The Goal Versus the Process of Getting There
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
University of Idaho
December 12, 1998
Good afternoon and congratulations to you, the Class
of 1998 graduates. As the first class of December
graduates, you can move into the holiday season with
a genuine sense of celebration.
What exhilaration and relief you must be feeling. How
proud your families and friends are about your accomplishment.
Congratulations to everyone.
It is exciting to be in Appaloosa country and an honor
to deliver the University of Idaho first ever December
commencement address. The University has made enormous
strides over the past 10 years, and President Hoover
will lead the University to even greater achievements
in the next 10 years--into the 21st century.
I hope that although this is Nez Perce country, I can
take the liberty of relating a comment by Fools Crow,
the Ceremonial Chief of the Teton Sioux. He said,
"Quitting is the greatest failure of all."
Surely, graduation is the greatest affirmation that
there are no quitters here. You are all winners.
Graduations are also nostalgic events because they
are about milestones and about moving on. Being invited
to speak at a graduation is both a wonderful and a
It is an honor because you, the audience, are celebrants
at the very crest of a significant accomplishment.
There is anticipation in the air.
There is an uncharted path of opportunity ahead. I
relish that excitement and live vicariously through
all the possibilities that await you.
Why danger? Danger arises out of my impulse to wax
eloquent on all the important lessons of life, to
offer examples from my own reservoir of experience,
and to sprinkle all of this with advice, and more
advice and even more advice.
Undoubtedly, the danger lies in boring all of you to
So let me assure you that, despite these inclinations,
I ascribe to the old wisdom I once found in a Fortune
Cookie. The message was, "The more you say, the less
I have already learned that graduation talks should
be brief and compelling.
I have titled my remarks today, "The Goal Versus the
Process of Getting There." That title is based on
a fragment of wisdom from the science fiction writer
Ursula Le Guin.
She said, "It is good to have an end to journey toward,
but in the end it is the journey that matters."
An insight that is so simple, but so perceptive, can
change the way in which we understand and appreciate
It is so important in today's world when you, as a
1998 graduate, will very likely change careers seven
or more times before you retire.
I graduated from Purdue University in the mid-1950s,
and the world in which I started my career in science,
was a world vastly different from the one you know
and must navigate through today.
Nevertheless, there are some perspectives about life
that are so fundamental that they are useful across
I grew up in the earliest days of television--pre Flintstones
even. You have grown up in a world heavily influenced
by the personal computer.
The chip is the universal key and facilitator of your
era, in the way that electricity was for my parents'
era and the two "teles"--television and telephones--were
And, remember, the enormous changes between your era
and mine cover a period of only about 40 years! How
powerfully that indicates the pace of change in contemporary
Almost everything in today's era is happening at revolutionary
speed. My field of the biological sciences has been
almost completely transformed since the 1970s.
Biotechnology applications are so commonplace that
we forget that biotechnology is a field that did not
exist when I was an undergraduate.
Biotechnology has important implications and applications
in agriculture; a point that I know is well understood
in this wheat and legume heartland.
The biotechnology industry of today was started less
than twenty years ago and now employs more than 130,000
technically skilled workers.
Recently, a member of Congress spoke similarly about
another field. He said that information science and
technology have given new meaning to the term "one
world"--undreamed of when the term was first coined
in the last century.
The information revolution will reorient and redefine
our culture and economy in ways we can barely imagine.
The Internet is younger than biotechnology but has
imprinted all our lives much like a kind of societal
The term "surf the Net" is part of our daily lexicon.
People surf the Net today the way we used to walk
to the library.
The major difference is that the Net is much more comprehensive,
and frequently more current, than most libraries.
Its variety and immediacy pose a mixed blessing--anything
and everything you want to know but not enough hours
in the day to pursue it.
Increasingly, people bank on the Net, buy on the Net,
bargain on the Net, and build careers on the Net.
The information and biological revolutions have created
jobs that didn't even exist when I graduated college.
Already, some of you have probably written software
programs, or digital music, or dabbled in creating
And yet, what Le Guin tells us is still true--the journey
or the process of getting to where you want to go
is what really matters.
Each of you has goals, hopes, dreams and even fantasies
to which you aspire.
In a graduating class of such diverse colleges as Education;
Letters and Science; Agriculture; Mines and Earth
Resources; Engineering; Forestry, Wildlife, and Range
Sciences; Art and Architecture; and Business and Economics,
your individual goals, taken collectively, describe
an entire society.
Some of you have moved straight through your undergraduate
studies into your master's degree work and are poised
on the precipice of the world beyond the campus.
Others have come back to earn graduate degrees after
some time in the workforce.
No matter which path you have chosen, this graduation
marks a goal that has been achieved, a step up to
a new rung on the ladder, that you have reached.
To get there, you worked hard, even perhaps struggled,
and very likely overcame various adversities.
But once we make it to our own desired summit, we have
a tendency to forget the process of climbing that
got us to the pinnacle.
If, however, we listen to Le Guin, we hear her instructing
us on a very different way to view the same scenario.
The real richness of achievement lies in the process
of achieving. Your life will be a continuous process
of learning. You haven't finished--you've just begun.
The struggles, the long lonely hours, and sometimes
years, of experiences, tribulations, detours and disappointments--they
are the journey, and the journey can be more significant
for our lives than the actual goal.
It is, in fact, the journey of getting to the goal
that teaches us about our own strengths, our ability
to solve problems, our tenacity to prevail. At some
point these qualities make us wise.
You must be wondering why on this grand day of celebration
I am drawing you back, asking you to reflect on the
It is to urge you to appreciate and even relish the
struggle you have undergone to get to this place today.
To say to yourselves when you are the most discouraged
in the swirl of the world of your future that "this
is the journey."
I ask you to value and remember that the journey is
what gives texture and meaning to your lives.
This is one reason why we are fascinated by Christopher
Reeve, the physicist Stephen Hawkings, and Olympic
athletes like Picabo Street and Ekaterina Gordeeva.
It is their very lives that present the greatest lessons.
Their journeys show us how to manage the struggle.
Their journeys make their lives a triumph.
Well, here we are at my conclusion, and I find that
I have given you advice, and more advice, and more
advice. I only half-apologize.
But more importantly, I want you to know that the future
is yours, and my generation is now in the hands of
I believe in what you can and will do. I am confident
in that future.
Congratulations again, and the greatest of good luck
to all of you on your respective journeys.