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SOU commencement speech by Michael Geisen

Southern Oregon University

2009 Commencement - DRAFT copy

Michael Geisen - 2008 National Teacher of the Year

Graduation season is coming to an end, I'm glad to see that you've bagged a diploma before it's over. Many commencement addresses, my third this year.

About ¼ of adults in America have a bachelor's degree

Audience, please rise if Jan, Feb or Mar b-day. Notice, though, that I didn't have them all stand up in a group.

I grew up largely separated from ¾ of humanity. But now I've immersed myself fully in it, and that's what each of you needs to keep in mind as you enter the real world. You're not better, you're really not all that different. We're all humans. You just had the opportunity, you took it, and now you have a degree.

So with nearly 60 million bachelor's degrees in the U.S. alone, I hate to break it to you: you're nothing special.

So what makes me so special? I was selected from among over 3 million educators to represent them as the National Teacher of the Year. This doesn't mean that I'm the best teacher in the world… technically it's just the United States. How did I get there? To put it simply, education has never ended for me.

13 years ago, after switching majors from graphic design to geology to forest management, I earned my bachelor's degree from the University of Washington. I graduated magna cum laude, which is Latin for "pretty darn awesome."

I spent several years working in the woods and in the mountains, much of that time here in southern Oregon. But one day, I found myself in a coastal forest, soaking wet, crawling on my stomach to get from one plot location to the next because the brush was so thick. I was miles from another human being, it was dark and cold, and I felt like I had plateaued in my development and creativity. It was time to make a change. It was time to take my education to another level.

8 years ago, I graduated from SOU with a Master's in teaching, and that's where my education truly began. It went to a whole new level… because I was spending my days with middle school students.

But the reason I've been so successful, and the reason that you will be so successful, is that we never stop learning. It's not necessarily about advanced degrees and further certification, although that might be one avenue. It's about passion and commitment to personal growth, and applying that growth to real world problems to make your little corner of the world a better place. What will make you special is not the diploma in your hand... but how you use it, and how you continue to better yourself through education - formal or informal.

You're only ¼ of the way through your life. In the words of the Carpenters, "We've only just begun… to live…" You have a long road ahead of you. "So many roads to choose...We start out walkin' and learn to run…" The world is changing at an exponential pace, and those who don't learn to run, and continue to learn, will be irrelevant and left behind. So just because your formal education has passed a major milestone, and may be coming to a close, doesn't mean that you're anywhere close to being done. You've only just begun.

You're entering one of the toughest job markets we've seen. But you'll handle it. Get your game on and charge into it with a balance of confidence and humility. And if it doesn't happen for you right away, find something that you are passionate about to give your time to. Volunteer, either here or abroad. Travel, experience the world… learn! If you need a little cash, just ask your folks to float you a loan. What's a couple more grand at this point? And parents, I'd recommend you loan it to them, otherwise they'll be moving back into your nest!

My career pathway has already changed substantially, and will likely change again. And graduates, yours will, too. As it changes, I want you to consider the following: how will what you do for a career change the world? Because it will.

And believe it or not, what you do for a living will take up less than ¼ of the breaths you take from now until you stop breathing someday. A bit of that will be spent sleeping, but approximately 50% of your time from here on out will be yours to spend as you choose. In the lunchroom, on the commute, in the other hours of the day, on the weekends, on the vacations… In the little choices, in the civic arena, in your relationships… how will you change the world? Because you will.

But this is the great power of continual education. This is what will truly set you apart. What makes you special. How you will change the world! And you will!