President's Speech at May Commencement

Class of 2019, what a ride we have been on together.

Today, on this stage, I want to take the opportunity to say thanks to all of you, the greatest students in the world. And in the spirit of my eblasts and other messages I’ve sent to you, I’ll also have a little advice. And this time my advice will be about “moving on.”

This was the hardest commencement address I’ve ever written, although I’ve given a lot of effort to all of them. Do you know how many I’ve given, by the way?

This is the 181st commencement I’ve presided at, and my last as president of this great university.

So, I could say that 181 is my favorite number…but it isn’t. My favorite number is 117,662. Because after this ceremony, that is the number of graduates I will have conferred degrees to during my 11 years as president. How does that sound? That is, absolutely, my favorite number and I am so proud of each and every one.

I have spoken to past graduates about the following topics: being an active participant, finding inspiration in little things, teamwork, community service, innovation, leadership, resilience, the passing of time, mindfulness, finding common ground, creativity, the importance of working hard, and civil discourse.

Today though, I want to speak about something I’ve been thinking and working on a lot, and to say it directly, I am finding that moving on is hard. It’s hard for you and it is for me too.

Many of you in this very class of 2019 have told me that these were the best four years of your lives. Of course, some said they were the best five years of your lives, and a few even said... well, I won’t go there, but you know who you are and parents, you know too!

Well these have been the best eleven years of my life. So how do we handle this? How do we say goodbye? How do we move on? I checked out what psychologists and even songwriters and poets have said, but most of the advice was about moving on from a broken relationship and that just doesn’t fit. But I did like the lyrics of a country song that said, “You broke my heart, so I ripped up your picture!”

 

So, in the spirit of moving on, let me tell you how grateful I am to you, how lucky I am to have had students like you in the Class of 2019 who taught me so much. 

 

One thing I found that was helpful, came from the poet Robert Frost. I like it because it’s simple. He said that he could sum up everything he’d learned about life in three words: “it goes on.”

It goes on, Class of 2019. Your lives and my life will go on. And we must believe that the chapter ahead will be better than the one we are leaving behind. I think the best advice I have for you about moving on, because it’s working for me, is to be very grateful for our time here. Like Winnie the Pooh, who said “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

So, in the spirit of moving on, let me tell you how grateful I am to you, how lucky I am to have had students like you in the Class of 2019 who taught me so much. 

As I told you at my Last Lecture on April 3, I’ve learned from you that college is not all fun and games. That’s just a stereotype that many adults hold. I’ve learned from you that you have lots of serious concerns about our world, especially the decline in civility, the pressures on our environment, and about what kind of world your children will find.

I’ve learned that you have many personal ups and downs, and that you really want and need access to our mental health counselors and other advisors “on your time.” I’ve learned from you that college affordability is not just a rhetorical issue; it’s a truth that affects your family’s ability to pursue their happiness while they struggle to provide for your education. I’ve learned that you, and American college students in general, are the most open, tolerant and inclusive generation ever to inhabit the planet and America will move further in that direction, as you assume power. 

And, of course, I’ve learned how truly passionate -- make that crazy-- you are about the Gamecocks, everywhere and all the time! You die with every dropped pass and missed free throw. But, just like me, you pick yourselves up and find a way to live another day, to cheer all over again, for the Garnet and Black.

Oh, I have learned so much from you. You have made me not only a better president, you’ve made me a better person. And I hope you feel grateful to have learned so much here, mainly from your professors, of course, but also through your many experiences outside the classroom. You have grown so much. Most of you started as teenagers and now you are men and women.

Perhaps you learned a little through my eblasts to you, over 40 by my count, although I got more feedback about them from your parents than from you. In any case, I loved writing them and I went back over them recently. I’m glad I did. 

They reminded me of the specific issues that led to my wanting to reach out to you. There were horrific shootings at churches and synagogues. There were some very sad moments involving student safety, that led me to urge you, as if I were your dad, to take care of yourself and to ask “What’s My Name?”

There were all too many hurricanes and floods where I told you what we were thinking and planning, pretty much in real time. By the way, Class of 2019, you likely had more unscheduled days off due to weather events than any other college class in history! Does that make you happy?!

There were deliriously happy concerts and World Series and Final Fours and Bowl Games, where I couldn’t contain my joy so I let my keyboard overflow with giddiness. There were spring breaks and summer vacations that prompted me to advise you to be productive and happy, to fall in love if you were so inclined, and to take time to talk with your families about yourself and your life at college.

There were Thanksgivings, when I merely wished you to find the joy in simple things, things like food made at home, family, serving others, and living a principled life-- the basic things that, for all of us, would form the memories you would cling to for your whole life.

During one flood event, I even held a contest to ask you how we could make the university better and, wow, was I surprised. We were swamped with great ideas, some of which have already improved our university. We did that just by asking you and listening to you.

After I move on, and I think of all those things, and when I think of you, class of 2019, I will be so very grateful to you, and that gratitude will turn to joy, and that joy will make it easier to move on.

So, right now, as we get ready to actually get on with our moving on, I wanted to share one more thing. In the President’s House, there is a window on the second floor that I like to look out of in the early morning. The view is of the Horseshoe, which is arguably at its most peaceful and still at that moment of the day, particularly when the morning mist blankets the landscape.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately at that window about my time as your President. As I’ve looked out that window over these eleven years not much has changed on the Horseshoe, except maybe the sapling tree that my children planted in honor of my first day, August 1, 2008. It’s a big tree now. But when I look out beyond the Horseshoe…oh my.

The growth, the progress, the success, the victories, the ever-increasing quality of the students and faculty, I’ve got to pinch myself. 

I’m going to miss looking out that window, but I’d like to suggest to you, the Class of 2019, that we not think of moving on as is often described, as the closing of one door and the opening of another. I don’t like the thought of closing the door on my university. How do you close the door on your home? How do we not look back?

So, let’s think instead of stepping through an open window, a window that once you’re through, you can turn around and see where you’ve been. When we turn around and look back, we will all see different things, but I hope that we all see very happy things-- things that will bring us great joy. 

 

When we turn around and look back, we will all see different things, but I hope that we all see very happy things-- things that will bring us great joy.

 

When I turn around to look through that window, I’m going to see you. There you are storming the court at the Colonial Life Arena; there you are jumping in the Thomas Cooper Library fountain after victories that took us to the Final Four; I’m going to see you dancing and volunteering at Dance Marathon, Relay for Life and MLK Day of Service; I’m going to see you at our Town Halls and Dive-in Lunches; I’m going to see you studying for finals as Patricia and I brought you trail mix and apples; I’m going to see us snapping selfies and “high fiving.” And I’m going to see you sitting here in front of me today dressed so beautifully in your regalia, the finest young men and women any college president can ever know on one of the biggest days of your lives.

In fact, most of my most profound and everlasting memories were made with you. Thank you sincerely for all of those.

I wish I could take all of you for a ride in my Mini, and maybe someday I will. But for now, let’s do as Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” 

To the Class of 2019, thank you forever, and Forever to Thee.