December 16, 2018

Maj. Gen. to Purdue grads: You are makers all! What will you do with it?

Theresa C. Carter Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Theresa C. Carter delivers the keynote address during Purdue University’s winter commencement Sunday (Dec. 16). Carter, a Purdue alumna, spoke during two ceremonies in the West Lafayette campus’ Elliott Hall of Music. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons) Download image

Purdue alumna and Maj. Gen. Theresa Carter, United States Airforce-retired, gave these remarks during Purdue’s commencement ceremonies on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Thank you, President (Mitch) Daniels, for that kind introduction. I’m deeply honored to have the opportunity to speak to the class of 2018. 

To the parents, family and friends here to honor our graduates, thanks for all you’ve done to encourage and motivate them to keep going even when times were tough. 

To the faculty, thanks for challenging and developing their critical thinking skills. Your guidance, support and belief in their abilities were key to their success.

And to the graduates, my heartfelt congratulations! I know you thought this day would never arrive, but yet, here you are, sitting there with a gleam in your eye and a smile on your face. Well done! I wish you could see the view from here, it’s pretty amazing! 

So how does someone who grew up in Albuquerque and never traveled east of New Mexico end up at Purdue? I picked Purdue, sight unseen, because it had a great computer science program and I could use my Air Force ROTC scholarship. The only thing I really knew about Purdue was they always seemed to ruin Notre Dame’s football season, and I was a huge Irish fan.

Freshman year I was assigned to a “suite” on the eighth floor of Earhart. Residence hall demand exceeded supply, and suites were a way to house 10 people in rooms designed for eight. While not exactly palatial, it was home, and I now had nine instant friends. Purdue became my family. Gina Moore, the first suitemate I met, became my sister-in-law. She was then and remains today my biggest cheerleader, and I’m thrilled she’s here today! 

I toyed with many themes for my comments but, ultimately, settled on the Purdue Moves slogan, What we make moves the world forward.  We are Purdue, makers all!  What a great way to capture who we are and what we do as Boilermakers! If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share 10 lessons that I think are universal and apply no matter your life’s pursuit. Hopefully, you’ll find the advice useful, and if you remember even one lesson then I succeeded! 

First, be a hope maker. Things won’t always go according to plan. How will you respond to a setback or help others respond? I lasted one semester in computer science, quickly realizing it wasn’t for me. After all, when you score a 20 on the final exam, the professors are trying to tell you something! I switched to industrial engineering when I learned human factors engineers were involved in ergonomics and cockpit design. I thought, “That looks cool; that’s what I’ll study and do in the Air Force!” Well, the Air Force had other ideas, and shortly before graduation I was assigned to the civil engineering career field. I was crushed. Thankfully, the commandant of cadets, Major Bruce Johnston, said no to my request to stay at Purdue, get a master’s degree and an assignment to the human factors career field. He said civil engineering would be good for me and a master’s degree could wait. Like Mick Jagger said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need.” Everytime something good happened in my career, I called Bruce and thanked him for his hopeful message. When you give others hope, you move the world forward. 

Be a knowledge maker, commit to being a lifelong learner. The most valuable tools I gained at Purdue were how to think critically, ask the right questions and use a systems perspective to analyze and solve problems. Used daily, those skills provided a solid foundation as I progressed in my career. Aldous Huxley said, “Experience isn’t what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Spend time each day reflecting on what went well and what didn’t. You can learn something from every situation and you’ll often learn more from the setbacks and failures, the bad leaders and difficult subordinates. Capture and reflect daily so you’ll be ready when opportunity knocks. 

Speaking of opportunity, be an opportunity maker. In June 2013, I became the 24th person, and the first woman, to serve as the Air Force Civil Engineer, the highest-ranking person in my career field. Yet, seven months later, the four-star general leading the Air Force said he needed me to do something else. He asked me to lead a merger, which would take people, resources and authority from 10 three- and four-star generals and a dozen career field leaders like me, consolidate them into a single organization supporting 80 bases around the world, and do it with roughly 40 percent of the 900 people doing that work. This would be the largest Air Force reorganization in over 20 years. I spent several anxious days and sleepless nights wondering if I was up for this huge challenge. 

As I left for the new job the following week, my staff gave me a farewell gift engraved with a quote from Winston Churchill: “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.”  It gave me hope that the toolkit I built over the course of my career qualified me to tackle this opportunity. The jobs held, challenges faced and lessons learned prepared me for the hardest and most rewarding job I ever had. Graduates, today your university is tapping you on the shoulder … this is your moment and I know you’re ready to go out into the world and make the most of opportunities that come your way.

To move the world forward, you must be a change maker. The pace of change today continues to accelerate, with new technology, innovation and discovery disrupting old ways of doing business and bringing communities together in a global commons. Learn to thrive on change. If you’re unable or unwilling to change, you’ll get left behind. Purdue equipped you with the skills needed to navigate change, ask questions and develop solutions. You can’t move forward without changing your current position … be a change maker.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Don’t follow where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Be a trail maker. Boilermakers have left footprints around the world, and literally out of this world, over the past 150 years. Astronauts and Nobel laureates, inventors and educators, doctors and engineers … each and every Boilermaker leaves their mark on society. Will the footprints you leave inspire others to follow? Be curious, ask why. Be a trail maker.

Maybe you have an idea for the “next big thing” that will transform your industry or you just made an amazing research discovery and want to share it with the world. How will you ensure your voice is heard? Be a message maker. Inform, instruct, inspire. Even if you’re a big introvert like me, you can do it. If public speaking isn’t your strong suit, commit to practicing and improving.  Volunteer for tasks that force you to stand in front of people and speak. Do multiple dry runs before every speech or presentation. Speak from your heart, with sincerity and empathy. Build and practice your elevator speech so you’re ready when it’s time to take your shot. Your message can move the world forward.

Henry Ford said, “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” I think the same is true of leaders, the best ones bring out the best in us. Be a confidence maker. Create an environment in which people can thrive, where your confidence in them can make 2+2 = 6. When someone believes in you, you feel like you can do anything. I’m standing here today because I was blessed to be at the right place, at the right time with the right people and we were able to make a difference. I had leaders who believed in me, forced me out of my comfort zone and pushed me to do things I didn’t think were possible. I’d follow them anywhere. Be the leader who brings out the best in others, and you’ll find it also brings out the best in you. Confidence, in yourself and others, moves the world forward.

So how do you create that environment? Be a memory maker. Sweat the small stuff. I saw this first hand when I spent a year on a 2-mile by 4-mile Aleutian island called Shemya AFB.  Located fifteen hundred miles from Anchorage, it was the ultimate leadership laboratory. Shemya’s motto is “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” My team was responsible for operating the base infrastructure. During the Cold War, we were supporting a nationally tasked intelligence mission, which required us to keep the runway open at all times so alert surveillance aircraft could take off with less than 10 minutes notice. That was no easy task when you get 120 inches of snow and winds as high as 80 miles per hour. 

Thankfully, Master Sergeant Tom Pelfrey led my snow team, and he was a miracle worker. I watched in awe as he turned an average group into the top performers on base. They made the impossible look easy. One day, he invited me to his work center. They had just completed a demanding 12-hour shift keeping the runway open. His team was gathered around a table with a simple birthday cake in the center. Tom praised his team and talked about one of his civilians, Charles Brantley, who was in his 50s and looked like “Grizzly Adams”… long, thick beard, coveralls peppered with dirt and grease accumulated during his shift. It was Charles’ birthday, and Sergeant Pelfrey led us in song. Charles had tears in his eyes …  it was the first time anyone at work had celebrated his birthday. Tom’s focus on the small things brought out the best in his team, and they would do anything for him, even to this day. Never underestimate the power of the small stuff to make a big difference in the lives of others and to move the world forward. 

Be a contribution maker. I’m sure each of you have one or more goals you want to pursue as you graduate. Maybe you want to be an entrepreneur, a doctor, or for those entering the military, a general officer. I wholeheartedly encourage you to set lofty goals and work tirelessly to achieve them. As Drew Brees told his boys after setting the NFL record for passing yards, “You can accomplish anything in life if you are willing to work for it.” I also want you to remember it’s not enough simply to be an entrepreneur, to be a doctor, or to be a general. What’s more important is what you do as the entrepreneur, what you do as the doctor, what you do as the general.  Don’t chase titles or perks that come with a position, chase the opportunities you’ll have in the position to contribute to your company, your profession or your community. 

Above all, whatever you choose to do, be a difference maker. My favorite quote comes from author Leo Rosten, who said, “I cannot believe the purpose of life is to be happy. I believe the purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate. It is above all to matter; to count; to stand for something; to have it make some difference that you lived at all.” Be compassionate, you’ll make the world a better place. Don’t be afraid to take a stand. Make a difference, make your lives matter.

We are Purdue, makers all. Class of 2018, it’s now up to you. Move the world forward by leading change and leaving your footprints. Move the world forward by taking that giant leap.  Move the world forward by doing the right thing, even when no one’s looking. Move the world forward by making a difference. Move the world forward by being a Boilermaker!

Congratulations, I’m incredibly proud of each of you and excited to welcome you to the Purdue alumni family. President Daniels, thank you again for the honor and privilege of speaking today, I’ll always cherish this moment.

Ever grateful, ever true … Hail Purdue!

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