"Your Future: The Opportunities and The Challenges"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University of Connecticut Commencement
May 21, 2000
President Austin, members of the University faculty
and administration, thank you for this honorary degree
and for the distinction of being your commencement
speaker. I promise you brevity, and I hope some wisdom.
To all of you here today, let me say that it is a privilege
to be where the "Huskies" are. You know that old fantasy
game we've all played at one time or another in our
lives. Who would you choose to be if you could come
back to life as anyone on the planet? I've been fantasizing
about being a "U-Conn Husky."
It's an honor to be able to extend my congratulations
to the reigning NCAA Women's Basketball Champions.
I should tell you that this year I have the great good
luck and distinct privilege to be delivering commencement
addresses at both U. Conn and Michigan State, the
reigning men's champions. Now, I didn't tell the Michigan
State folks that I wanted to come back as a "Spartan."
It is safe to say I'm the first NSF Director to hold
the distinction of delivering commencement addresses
at the institutions of both NCAA basketball champions.
Members of the Class of 2000, your families and friends
are here to celebrate with you-doesn't the "Class
of 2000" sound great? Congratulations on this important
I suspect many of you grew up with the famous Dr. Seuss
books. Do you remember the one titled, Oh, the
Places You'll Go?
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose.
You'll have to reminisce through the rest of the book
Everyone is proud of you today, but most importantly
you can be very proud of yourselves.
You must have confidence in the path ahead even though
it has few road markers, and fewer guarantees.
At commencement time, I am often reminded of an amusing
but instructive anecdote.
The father of the late and great composer/conductor,
Leonard Bernstein, supposedly disagreed with his son's
decision to pursue a career in music.
Many years later, when Leonard Bernstein's father was
asked about his objection, he responded, "well I didn't
know he would become Leonard Bernstein."
None of us ever knows how far, or how high we can soar.
Trusting ourselves and our instincts is the first
step and the most important one. It is the signal
for others to also believe in us.
All of you have earned advanced degrees-making it through
a second or third gate. You have a momentum of purpose.
An advanced degree is more than just an education.
It is a decision to choose a determined path; it is
a career direction, a driving interest, and in some
cases an absolute passion.
With your degree, a long and arduous task has come
Each of you probably has a specific goal-a job you
may have already landed or are seeking, a way to use
your new skills and knowledge to expand your future
This is the task of your personal future, and I might
add, a very important one.
But inspite of all your wise preparations and hard
work, life always takes some detours.
Those detours might come in losing out on a particular
job you covet, or a career path you cannot make happen
exactly as you envisioned.
It may sound Pollyanna-like to suggest to you that
what feels like a disappointment is very often an
opportunity in disguise, but I'll say it anyway.
And I have the Dalai Lama to support me on this. On
his list of "Instructions for Life," there is one
that is especially instructive.
It translates, "Remember that not getting what you
want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
The goal is to view every doorway, even one with a
shadow, as an opening to new horizons.
And remember that our heroes in life are most frequently
those who have overcome obstacles and adversity and
made 'lemonade from lemons.'
Your generation is the best educated, most highly skilled
in our nation's history. Your knowledge and your degrees
represent science, communications, education, psychology,
nursing, literature, and more.
Whatever field or discipline is written on your sheepskin,
it can be applied to hundreds of diverse endeavors.
Your advanced degree makes you versatile and multifaceted.
Today, most people can anticipate four or five job
or career changes after graduation. View those changes
as a chance to live many lives in a lifetime.
Cats aren't the only beings with nine lives these days.
All of your endeavors are footsteps in your personal
But what of the larger future? Each of us is part of
a more expansive future-the future of our nation,
the future of democracy, the future of a free market
society, the future of world peace, the future of
the planet, and even the future of all humanity.
That may sound daunting, and it would be easy to think
of all that as someone else's responsibility.
That future, however, rests in your hands. You are
the new generation of leaders, although it may not
feel like it today. You have the new knowledge and
the new skills.
Each generation learns from two diverse streams-from
new knowledge and from hard experience.
My generation finally learned the wisdom that wars
are not solutions, but that peace is a constant and
exhausting process that must always be kept in motion.
My generation came late to the insight of environmental
protection after many generations of environmental
By the time of the first Earth Day and of Rachel Carson's'
slim but earthshaking book, Silent Spring,
our air, land, water, forests, and oceans had been
Cavalier use of our natural resources, combined with
ill-informed industrial practices brought the ravages
of acid rain, the atmospheric ozone hole, and global
With new understanding, we have been addressing the
task of rejuvenating damaged resources while planning
a more appropriate future.
Remediation is always more difficult and more costly
than prevention. Learn from us.
On the other hand, under the tutelage of my generation,
vast new discoveries and knowledge brought us many
- vaccines against tetanus and diphtheria, and other
- antibiotics to fight dreaded bacterial infections,
- new knowledge about prenatal care, nutrition,
and food safety that led to lower infant mortality
and raised adult life expectancy.
The laser and the transistor brought us the miracles
of non-invasive surgery and the first steps into the
We saw revolutions in the arts that brought us modern
dance, rock music, and even digital music.
We are in the infancy of wireless communication and
e-commerce, and we're on the threshold of e-literature.
My generation laid the groundwork for the knowledge-economy.
Your generation has the opportunity to provide its
benefits across all America and around the world.
You are inheriting a future where instant communication
has made the world the size of an orange.
In that "world neighborhood," 13 of every 14 people
speak a language other than English.
India, not China, will soon be the most populous nation
on the planet.
Global business is a fact of life. And, we have the
modern phenomenon of a global and highly mobile workforce
comprised of the world's most talented and highly
They can routinely relocate to take advantage of the
best job opportunities.
Information technologies also allow them to stay at
home, while they are working abroad from their homes.
The advanced degree you are celebrating today is an
entry ticket to that workforce. Your future is bright
with many opportunities.
To have a clear vision of the larger future before
us, we must have both mirrors and windows. Mirrors
to see ourselves, and windows to see each other.
In stark contrast to that optimism, there are still
persistent and monumental disparities in public health,
education, and economic opportunity, as we scan the
globe, and even our own nation.
Twenty percent of the world's population holds 86 percent
of the wealth. Half of the global village lives in
Some of that one-half struggle along in America's hometowns,
on small farms, and in our urban corridors.
With mirrors, we reflect on and understand the complexity
of our own nation. Windows help us to see the similarities
and differences of other nations and cultures.
So, to the Class of 2000, I can say with confidence
that The Future Belongs to You: Both The Opportunities
and the Challenges.
We have been your teachers, mentors, and parents, and
we feel secure in handing over that responsibility.
You who have listened and learned over these many years
now have opportunities that are limited only by your
You have challenges that stretch from your own local
community to the community of nations.
Each challenge presents its own opportunity for you
to reach beyond your personal future to humanity's
It can be as close as the neighborhood youth group
or as distant as a flood ravaged village in Mozambique.
We are a "world neighborhood" of 6 billion people,
most of whom are poor and yet filled with hope of
a better future.
Each human being on the planet ultimately influences
all our lives, and lives in the conscience of us all.
Perhaps your greatest opportunities are the challenges
that lie ahead.
The future is yours. My generation is in the hands
of your generation. We are secure in that knowledge.
Congratulations to all of you on this day of celebration.
I wish you good luck in the days and decades to come.
We all look forward to watching you soar. Oh, the
Places You'll Go! Godspeed to each and every one