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December 16, 2012

Sands to graduates: Purdue Boilermakers have a history of leadership

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Congratulations, graduates!

What a special day! We are delighted to be here with you to celebrate your hard-earned achievements as graduates of Purdue University.

You've come a long way from the first time you arrived on this beautiful campus and asked yourselves: "Can I handle the rigors of college? Am I prepared to earn a master's or doctorate from this Big Ten institution? Is there a reason all the buildings are red brick?"

As of this moment, you know with confidence that the answers are: "Yes, ""yes," and "Because it looks good that way."

By now, our students know the story of one of the earliest red brick buildings: Heavilon Hall, the 1894 home of Purdue engineering. For guests in our audience today, let me explain.

Tragedy befell this early landmark when it burned to the ground only four days after its dedication. Then-president James Smart rallied the campus by declaring that Heavilon Hall and its tower would be rebuilt "one brick higher." And that phrase continues to define the Boilermaker spirit.

Purdue Boilermakers work hard to make things better in the world. They accomplish remarkable feats, sometimes against the odds, and often without precedent.

Boilermakers have landed an Eagle on the moon, an Airbus on the Hudson River, and a rover on Mars. They've invented fiberglass and Stove Top Stuffing. They've written an Academy Award-winning screenplay, best-selling novels, and software for something you might have heard of, called a "Wiki." They've won the Nobel Prize, the World Food Prize, the Super Bowl and the Old Oaken Bucket.

Boilermakers have created new drugs for fighting cancer and discovered a new virus that may one day treat tuberculosis. They've become CEOs of international companies, mayors of towns and governors of states across our nation. One particular governor isn't quite a Boilermaker yet, but he will be soon.

The accomplishments of our alumni, faculty and staff are as varied as the students sitting in this great hall. But as different as they are, these great deeds have something in common; they all relied on the leadership of a Purdue Boilermaker.

One of our most admired leaders and friends, Neil Armstrong, passed away in late August. Of the moon, he said: "It's an interesting place to be. I recommend it."

Neil tended to understate his accomplishments. He was a humble man, which made him an extraordinary leader.

When he was asked about his famous moonwalk, Neil often spoke about the legion of scientists, engineers, and support staff that helped him travel to the moon and return safely back to Earth. He spoke that way because he understood that leadership was not a solo sport. Great leaders always credit others for their contributions.

In fact, now is a perfect time for you to demonstrate your leadership and place some credit where it is squarely due. Let's bring up the house lights so you can thank Mom, Dad, family and friends for all they've done for you during your Purdue years.

Neil also spoke of the overwhelming feeling he had when he viewed planet Earth from space. As the continents fell away in colors of tan, brown and red, he was reminded that borders are man-made, and he was mindful of the millions of people who lived on a vulnerable globe that became smaller and smaller as he pulled away from its atmosphere.

When he returned from his historic moonwalk, Neil talked about helping the needy and feeding millions of hungry people around the world. He said, "It's going to take an international approach far beyond any cooperative effort ever seen in history." Neil Armstrong had the vision of a great leader because he saw a cause larger than himself.

And his alma mater has answered the call. In the fall of this year, Purdue's Center for Global Food Security awarded grants to students from 14 universities who will address hunger problems in 18 developing countries. I'm sure Neil would be proud of these young people.

One of the goals of our strategic plan is called, "Launching Tomorrow's Leaders." After graduating 23 students who would become NASA astronauts - and being led by a president who was NASA's first woman chief scientist - it only makes sense that we would talk about "launching" you.

But you didn't arrive at today's launch pad without a lot of work. Your leadership skills have been developed through hundreds of individual moments during your time here. The diploma you earn today signifies that you have met the academic rigors of this institution.

Equally important was the time you spent in student service organizations, clubs and athletic events. It doesn't matter whether you were an officer or a contributing member of these co-curricular activities. The important takeaway is that you were part of a team or group organized around a singular goal. Leadership is about learning how to pull people or ideas together to focus on a clear objective.

Maybe your objective was achieved; maybe it wasn't. The graduate students in the audience today know, perhaps better than most, that the path toward a goal is rarely a straight line. They know the difficulty - sometimes agony - of gathering disparate ideas, making sense of a mountain of data, and forming new knowledge where there once was none. This, too, is a lesson in leadership.

As you may have gathered by now, it's not easy being a leader. If you're doing it well, you're thinking beyond yourself, giving credit to others, and finding common ground among many strong personalities that probably don't agree with one another.

People become leaders because they want to make something better ... just as we once built a building "one brick higher".

Leaders are willing to stand out front taking on responsibility and risk, not because they enjoy the stress, but because they want to make a difference. To paraphrase a famous astronaut: "Out front is an interesting place to be. I recommend it."

And so, graduates, as we launch you into the vast reaches of your future success, we wish you a safe flight and happy landing.

Good luck and Hail Purdue!