerful emotions that all graduates feel on such a day, linked by the common desire for the commencement speaker to stand up, finish up, and sit down.

It may be helpful for you if I share a bit of my educational background. I got my first degree from Regent’s College in Albany, New York. I got my second degree from here, from Columbia College. The third degree I get from my wife on a frequent basis.

It is good to be back in Columbia and I am honored and humbled by the invitation to share this wonderful day with all of you.

I am an Intelligence Analyst, working in the counter-drug community. It is a difficult job, one that challenges me on a daily basis. I study organizations that consist of the most ruthless, amoral, and violent people in human history. I have reviewed volumes of material containing the tragic accounts of human destruction wrought by drug abuse; young lives cut tragically short, not only by the substances themselves, but also by the associated violence.

A few years ago, after a two-year dance with the devil known as crystal methamphetamine, a nephew of mine took his own life. The memory of T.J. is a constant companion; a daily source of inspiration for me. But it’s not just T.J. It’s also the millions of others who are enslaved by addiction, brutally exploited by drug traffickers and dealers, who are the new slave masters. But today, I can, for a time, set aside the grim nature of my work. Today, I can revel in the promise of the future; the promise of hope.

Earlier, I spent some time walking among these graduates. I saw many people with big smiles, glowing faces, and bright, twinkling eyes. I saw people who have decided to have a future, rather than surrendering to the situational prison of the past or the present. Their success should be a beacon for the rest of us. Each one of us has the ability to pursue success; all that is required is the courage to step up. So many of the problems that confront us as individuals, as a community, a culture, a country, could be solved if we would face the mirror, look ourselves dead in the eye and say, “My biggest problem is me; Me, I can fix.”

In a conversation between a DEA Special Agent and a member of the DAS, Colombia’s version of the FBI, the Colombian remarked, “In our lifetimes we only have a few chances to be a hero, but everyday we have a chance to NOT be a coward.”

It is easy to give up when the circumstances of life turn against you. When traveling uphill, sometimes the hardest decision is simply to keep walking. Adversity is never easy. However, we need that challenge. Challenge forces us to reach a little higher, push a little further, and work a little harder. President Kennedy, when speaking about going to the moon, said that we need challenges, “…not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

One can be a coward and run from challenge; or face it squarely, and be a hero. These graduates have done that courageous thing; they have faced this challenge, and they have prevailed. For that, they deserve our deepest respect and highest admiration.

There are many who look at the coming years with an understandable level of skepticism, cynicism, even fear. But looking at you, I don’t feel skeptical; I don’t feel cynical; I don’t feel afraid. I do feel the one great thing that each one of you can give to the rest of us. And that is hope. As long as Columbia College continues to give to the world people as intelligent, accomplished and magnificent as these, Hope will never die.

During the hot, humid summer of 1997, I felt my life had come to a standstill. I had a job that consisted of work that was dull and repetitive, and to be completely honest, I wasn’t very good at it. I needed that job to support my family, but the work was, I felt, very far removed from what I knew to be my personal strengths and interests. I felt trapped by circumstance, and exceedingly unhappy. Worst of all, as I watched the clock tick and the calendar turn, I feared that time was slipping from my grasp.

After one particularly trying day, I arrived home, exhausted and despondent. I remember staring at my face in the mirror and repeating over and over, “You are more than this.” Some refer to that as a “click” moment, an instant when some unknown switch is thrown in your head, or your heart. After that moment, everything changes. The way you look at your job, the way you look at your life, the way you look at yourself is altered forever.

In my case, I began to do a dangerous thing for a middle-aged man; I began to dream. Up to that point, my dreams had been smothered by the mundane drudgery of life. I had ceased to look ahead, resigned to shuffle aimlessly from day to day. However, on that day, for the first time in a long time, my dreams saw the light of day.

I knew of Columbia’s evening college, in fact John Fields, one of my co-workers and my closest friend, was already attending classes. He encouraged me to apply. My wife, who, for some utterly incomprehensible reason, never stopped believing in me, gave me her unqualified and enthusiastic support. We scraped together the money, made room in our schedule, and I started classes.

I knew that school was going to be hard work, but I was surprised to discover how much fun I was having. I actually looked forward to class. It wasn’t just the courses but also the instructors and professors who taught them. Knowing that my ultimate destination was the Intelligence Community, I was thrilled to discover that two of my teachers had spent their first careers there. The knowledge they imparted was leavened by the rich tapestry of their experiences. Some of the most effective teachers we will ever have are those who have “been there, done that.”

There were also teachers like Professor David Roebuck. Dr. Roebuck is the academic version of a Marine Corps Drill Instructor. By that, I don't mean that his class was like: "Wrong answer. Drop and give me 50! What I mean is that he has that innate sense of what each student is capable of, and the dynamic gifts to pull it out of us. In our class, he set high standards and motivated us to achieve them through the uncomplicated act of refusing to accept mediocrity. One of the pieces of wisdom I took from that experience is that whatever level we perceive to be the upper limits of our capability, that level is, in reality, only two-thirds of what we actually can achieve. In the life-long quest to achieve our full potential, we all need a little Dr. Roebuck in our lives.

I was also stimulated by the active intellects of my classmates. The evening college, I discovered was populated by people like me; working men and women who were powerfully motivated by the desire to succeed. Knowing that education was the key to that success, they treated the academic process with the respect and seriousness it deserved. The inputs they provided were exciting, even intoxicating. There were many nights that I would come home and find it difficult to sleep because my mind was so energized by what had transpired in class. I had limited contact with the students from the day college, but I was nonetheless impressed with them as well. I was 40 years old before I decided what I wanted to do when I grew up. So, for them to have identified their goals and harnessed their dreams at such a young age was, to me, remarkable. To successfully navigate four years of higher education requires dedication, maturity, and discipline. To see those qualities in the members of this generation demonstrates to me that the future is manifestly in good hands.

Meanwhile back at the shop, I received a goodly amount of support from many of my coworkers, during this time. However, I was still subjected to the negativity of a few. I heard comments like, “Wasted effort;” “What in the world are you thinking?;” “You’re too old for this.” And even after receiving my federal appointment, the parting shot, “Six months. Six months and you’ll be back, begging for your old job.”

Finally, after three years of late nights, lost weekends and hard work, I found myself on that December day in 2000 sitting in this room in cap and gown waiting with barely repressed impatience for that moment when I would walk across this stage and receive that precious symbol of academic achievement.

From the moment I graduated, my life changed, more than I could ever have thought possible. Over the next three years, I went through the long, slow process of landing a job with the Intelligence Community, the time involved driven by the testing and background investigations involved in earning a Top Secret clearance, waiting out the hiring freeze related to the 9/11 attacks, and taking time for my son’s wedding in Korea. But finally, in April of 2004, I walked through the doors of my new life, a month shy of my 49th birthday. I’m happy to report to you that since that day, I have been happier and more fulfilled than I ever thought possible. I show up early, stay late, volunteer for every extra job that comes along. Every day is a good day. "So," you’re probably saying to yourselves, "this guy’s either found the greatest job in the universe, or he’s seriously in need of professional help." The truth is I have found my niche, a job that is a perfect fit for my skills, abilities, and interests; a job I thoroughly enjoy, a career with a superb future. There’s a popular saying that’s been attributed to several people, most notably the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “Find a task that you love to do, and you will never work a day in your life.” Well, by that measure, I’ve been on vacation for the last five years. Without Columbia College, none of this would have happened.

I could have stayed at my old job until I retired. Perhaps that would have been the safe choice; after all, I was pushing 50 years of age. There was a risk that no one would be interested in hiring such an elderly entry-level analyst. Nevertheless, I chose to take the risk, a risk that paid off.

I have to tell you that, despite my joy and anticipation over this new opportunity, on the day when I walked out of that factory for the last time, with the heartfelt encouragement and congratulations of most of my colleagues, I felt a little fear. I was leaving behind safety, certitude, and job security for something utterly unknown 800 miles away. But deep in my heart, I knew that this was the right choice. So I turned my back on the bitter cynics; I walked away from the whining doubters, my footsteps guided by the words of Robert Kennedy:

“The future does not belong to those who are satisfied with today.”

Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry once wrote:

“Our prime obligation to ourselves is to make the unknown known.
We are on a journey to keep an appointment with whatever we will become.”

You are about to embark on this journey. The course is not clearly charted, and there is only the vaguest hint of your ultimate destination. But as you travel, there are a couple of things I’d like you to remember. (You really didn’t think you were going to get out of here without a little grandfatherly wisdom, did you?)

First of all, you are college graduates; but know that your real education has just started. I remember a small sign that sat on one of my professor’s desk:

“The graduate cried, “Look world! I have a BA!”
The world replied, “Sit down, my child,
and I’ll teach you the rest of the alphabet.”

Education is a permanent part of our lives; we are always learning things. That will happen in a very limited way even if we just sit still and watch the world whiz by. Imagine how much more we can accumulate by actively pursuing education. The more you know, the better you will be. Always be a seeker of knowledge. Know also that the most important things you can learn aren’t found in any book. Knowing the right thing to do in a given situation is, more often than not, an exercise, not in knowledge, but in wisdom. There’s not a college or university on the planet that grants degrees in wisdom. That can only come from you.

Secondly, the possession of this degree will ensure that doors of opportunity, previously closed to you, will now be open. Know that success depends so much on not just the presence of opportunity, but what you choose to do with it. Columbia College has provided us the tools to build that grand, beautiful allegorical mansion that represents the manifestation of our dreams. It is now up to you to pick up those tools, and go to work. To be honest, I can’t promise that the first position you land will be your professional nirvana. However, I can promise that if you employ this equation of life, preparation plus opportunity times effort, I’m convinced that you will find your success.

And if you walk from this hall today with your eye firmly fixed on your goal and with the promise on your heart that you will not give up, the future with all of its unwritten promises and possibilities will be yours to command. Your past may have shaped your present. But never let that past determine your future. Whatever went on before, whatever bad days you had are behind you. On this day, at this hour, begins your new life. Grab the wheel; take control, and no longer will you be a victim of circumstance. From now on, you are the master of your destiny.

We represent a wide diversity of humanity, yet I cannot help but feel a strong emotional kinship with all of you. Despite the differences in our heritages, our backgrounds, our generations, our points of view, there is one great unifying vision that binds us all together. It’s the same thread that runs through every class of every year going back to the very beginning:

We came to Columbia College because we dared to dream!

Each one of you dared to dream! And you are here today because you proved that you had the drive, the determination, and the dedication to make this dream real. Vos Carpe Diem! YOU have seized the day!

We will soon be entering the part of the ceremony that I heard one professor wryly describe as “decorum takes a holiday.” In a few moments, you will rise from your seats and line up. Your name will be called, and you will cross the stage, shake a few hands, and receive your degrees. Some of you will walk; some will glide or roll, some will march; some will strut; some may even dance. However, whatever forms of locomotion you choose to employ, do it proudly. For if there was ever a moment when you have truly earned the right to be proud, today is that day.

And tomorrow, when you wake up, and after you’ve treated that pounding headache from celebrating perhaps not wisely but too well, pick up your degree, tuck it under your arm, and go do something with it. Less than seven percent of the world’s population has earned a college degree, and that other 93 percent will now be looking to you for answers to their questions, and solutions to their problems. Earning a degree is a great honor; it is also a grave responsibility. As Edward Everett Hale once wrote,

"I am only one, but I am one.
I cannot do everything, but I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
What I can do, I should do.
And what I should do, by the grace of God, I will do."

We live in a world rife with difficulties, populated by humans, governments, and institutions who have surrendered to circumstance, apathy and jaded cynicism. This world needs your inventive genius, your boundless energy, and your unquenchable optimism. There is not a single one of us who alone can save the whole world. But together, we can each carve out a corner of that same world and make a difference.

Graduates of Columbia College, this is your world; this is your time.

Step up…
…and rock your world!
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