Address to convocation by Dr. Ben Heppner
May 28, 2003
On the last Wednesday of May some 24 years ago, a thousand eager new graduates gathered to receive newly minted degrees. Blue skies and a pervasive and overwhelming sense of relief complemented our excitement at what lay ahead. The University of British Columbia had been home for the last four years of our lives and this graduation ceremony was its final chapter.
Questions whirled in our heads about the future that would be ours. Will I be a success? Can I make a living with an arts degree? How was it possible to fool this great academic institution into granting me a degree? Most importantly, how long is the goon at the podium going to drone on?
I recall two principles of speech making. One, of course, is the K.I.S.S. principle (or "Keep It Short, Stupid"), so often ignored by most speechmakers at times like these. The second principle is to write what you know. Unfortunately, what I know is opera, and more specifically, Wagnerian opera. Lengthy five and six hour operas. Well, fortunately for you, although I may be the bearer of a Wagnerian sized voice, I am also the bearer of a five-minute attention span. So relax, you'll be throwing your caps in the air soon!
However, before you doff the oh-so-cool threads of academia, let me point out to you the unique vantage point you have at the moment. You see behind you, in sharp focus, the path taken so far. You see proud parents and family, teachers and mentors who aided and abetted your journey. And you see friends who walked beside you, celebrating or agonizing over each paper written - each course finished.
In sharp contrast to the clarity of the past, you now face an undetermined future. You do not know what twists and turns lie ahead. Although your tomorrows have not yet found their shape in your life, they are filled to the brim with promise and crammed with potential that only you can realize.
Let me be truthful. This great promise of which I speak does seem to stretch on for a long time. So before you launch out into that vast unknown, I offer a few principles to live by.
As a professional singer, one of the finest compliments I received was from the famed conductor Claudio Abbado. He commented that Heppner has something different - something unique not found in the sound of other singers - "He has his own voice".
Allow me to switch analogies for a moment to something with a broader appeal - basketball. In the sport of basketball, you can learn to shoot free throws with sufficient practice and coaching to win most games of 21, and you can learn to dribble well enough to be the king of your driveway at three on three. However, without sufficient passion, substance and hard work, you will not make it to the big leagues, no matter how talented you are. In my terminology, you must learn to "find your own voice".
You can relax, however; I am not here to speak about vocal technique! My focus today as I stare out at your shining faces, freshly scrubbed for the cameras and Mom and Dad, is about you finding your voice, that is to say, your unique contribution to those around you at home, work and in your community.
So what does it take? Each of you will have your own definition of what the Big Leagues are to you. To some it might mean your classroom - to see some young student grasp the concepts you are teaching and run with them on his or her own. To some of you it means designing a great building. To musicians, it means collaborating with the world's finest artists or signing a record contract.
I would like to suggest three things that are indispensible in finding your unique contribution to the world. First and foremost is passion. Being passionate about one particular area is crucial to making the most of your knowledge and training. Could you imagine what would happen in your respective fields if each and every one of you lived your life and worked in your profession being dedicated to excellence? Soon you would be making speeches at Memorial U.! I need not belabour the point, but every area of your life would benefit. Your relationships, your work and your community would practically resound with the changes your energies would bring.
Additionally, you must back up your enthusiasm with substance. Without content, your passion will be written off as hot air or fanaticism. Naturally, this is where your excellent education from Memorial University comes in! More than that, however, is your commitment to continuing your learning - to being the best you can be in your chosen profession and especially in your personal lives.
Finally, you need integrity. How quickly we can erase all the successes our hard work created. One only needs to look to the latest news to see multiple examples of the lack of integrity. From the front pages in our newspapers to the entertainment section, we discover more than we wish to. Imagine the difference that could be made if the graduating class of 2003 had the courage to live with such integrity - using your gifts and abilities to help others as well as yourself. The results would be the stuff of dreams.
So with all of that said, it is up to you. Figure out what you are passionate about. If you're not passionate about something, find it. We do not need unengaged, bored people to inhabit this planet. We need you to be fully charged and excited about your lives and work, armed to dangerous levels with knowledge and wisdom, and being willing to pull it all together with gritty integrity. This is you, the graduates of Memorial University 2003. We need your energy and your focused passion out in the work force, making a difference in our communities. Thank you...and go get `em!