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The Ohio State University Commencement Address

Address to the Graduating Class: Spring Commencement 2003

Karen A. Holbrook,
The Ohio State University

On Courage

Delivered on Friday, June 13, 2003

As I considered what I might want to say this morning, I thought about Christopher Reeve, whom you selected as your commencement speaker, and then decided to focus my remarks around a trait that I believe contributes to Mr. Reeve's extraordinary accomplishments - courage.

When you entered Ohio State as an undergraduate, graduate, or professional student, the faculty encouraged you to become learners and leaders in our campus community. Now several years later, your family, friends, teachers, advisors, and mentors have celebrated your successes at a number of special events this spring. We are all extremely proud of you for your accomplishments and for the promise of what is to come. You leave Ohio State today with a diploma that acknowledges your success in the classroom and the leadership skills that you have developed here.

Scholarship and leadership together form the basis for citizenship today - a time that has been characterized as "chaotic, creative, uncertain, and dangerous," a time "when the ground seems to shift beneath your feet" and "when the issues of the day are complex and seem unresolvable." One might think that leadership today would be more difficult than ever. But when have the times ever been certain?

During your years at Ohio State, you have witnessed a great many changes - the rise then fall of the economy, alarming breaches of business ethics, the rapid increase in international tensions, and the eradication of some diseases coincident with the appearances of new ones for which we are unprepared. And we change, by accident perhaps, but more likely as a conscious choice to take on new roles and responsibilities. Your education at Ohio State has prepared you well to embrace the challenges of the future.

Today's call is for leaders who hold themselves to consistently high ethical and moral standards; who lead according to the principles of veracity, integrity, openness, and compassion; and who demonstrate courage.

Aristotle believed that courage is the first of human virtues because it makes other virtues possible. Courage is needed to translate intentions into actions, to take what we believe in and to use our potential to make it happen. A courageous leader must be confident and committed to personal and professional values, as some courageous acts will expose vulnerability and evoke criticism. Courage will then be needed to stand firm.

John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, described the courage of eight U.S. senators who risked their political careers to take principled but unpopular stands. The Kennedy Library created an annual award to recognize public officials who have shown political courage and elected "to do what is right rather than what is expedient." I hope each of you will take up that challenge in all that you pursue.

Courage is a defining human characteristic that allows you to take risks, admit when you are wrong, be willing to learn from failure, and be true to yourself. As R.G. Ingersoll said, "The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart." Christopher Reeve has faced unimaginable obstacles and triumphed.

More than ever, the world needs ethical and courageous leaders who are willing to do what is right. At The Ohio State University, you have acquired the knowledge and tools to practice courageous leadership and lead virtuous and meaningful lives. The opportunities to put that education to work now lie ahead. Be firm in your beliefs. Find empathy in your heart. Search for wisdom in your decisions. Be courageous in your life.

Spring Commencement 2003

Ohio State University Commencement
Remarks by Christopher Reeve
June 13, 2003

President Holbrook, Chairman Sofia and the Board of Trustees, distinguished Faculty, Graduates and honored Guests:

Before I begin, you should know that I have enjoyed watching Ohio State football on television for many years, but I never knew what a buckeye was. I always assumed it was a common name for a species of a little known but dangerous wild animal. I recently learned that itís just a tree. At first glance, it appears to be useless: the wood doesnít burn well, the bark smells, and the meat of the nut is bitter and mildly toxic. Yet it grows where others cannot, itís difficult to kill, and adapts to its circumstances. So much for first impressions.

I am extremely honored to address more than 5,000 of you who are graduating from the bachelors, masters and doctoral programs of OSU. I wanted to be here today to pay tribute to the longstanding ideals of the University: compassion for our fellow human beings, the aspiration to be champions in all arenas of life, and the desire to make a difference.

This year marks the 133rd anniversary of Ohio State. A quick survey of just a few recent accomplishments shows that the vision of Joseph Sullivant, a member of the Board when the University was founded, has been realized far beyond his expectations. The Diversity Action Plan, which charts the course for OSU to become a model of diversity in higher education, was formulated two years ago. The new Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in the Americas will bring in scholars from around the world to examine issues of racial inequality. The University is ranked in the top 5 in granting doctorate degrees to African-Americans; it has been selected as one of the countryís 50 best colleges for African-Americans by Black Enterprise magazine; it is also listed among the top 20 institutions for granting doctoral degrees to native Americans and native Alaskans.

At OSU, students and faculty understand the importance of public service on both a local and global scale. Some focus on the environment, others on community outreach among many other programs. Students in the College of Engineering recently achieved a speed of 241 mph in the Buckeye Bullet Electric Car. (Can I put in a request for them to work on my wheelchair?) Students in the Civil Engineering program placed first in a national competition to design a better road pavement using recycled materials. Participants in the Learning Bridge bring the educational resources of Ohio State to meet the needs of public schools that serve the university neighborhoods. The Family Nutrition Program brings vital information about food safety and nutrition to nearly 92,000 people. This year alone, students in the College of Social Work provided 215,000 hours of service to the central Ohio community. Doctors and scientists at the Ohio State Medical School are among the most respected in the nation, consistently ranking among the leading recipients of research funding from the NIH. And thatís just the tip of the iceberg.

I salute these Points of Pride to congratulate you for your outstanding achievements. But I also want to sound a note of caution as you leave this sanctuary of learning, self-discovery, and ethical conduct to make your way in the outside world.

You have been taught to work hard, not to cheat, and balance your own advancement with service to others. But when you look beyond this campus, you witness seemingly endless examples of questionable conduct in government, religion, business, the media, and even sports. Our intelligence agencies are being challenged to explain their recommendation for the invasion of Iraq. The Catholic Church is embroiled in a crisis of misconduct and cover-ups. CEOs of major corporations are facing fines and imprisonment for their greed at the expense of the employees who helped create their success. The reputation of one of the most respected newspapers in the country has been severely damaged by a reporter who could not resist plagiarizing in his zeal to succeed. Even the achievements of one of our favorite baseball players will probably be eclipsed by controversy over his use of an illegal bat.

The challenge before you will be to maintain your integrity in a culture that has devalued it. You will have to bring your own personal and professional ethics with you on the journey when you leave here today, because you may not find anyone to guide you. Living a moral life in an indifferent world is likely to be more difficult than you can imagine. How will you succeed?

The answer may be found in a few simple words written by Abe Lincoln: ďWhen I do good I feel good. When I do bad I feel bad. And thatís my religionĒ. All of us have a voice inside that will speak to us if we let it. Sometimes itís easy to hear; sometimes we have to turn down the volume of the distracting noise around us so we can listen. That voice tells us if we are on the right track. It lets us know if we give as much as we take, if we welcome the opinions of others, and at least accept diversity even if we are not able to embrace it.

As you go forward, hopefully that inner voice will remind you of some of the Points of Pride that bring such distinction to OSU. Youíll discover that you can go far by being conscientious, but you will go farther and find true satisfaction by being conscious. If you have already achieved self-awareness and set specific goals for yourself, thatís fine. If you donít know who you are or what to do next, donít worry about it. Your life shouldnít run on a schedule, and you may go down some dead end streets until you find the right road. Donít be afraid to question assumptions you may have lived with since childhood. Take your time and seek true independence as you search for meaning and fulfillment.

Perhaps the greatest reward for living a conscious life is that it prepares you to cope with adversity. If you are open to change and new experiences, if you are accustomed to self-discipline, if you respect others and nurture your relationships, then you will have built a solid platform that will support you and help you deal with anything that comes your way. Iím not saying all of that is easy. But sitting here today I can honestly tell you that you donít need to break your neck to learn the value of living consciously. I was lucky to grow up unthreatened by change and eager for new experiences. Thirty years as an actor before my injury taught me self-discipline and helped me cope with rejection and failure. My marriage and my relationships with friends and family were alive and well before the accident; since then they have grown even stronger and given me the ability to recover and go forward.

That catastrophic event also changed my perspective about other things in life. Outside of my circle of family and friends, I didnít appreciate others nearly as much as I do now. Once I trained with actual paraplegics to portray one in a film. Every evening as I drove away from the rehab center I quickly pushed those suffering patients out of my mind, relieved that I was not one of them. Less than a year later I became paralyzed myself. Did I need to learn something about compassion and humility? No doubt about it.

It was not until I was immersed in my own rehabilitation that I realized an apparent tragedy had created a unique opportunity. Spinal cord patients like the ones I once dismissed were now in the next room, traveling down the same hallways, and struggling right beside me in physical therapy. I came to know people of all ages and from all walks of life that I would otherwise never even have met. For all our differences, what we had in common was our disability and the desire to find a reason to hope. I was inspired by so many and gradually discovered that I had been given a job that would create urgency and a new direction in my life: I could do something to help.

Thanks to the education you have received here at Ohio State and the ideals that guide this distinguished university, you have already learned some of the most important principles you will ever need to know: compassion for our fellow human beings, the aspiration to be champions in all arenas of life, and the desire to make a difference. To all of you leaving today I can only say, on behalf of all those who will look to you for guidance and leadership, take those principles with you and hold them close.

Congratulations on all your achievements. I wish you the best of luck.


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