Universidad San Francisco de Quito Commencement Address

"I truly believe that the future will be written by the people who work on solutions, who know how to work with others, and who not only care, but act to be a force for good."


Universidad San Francisco de Quito Commencement Address

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador


CHANCELLOR REMARKS: Taking Flight—the Big Leap


Thank you Chancellor Gangotena. Buenas noches a todos and congratulations to the 541 graduates of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito class of 2017. Let me say that again – Graduating Class of 2017!

As Chancellor of UNC@CH – America’s 1st public university – I’m honored to share THIS special moment with you –at Ecuador’s leading University. Although a long plane flight and many miles physically separate us – the spirit, friendship and shared mission of our great universities make me feel part of your family. We even share a love of some pretty special dogs – Remington the golden retriever at UNC, and Pancho y Pancha who I met yesterday at USFQ.

President Montufar, Chancellor Gangotena, members of the faculty, families and friends of the graduates – These are your seniors – you have taught them and watched them become amazing people with active minds, helping hands and caring hearts. Congratulations to you all on this special day.

OK graduates – take a deep breath – you’ve done it! You’ve survived exams, completed degrees, conducted research, and played ferocious games of fútbol with your friends. You can’t even count the hours you’ve spent near the pond or in the courtyard hanging out, debating politics or studying. Or the times you’ve enjoyed “pancito” and “cafécito” in the commons on the way to class. I bet you’ve enjoyed delicious meals cooked by friends who are culinary students, or participated in trips arranged by “Ecqua-buddies” to welcome foreign exchange students. UNC students who studied here told me how special these trips were, and I thank you for your wonderful hospitality. Your time here has built from thousands of precious little moments that together create a colorful, vibrant mosaic. Each mosaic is unique, yet all share a special place and a common purpose. You learned a lot about the world and yourselves here, and together, you created a home. But, don’t get too comfortable. My job today is not just to congratulate you, but to help get you ready to leave this home, to take your next big next leap into the unknown.

As you heard – I am a biologist. I am inspired by the splendor of the sounds, smells, animals, plants and natural world around us, as well as the unpredictability, loss, change, and rebirth that is everywhere. I want you to cement in your memory this moment of change, because life’s moments of change, do matter. You are about to make a pretty big change, and change, no matter how exciting, also can be worrying. But I think that transitions like these are moments of the greatest possibility. There is vitality in times of change, as described by American poet Mary Oliver, when “…the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese…” soaring high in the blue skies.

As a scientist, I am fascinated by times of change – for thirty years I’ve studied the timing of biological processes and the profound effects of changes in the intricate balance among chemistry, biology and physics of water to ecosystem and human health. All living things undergo cycles and change – and I‘ve learned that much of life is determined by decisions and ideas that take flight in times of change. Embracing change is all about viewing change with all its uncertainties as your moments of greatest potential.

You’re surrounded by people – who have been right where you are today – and used their moment of change to leap forward. Right here – in 1988 a great idea, leading to a big change for Ecuador, took flight… A bold idea to create a great university … The Universidad San Francisco de Quito… the first private, student-centered Liberal Arts University in Ecuador. That idea grew from the belief by your leading founder –Chancellor Gangotena and the other founders, that higher education fosters happiness, improves lives, and builds nations. In just 29 short years, it has risen from a modest opening in a house so small that closets doubled as offices – to this beautiful campus, with its strong faculty and its library with more than 1 million titles. USFQ is now the largest source of scientific, artistic and humanistic research in Ecuador and it’s still growing.

It took a bold vision and perseverance – to build this university. And, so just last October my own university honored Chancellor Gangotena who earned his doctorate in Physics from UNC in 1977. In recognition of his inspiring work here, scholarships for entering students at UNC have been named in his honor. Now, new students each year will learn of UNC’s partnership with USFQ as they start down their own bold paths.

The biggest changes in our lives often can be traced to a single AH-HA moment, when the future becomes clear and takes flight. The idea for UNC took flight at the end of our nation’s Revolutionary War in 1789—The Ah-Ha moment for UNC’s founder, a general in that war – was that education would be the best and maybe the only way to protect his own children and their children’s liberty. So he set out to do something never done before in the US – to build a great public university. From its humble start – our first student walked 214 kilometers to get to UNC – his idea became the model for the entire system of higher education in US, with a student-centered, liberal arts core just like USFQ.

The state of North Carolina was also home to an idea that quite literally did take flight. In a small town named Kitty Hawk, the Wright Flyer became the first powered, machine to achieve flight with a pilot onboard. Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had no following and almost no money. No one believed in them – except themselves. Every time they tested their invention, they took five sets of extra parts … because that’s how many times they thought they’d crash before dinner. But they persisted. And when, in 1903, on a lonely strip of North Carolina sand, they flew, no one was there to witness it. But all successful airplanes since have used the basic design elements of their original plane.

Ecuador too is home to grand visions, bold ideas, and important changes. Tomorrow, I will visit the Galapagos Islands – one of the true natural wonders of the world, and a place that the people of Ecuador chose in 1959 to steward for the world, for all time. Indeed, it was the first world heritage site – declared in 1978. But Charles Darwin, the Galapagos finches and their place in history almost didn’t happen. Darwin at 26 was an unmotivated and failing medical student when he paid his own way as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. But after his life-changing voyage, both his determination and his vision grew and strengthened. Over the next 24 years, his big idea took flight, and in 1859, Darwin’s masterpiece — On the Origin of Species – was published, changing humanity’s fundamental understanding of nature and evolution forever.

The Galapagos Sciences Center is another grand idea with a circuitous path for its founders. The Amazon brought UNC Professor Stephen Walsh to Ecuador where he met Carlos Mena. Steve recruited Carlos to get his PhD in geography at UNC, and they became great friends and colleagues. The rest is history – and they’re still making it – in 2006, Dr. Mena became a professor of geography at USFQ. He and Professor Walsh began to dream of creating a Science Center on the Galapagos. They took a leap and in 2011 The Galapagos Science Center — a partnership between our universities — opened on San Cristóbal Island. Today, they are working with Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Tourism, and others, on a model for sustainable development and conservation that is inspiring people across the world.

Darwin once said: It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Graduates, you are ready for that change – it’s time for your flight into the future. My own path was never straight or smooth. I grew up in Akron, Ohio, in a loving family of five kids. Although both my parents were chemists, I did not have a promising start in science. Choosing a life as an environmental scientist and professor and now a Chancellor did not seem the likely choice for someone whose brother ate her first science project – the night before it was due! I had a bumpy start at university too – I worked as a waitress to pay my fees, dropped out, moved across the country, changed schools and studied art, English, and math, before I discovered a passion for biology, the study of water and the environment. My senior honor thesis gave me my Ah-Ha moment, and changed the course of my life. I found that I loved the process of scientific discovery and experimentation, and I loved the way scientists work at the very edge of what is known. I took the path of a scientist, but as it turns out, every one of those OTHER subjects I studied, and all times when I was most uncertain, have been incredibly important to the scientist, chancellor, parent, and person I am today. And that will be true for you too.

So – here comes the advice part of my talk, and I have three pretty simple things I want you to remember.

First: This is a marvelous time in history – be excited! Stay open to wonder in the world around you, and let your imagination fly. Knowledge is growing at an astonishing rate. Scientific and technological advances are changing our view of everything and opening countless new avenues for exploration, discovery and business.

At the same time, uncertainties about the future also are growing –atmospheric C02 is higher than it has been since the Pleistocene; global population is growing –two billion people have been born since you were born; inequities are growing; and economies are global. Your generation is going to need to tackle these problems, to push new boundaries and build new futures.

So second: Stay nimble, be quick to respond to new opportunities, take risks to be bold, and be a great collaborator – it is not a winner take all world; teamwork, respect and partnership are at the heart of success in most fields.

And third: Continue to serve and to innovate for the good of all.

I truly believe that the future will be written by the people who work on solutions, who know how to work with others, and who not only care, but act to be a force for good. I know that service already has been a big part of your life … just one example is your work following the devastating earthquake in April 2016. From every corner of the school, you came together to help those desperately in need. When I ask my elderly friends what mattered most in their lives – beyond their families, it is most often their service gave them their greatest sense of accomplishment.

I’d like to close with one last story. A few years ago, I crouched on a rocky cliff high over a beach on the southern-most tip of New Zealand. I was there – concealed behind my hideaway – to witness an ancient and magical event – the flight of a newly fledged giant albatross. From just a few feet away – I watched one of the world’s largest seabirds, with a wingspan of nearly three meters – run forward with an ungainly, awkward stride, leap off the cliff, catch the currents of the wind, and soar far out over the sea at the start of its yearlong journey over water. Millions of years of evolution have made them perfectly engineered for flight; they will not even touch the land for another year. It was unforgettable – a biologist’s dream. My memory of that bird’s leap into the unknown makes me think of you.

You are getting ready to take your own next leap, face your own next change. While the big leap that awaits you probably doesn’t involve having wings, much of what you’ve been doing for the last few years has been preparing you for this very moment. Felicidades… Buena Suerte… Y Disfrute el vuelo… Gracias!