May 10, 2019

Daniels to Purdue grads: The antonym of snowflake is Boilermaker

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels made these remarks during the May 2019 spring commencement ceremonies on the West Lafayette, Indiana, campus.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Here we are again. My favorite moment of the year. It’s a genuine day of dreams: in the student section, dreams of new careers, marriage, children, new adventures. In the parents’ seating, dreams of what to do with that disposable income they’re no longer sending to West Lafayette. All in all, a day like no other. 

My own dreams about today are more like nightmares. What to say that’s fitting - that’s meaningful but still concise enough to get us on to the main event quickly? Hardest of all, what to say that’s the least bit original? 

While dreaming, or daydreaming, about today, I found myself thinking about Purdue Pete.  Again this year, Pete was ranked among the most identified college mascots in the country, and the favorite in our Big Ten Conference.

A few years before your class arrived on campus, someone tried to redo Pete and turn him into some new symbol of our school. I wasn’t here, either, but as told to me, the idea started an immediate backlash, a near-riot, and died within days. I got to thinking about “why?”

Maybe part of it was his uniqueness. At last count, there were 64 Eagles, 46 Tigers, and 33 Wildcats among college mascots. There’s only one set of Boilermakers. 

But I think our attachment to Pete stems mainly from the way he personifies our self-image of strength. When our up-and-coming football program chose its slogan for this year, it was “Only the Strong.” One of the year’s YouTube sensations featured a five-foot-nine Purdue player squatting 600 pounds.

Strength is a big part of the Boilermaker mystique. And it comes in forms even more important than the physical strength of our terrific athletes or those of you I see at the Co-Rec and our intramural fields. Purdue has always been known for sending into the world young men and women who are strong and ready in all the ways that matter in adult life. That’s never been more important, or a bigger advantage, than right now.

By making it to this hall today, you have proven that you are strong intellectually. Your university has never believed in participation trophies. Your parents can rest assured that, in the words of a long-ago commercial they will remember, you got your diploma the old-fashioned way.  “You earned it.”

I can testify that you are strong in character. In each of your years here, our campus was rated among the safest in the country, in large part because of fewer incidents of student misconduct.  Each year on our big event weekends, police calls here are a small fraction of those at nearby universities of similar size. Naming no names.

You have not just behaved well yourselves, you have demanded it of others. Bystander actions and reports that prevent harm to other students have risen sharply in recent years.

And your heart for others is truly inspiring. We watch with admiration your dance marathons and countless other charity projects demonstrating the ethic of service and selflessness that we associate with great character.

But there’s even more to strength than muscle, smarts and character. For the last few years, the air has been filled with studies, surveys, and books reporting a growing “fragility” among American young people, a decreasing capability to handle even modest stress or setbacks without seeking some sort of adult assistance. The number of college students requesting counseling or therapy has doubled in just four or five years. 

Experts offer various explanations for this surge. Clearly more perceptive diagnosis of real mental illness is a factor, and a highly positive one. It seems just yesterday when, working in the business that brought the world the first highly safe and effective antidepressant, I took part in a huge worldwide effort to destigmatize depression, schizophrenia, and related illnesses. We must and will do all we can to find those among us who suffer from these soul-searing, treatable diseases and bring them effective help.

But, the data say, something broader is going on. As one scholar has written, “There has been an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but … also a decrease in the ability of many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life.” 

At other places, but I’m happy to say not yet at Purdue, students have demanded to be kept “safe” from speech, that is, mere words, that challenge or discomfit them. At one large university, one “study” purported to find a quarter of the student body suffering from PTSD because of an election outcome. Referring to such young people, someone has coined the distasteful but descriptive term “snowflakes.”

Some find a cause in the social media, which have reduced personal interaction among your younger contemporaries. Easier grading in high schools can lead to an unexpected jolt when a student arrives at college, at least if it’s a place like Purdue where top grades are still hard to come by. Another diagnosis points to overprotective parenting that limits children’s opportunities to play and explore in unsupervised ways that require them to solve problems and resolve conflicts on their own.

I don’t pretend to know what’s causing the phenomenon. I do know that in the world you’re about to enter, emotional strength, in the form people are now terming “resilience” or “grit,” will be essential for you to realize the enormous potential we see in you. For those who possess and display it, it will be a competitive advantage in any endeavor they pursue. After watching you these last few years, I’m betting you’ll be in that category. 

You’re about to hear a fine student response at the end of today’s program. (I know that because I get a sneak peek at those remarks.) But I wish you could also have heard the two talks given at last December’s winter commencements.

Jordan Cebulla told of being a poor student in high school here locally who almost abandoned any idea of higher education. But, told by a family friend that Lafayette is “a gritty town full of gritty people,” he gave Ivy Tech a try. Four years later, he is a Purdue alum. He told his classmates, “In the end, if we quit on ourselves, everyone else will quit on us, too.”

In his response speech, Seon Shoopman confided that, out of sixteen schools he applied to, Purdue was the only one to admit him, provided he attend our summer boot camp.  Three and a half years later, he, too, earned his Purdue degree, with honors, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college.  Seon said that, more than any other motive, he wanted to do it for the mother who had pushed him all the way.  “When I wanted to quit, she told me not to.  When I wanted to leave school, she told me not to.  She told me to fight, be strong, and make something of myself.” 

Some in today’s world think they have discovered something new in the concept of “grit.” A Harvard Business School article just last fall was titled “Organizational Grit,” and reported that “High achievers have extraordinary stamina. ... When easier paths beckon, their commitment is steadfast. Grit predicts who will accomplish challenging goals.” So that’s why a Harvard MBA costs 200 grand.

Maybe this is all revelatory at Harvard. In our part of the country, it’s not news. The slogan of the Whiteland (Indiana) High School Class of 1930 was “Grit Wins.”  It could be a slogan at Purdue every year. I’m tempted to call Roget’s Thesaurus and let them know the antonym of “snowflake” is “Boilermaker.”

Just as physical strength is built through hard exercise, emotional fortitude is enhanced by adversity and conflict. Every great achievement requires a confrontation with stress, a conquest of fear. Our engineers know, there is no traction without friction. Wilbur Wright, the father of the aviation world Purdue now leads, wrote, “No bird soars in a calm.”  Your strength of intellect and character will give you opportunities to lead, but it will be your strength of purpose, your resilience, your grit that will enable you to lead successfully, and by your example to give new heart and strength to those around you.

There’s one sure way to minimize stress and difficulty in life: attempt nothing that’s bold, challenge nothing that’s wrong, risk nothing that’s dangerous. Those endeavors always bring disappointment, frustration, criticism, setbacks. But they also are the source of the achievements that make life fulfilling, and the even greater grit that will get you ready for the next challenge.

From opposite ends of life’s continuum, I offer you two closing examples of the qualities I hope you have built here at this institution. Both stories involve Purdue students even younger than you are today.

Last December, we said goodbye to a great man. A great man, but a typical Boilermaker. In his 94 years, Fred Fehsenfeld built a series of businesses that employed and enriched thousands of people around Indiana and the world. A model for what we now call lifelong learning, he was always on top of the latest technology, always conceiving large new projects and looking far into a future he could not possibly live to see. And modest about his achievements every step of the way.

He almost didn’t get the chance to do any of that. On his 18th birthday, in 1942, he left his freshman dorm room in Cary Hall and enlisted in the Army. He flew 86 missions over Europe with a storied unit in which almost half his fellow pilots were killed in action.

In an oral history of his experiences, Fred told of his first close-air dogfight combat. He was low to the ground, with bullets everywhere, and death perhaps an instant away. The interviewer asked, “What were you thinking at a moment like that?”  Fred answered, “I was thinking, I finally got a chance to make some German pay for yanking me out of Purdue University.”  He survived the war, came back, still younger than most of you, to finish his M.E. degree and lead a life of epic accomplishment.

Long after you leave us, your senior year will be remembered as the year of Tyler Trent. His is a story I need not recount; everyone here knows who he was, and how he faced a situation for which words like “adversity” and “stress” don’t come close. He impacted more people, and left deeper footprints, than most who will enjoy lives several times longer than his. We’ll never forget you, Tyler.

God willing, none of you will face at any age the kind of dangers and fears that Fred and Tyler did. But they, and so many others like them, have left us all a legacy that provides perspective and proportion for those inevitable moments when the pressures and disappointments of life get us down.

Don’t misunderstand this, but I wish for you many such tough moments. You can easily avoid them; just lead a safely inconsequential life: run no risks, confront no injustice, accept no roles of leadership. But that’s not the path we expect you to choose. You are about to become graduates of Purdue University, which throughout its history has supplied leaders to a world that needs them now as rarely before.

Leaders with the academic preparation to solve mind-bending technological challenges.  With the moral character to help society navigate times of blurringly fast change, in ways that are ethical, equitable, and humanistic. Most of all, with the inner strength to take on the burdens of high responsibility, and the heat, envy, and hostility that comes with them, and deliver the positive change that human progress requires.

You showed the quality of grit before you arrived here. That’s why we admitted you. I hope that your days here, with a faculty that pushed and stretched you, and classmates like Jordan and Seon to inspire you, built your reserves of resilience.

Now take the strength you brought here, and the new strength I trust you built here, into a world where the need and, therefore, the opportunities, for real leadership are enormous. Seek out the hard jobs and the toughest problems. When you find them, or they find you, think of Fred and Tyler, maybe even Pete. And you’ll make yourself, your family, and your university proud of you, as Boilermakers have for a century and a half.

Hail Purdue, and each of you.

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