2014 Recognition Ceremony Speeches: Honorary Guest Dan Churchill and GSG President Jeffrey Falvey

Dan Churchill’s speech to the Graduate Faculty and Student Recognition Ceremony (aka the Hooding Ceremony) on May 9, 2014.

Dan Churchill is a 1963 Engineering Physics graduate of the University who has had a distinguished career in government service and business. Over the last decade, Dan and his wife Betty have provided critically important resources and inspiration to graduate students in the Climate Change Institute and the School of Policy and International Affairs through the Churchill Exploration Fund and the Churchill Internship Fund. Not only were these programs beautifully conceived to leverage maximum impact, Dan has also been deeply interested in the students and their work. In several cases at least they have become good friends, and Dan’s interest has been hugely encouraging. Dan has also given tremendous time and effort as the Chair of the School of Policy and International Affairs Advisory Board, a group of outstanding individuals who have enhanced the SPIA program immensely under Dan’s leadership.

This is a wonderful occasion – you are being hooded today, and very well deserved that is.  It is also a wonderful opportunity for me, as hooding cannot be finished until I have talked at you for a few minutes. 

The winter you have just endured reminds me of my senior year at the University of Maine, just a few years ago.  On December 30, 1962, a now infamous blizzard hit the State of Maine.  It snowed hard for 24 to 30 hours and Orono received 40 inches of snow, second only to 46 inches that day in Millinocket.  But what truly set this little nor’easter apart was the 60 mph winds building drifts over 20 feet high.  Telephone poles disappeared. I was at home in Brunswick with my parents for the Christmas break and was impressed that plows came down our little cul-de-sac hourly for 30 hours.  Plows did this throughout the state, as a failure to do so would have meant drifts too high for the plows to move.

A few days later, students were due back in Orono, and this being Maine, the roads were clear and classes began on schedule.  When I arrived at my fraternity house, Sig Ep, there was a surprise – Sig Ep House had disappeared, completely disappeared under a vast snowdrift.  But there was a tunnel to the front door dug by the first returning guys.  For them the options were tunneling or sleeping in the snow.  They had chosen the former.  And it kept snowing that winter.  For months the little flags on our car antennas would not show above the snow banks as we approached intersections.  That was a winter.

Upon graduation I took a job in Washington, DC, at the CIA.  That December, Washington was hit by a “snow storm”.  The Washington Post trumpeted on the front page “First Major Storm of the Year – ¼ inch of snow buries Region”.  It was true - a terrible traffic jam and 100s of accidents.  I then realized that there is something special about the people of Maine.  Washington could benefit in various ways from more indomitable Mainers.  Actually, Washington does have some noteworthy Maniacs, but few are from Maine.  As a slight segue, one of the ways Washington benefits from the Mainers you send there is that, among politicians, they are some of the least ideological, the most practical, the least likely to consider compromise to be a dirty word and, as a result, among the most productive – and all of them can drive in snow.

The evolved tradition at events like this is that some tired old person, who has made lots of mistakes, offers the lessons of those many mistakes to bright energetic young people who have most of their mistakes ahead of them.  I will not break with tradition.

First, I urge you to try to be objective in all things, especially when it is hard to do.  This is very basic and seems obvious, but we humans do have an abiding difficulty with objectivity.  Education helps, but it does not confer immunity to unwarranted subjectivity. There are many reasons very intelligent people lose their objectivity.  First, greed – think of those who invested their life savings with Bernie Madoff when he offered them rates of return that were too attractive to resist, even if very implausible.

But I would like to focus on a different set of reasons for the loss of objectivity – that is when the facts conflict with our self-interest.  Even the greatest scientists struggle with this.  Charles Darwin wrote:

I had…during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed by my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once.  For I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favorable ones.

Darwin recognized that the human brain identifies what it wishes to believe and is selective in what it hears and remembers.

When I was in the nuclear industry, very senior scientists and leaders firmly believed that no nuclear reactor would ever go critical because we had fail-safe systems.  The film, “Dr. Strangelove” had been in theatres, so the general public already understood the fallacy of this argument.  Since then we have had Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.  When I was in the oil and gas industry, nearly all of the senior people insisted, and firmly believed, that talk of climate change, then called “global warming”, was absolute rubbish.  In both cases, many in these industries have not changed their views.  It is hard to think objectively when the facts threaten our interests, or when all around are practicing group think.

I have chosen these environmental examples for a reason.  The environment is the single most important case in point of the hazards of unwillingness or inability to remain objective.  As your generation understands far better than mine ever did, humans now control the composition of the air, and the contaminants in soil and waters, and we heavily influence how the climate will change and which species will survive.  Today man is carrying out a massive, uncontrolled experiment on the only orb in the universe yet known to support life.  Surely this must change.

My next two messages will be much more concise.  I stand before a group of very well educated people.  You are now taking a big step toward successful and rewarding careers.  When I was at a similar point in my life, there were still many gaps in my education and my general knowledge.  These gaps had to be filled if I hoped to turn myself into someone capable of advancing some way toward full potential.  Each of us needs a range of skills – I’m still working on it.  A scientist who can write and speak persuasively will be much more effective.  The MBA or student of International Trade who develops an understanding not just of international markets, but also of other cultures, traditions and languages will find many more doors opening to him or her.  The importance of this is growing, and rapidly.  The world is an ever more integrated place, and this puts you in direct competition with educated, multi-lingual and ambitious people around the world, many of whom are willing to work for far less compensation than you.  That greatly increases the importance to this generation of broad-based perpetual learning.  It is essential to getting - and staying - ahead. 

Finally, unlike trade schools and technical colleges, universities are charged with educating students not just for a successful career, but for full productive participation and leadership in our societies, in our democracy.  We, all of us, have an obligation to contribute meaningfully as citizen leaders.  This begins with studying the issues facing our society, voting knowledgably and contributing to making our society and our world a better place.  My generation has not done anywhere near what it could have.  We have built a political system that often scarcely functions, there are far too many cases where government decisions are driven by special interests, we have often not shown the wisdom in foreign or domestic affairs that the most powerful country on earth should and we continue to drag our feet on environmental issues.  Do not get me wrong, I am proud of our country, but we can and must do better.  You are the leaders of tomorrow and you MUST seek big improvements.  Each of us has an obligation in some fashion to serve the public good.  This can be through charitable work, participation in government (either civilian or military), involvement in education or many other ways.  In some fashion, be a citizen leader.

In short, bring true objectivity to all things, especially when those around you do not, always strive to learn more and become more complete beings and, lastly, serve society in a meaningful way.  My wish for you is that 50 years from now you will arrive at your University of Maine reunion in your plug-in Range Rovers or hovercraft, charged on a grid powered by renewable energy, step forward on slightly arthritic knees, earned in a life of sports and strenuous activity, meet with your classmates and be able to speak of lives well lived, lives of which you are proud, and of the many challenges you still plan to pursue with undiminished energy.

My very sincere best wishes to all of you.  




Jeffrey Falvey’s speech to the Graduate Faculty and Student Recognition Ceremony (aka the Hooding Ceremony) on May 9, 2014.

Jeff is a double graduate of UMaine: BS in Child Development and Family Relations in 2012 and MS in Human Development in 2014. During the 2013-14 year, Jeff capably served as President of the Graduate Student Government, speaking for grad students in all programs across the campus.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the graduate class of 2014. It is my greatest honor to be here addressing you as the Graduate Student President. My name is Jeffrey Falvey. I was born in Syracuse, NY. I first came to the University of Maine in 2008 as an undergraduate on a full athletic-scholarship to play football. In the spring of 2012, my career came to an abrupt end due to several orthopedic knee operations. Football was done but I spent no time feeling sorry for myself. When one door closes, others open. Shortly after the news that I would not play my final season, I was accepted into the graduate school for Human Development. I began working as the graduate assistant to Dr. Sandy Caron who taught me so much about the importance of accountability, organization, multi-tasking, and sacrifice. I am very fortunate to have spent these six critical years here at UMaine in an atmosphere that demands such qualities. I have been accepted into Suffolk Law in Boston and I am ecstatic to begin my legal education next fall.

I have to admit, when I ran for president for the Graduate Student Government at the beginning of this year, I was not aware that I would have the honor of addressing the 2014 graduates at this hooding ceremony. The most difficult part about putting a speech together is pinpointing the direction you want to take. So I looked to one of my favorite writers. Jack Kerouac once said, “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” With this, I knew I didn’t want to get up here and bore you with your run-of-the-mill, typical acknowledgments, thank you’s, good-lucks and good-byes. That just doesn’t seem like the way to give back to this audience full of incredibly intelligent and accomplished people. My hope is to leave you with something you might think about once again after you walk out of here, or maybe it changes your opinion on something small and just maybe it changes something big.

I knew that in order to reach this large audience, I needed to give you something personal and real. It needed to be something everyone could relate to. And if you could just hold on one second while I get this…….. [pulls out cellphone and reads screen]

Thank you for your patience. And I apologize to the older folks in the room that my generation is progressively running human interaction out the door. However, who can really place blame on a generation on the grounds of something like timing. I did not choose to be born when I was born, just like I did not choose to partake in the impersonal relationships that my generation has popularized. But as young adults finding our way in society, it is essential to keep up with modern technology as it is highly developing and utilized in all work environments. As PhD and Master’s graduates, and all the parents, friends and faculty members who have offered their support, encouragement and love, you have all seen the effort and determination that these brilliant people have exuded through their time here at the UMaine. This effort and determination is vital upon all of us future leaders. To stand out from your peers and be the best, we are forced to compete. This competition is not malicious but necessary to produce the highest quality of results from all parties involved. Competition is what has driven the human race to exactly where it is today…  It has aided liberty, democracy, medicine, law, alternative energy, education, security, globalization, entertainment… a computer smaller than our hand.

These advancements have expanded our interaction ten-fold. We are able to communicate with so many more people at once than ever before. We are one click away from any type of potential business. However, we cannot forget the powerful impact of business on a capitalistic society, and the repercussions of this powerful impact.

As advanced as we are, in most public places you go to now, you can find a group of “friends” circled around a table nose deep in their personal phone, a family out to dinner equipping all their young children with an iPad to keep them quiet, 8 year olds with iPhones, texting drivers or a Starbucks full of laptops… A self-absorbed, absent-minded, retracted human race rapidly losing touch with the very things that constructed the foundation and accolades of the society we have grown into and with… These very things being: human connection and interaction. The world is a scary place and full of question marks, and meeting someone new or having a difficult conversation with a loved one is challenging. However, through these interactions, we create a self-identity and awareness with each other. We find out what we are made of, what we want and need. In this generation of quick fixes and results, we cannot forget the importance of these relationships around us. My big message is to remain CONSCIOUS. And when I say remain conscious, I mean maintain awareness of the lives around you. We are all capable of so much as individuals. We are highly educated and overflowing with knowledge and technological abilities. Few people who will enter our vicinity on a regular day operate at the level that the people walking away from this ceremony to accept their PhD or Master’s diplomas do.  However, every one of us regardless of degrees and cognitive abilities feels, loves, hates, laughs and cries. We are all people and a society that needs to come together and interact. Because teamwork, not an individual, brought us to a time period where a computer fits in our pocket. We are social interactive creatures. So much is lost through an email or a text message, which can be interpreted by the flexing of a few facial muscles that create an expression paired with a statement. The ability to interact with one another face-to-face creates trust and accountability in one another. Michael Jordan says, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

So to sum up my message: put your phone away. Have a face-to-face conversation with someone you care about. Or it could be someone new that you didn’t realize you would like because your interests on Facebook weren’t the same. Be an engager and a listener at the same time. Tell them your fears, your insecurities, your dreams, anything and everything you want. Open up. Because there is no Facebook like, poke, re-tweet, re-vine, pin or blog post comparable to the warm embrace a graduate student experiences with his mother, his best friend or his significant other.

I hope what I have said here today has given you some insight and perspective. I hope you can all realize the importance of the people who surround you. If you take anything from what I have said, let it be the idea of always remaining conscious. Say thank you and show appreciation to those who work hard around and for you but don’t maintain a position our society deems noteworthy of acknowledgment. These people are critical to your daily functioning operation. And just like you, they have needs, feelings and dreams. Keep your eyes open, mind clear, and remain conscious. You never know who is right next to you. Good luck with your future and wherever the road of life takes you.