Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger speech at Purdue commencement

May 15, 2011

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger addresses the audience during Purdue University's commencement ceremonies on Sunday (May 15). A capacity crowd in the Elliott Hall of Music heard Sullenberger talk about what education hasn meant to him. (Purdue University photo/Andy Hancock)

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Alumnus Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made these comments during a commencement ceremony on Sunday (May 15). 


It's wonderful to be back on campus. The last time I participated in a Purdue commencement ceremony, it was 1973, and I was sitting where you are today, having just received my master's degree in industrial psychology. My time at Purdue was wonderful, and it is a great honor to be here speaking to you today.

I should probably start this talk the same way I do most of my speeches and remind you that the events on January 15 were the result of a crew effort, that it was not just about me. The rest of my crew isn't here today, but if they were, I know what my First Officer Jeff Skiles would say. Jeff would say, "You know, I deserve some recognition, too. After all, I'm the one who flew the airplane into the birds and made Sully the hero he is today."

I know I'm here because of the events of January 15, 2009, and because of the power of that story. But I'm also here because of what I have learned over many decades and my tens of thousands of hours of experience. And I am also here because my family has always had a strong emphasis on education. I was privileged to grow up in a safe, stable environment in which education was valued, ideas were important, and striving for excellence was expected.

Remarkably, all four of my grandparents – who were born between 1885 and 1894 - attended college, which was extraordinary, especially for women of that era. To those of you graduating today from the College of Education, I thank you. Your impact on future generations has not yet been realized, but your gift to society will undoubtedly be great. I know this from first-hand experience: My mother was also an educator. She taught first grade for 25 years. She loved being a teacher, and from her I received two great gifts: a lifelong love of reading and of learning.

With these two gifts, you can learn anything. College graduation doesn't mark the end of your learning. In fact, it's just the beginning. Purdue has taught you how to learn, but the learning process will continue throughout your life. Now you must continue to learn, to see new connections, discover the interrelatedness of things in life, and gain experience and wisdom by paying attention at every step along the way, creating new ideas by expanding on existing ones.

These are the building blocks of innovation. No matter what path you choose to follow – teaching, pharmaceutical sciences, or the field of medicine - I encourage you to always follow your passion. It will take you far in life. I was lucky to have found my life's passion at an early age. I can remember being 5 years old and knowing I was going to fly airplanes, and I was very fortunate to be able to spend my life doing just that. Having found my passion made me more willing to work hard at my job and to become expert at it. And not only did I benefit from this, but I believe that society has as well.

Following my passion has helped me find purpose and meaning in my life. I can tell you from personal experience how much fun it is to be particularly good at something that is difficult to do well. While it was my curiosity that fueled my lifelong learning, it was my passion that fueled my dedication and willingness to work hard at something I cared about deeply. We must continue to challenge ourselves to excel.

And for those of you graduating today from the colleges of Health and Human Sciences and Pharmacy, I applaud you. In your choice to pursue a more difficult path, to commit yourself to the study of science, you are contributing to the greater good of society. In a time when fewer and fewer young people are pursuing careers in the sciences, you have chosen the path to innovation. This is something I have tried to do my whole life: to always make the next flight better than the last one. I challenge you to do the same.

This constant pursuit of excellence isn't just about ego; it's not about individual achievements; it's about achieving the best result – and when you have a team that works well together, it provides the same satisfaction as when you're a member of a winning sports team. When everyone is doing their share in a collaborative way, it just feels right. I experienced this on January 15. My crew - First Officer Jeff Skiles and Flight Attendants Donna Dent, Sheila Dail and Doreen Welsh - and I never stopped working together to solve the challenges we faced.

We never gave up. We never lost faith in ourselves or each other. In a similar fashion, for each of you, no matter how dire a situation is, know that further action is almost always possible - and when you're part of a well-trained team, your chances of getting through a challenge or a crisis are immeasurably better than when you're not. When we are true to our ideas and work together, there is little we cannot accomplish.

After January 15, I began to hear from my colleagues, people I had flown with years, sometimes decades, before. They began to tell me what they call "Sully stories," events that I had long ago forgotten, but that they hadn't – because something I had said, something I had done, situations that I had handled had resonated with them. They remembered them, and they've been kind enough to share them with me. Sometimes I'm reminded of important flight-related safety issues and sometimes I'm told about the time that I simply helped a passenger who needed a wheelchair or stood up for a flight attendant in the face of an unreasonable passenger.

It turns out that my reputation had been built over many years, one interaction, one person, one day at a time. I think that's true in each of our lives; in every encounter with another person, there is inherently an opportunity for good, for ill, or for indifference. There is an opportunity to be a leader; there is an opportunity to be a teammate; there is an opportunity to take responsibility; there is an opportunity to make a difference. Even if you're a graduating college student - even if you're working at your first job, headed to graduate school, or simply talking with a friend or family member - never forget that you are building your reputation, and that someday, someone will tell a story about something you have done. Make sure that story paints a picture of the person who matches your goals and your ideas. Live your lives in such a way that your values are apparent. You'll be taking important steps that will result in a life well lived.

Over the years in my profession, I have noticed that one of the characteristics of those who are particularly adept and of high professional standing is the level of care that they bring to the job. While we all do our duties to ensure a safe flight, some people go above and beyond. It is more than just a job to them, it is a professional passion. These people are constantly striving for excellence, continuously learning and trying to be the most complete person they can be - and it shows. It really is as simple as it sounds: caring a lot about what matters and paying attention along the way.

When I began to prepare myself for today's address, I asked myself what I could say that would be relevant to your experience across this gulf of nearly 40 years, and it is for you to do what I have worked to do in my life: to continue to invest in yourselves, never stop learning, never stop growing, either professionally or personally. To show up for your life, choose not to be a bystander, be present and celebrate every moment. None of us knows what tomorrow may bring. Each of us has the responsibility to prepare ourselves well. At the end of our lives, I think it's unlikely that we will be counting our money or cataloguing the toys we have accumulated. Instead, we are probably going to ask ourselves a question: Did I make a difference? My wish for each of you is that the answer to that question will be yes.