University News

Are you a Realist? Real Knowledge, Real People, and Real Life

2015 Fall Commencement Address

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Saturday, December 19, 2015

Good afternoon, and welcome to the 2015 fall commencement on the beautiful campus of Western Illinois University. Graduates, this ceremony symbolizes your transition from students to alumni and like Adele’s hit song, “Hello,” you will soon be able to say “Hello from the other side” as an alumnus of this fine University.

The Economist, a weekly international newspaper, has issued its inaugural college rankings based on the U.S. Department of Education’s college score card. This University has been ranked third out of 11 public schools in Illinois. This accolade speaks to the well-rounded and world class education that our renowned faculty has provided for you. This University continues to pursue its goal to prepare our students to become first rate citizens who are equipped for the workforce and more importantly to have a great influence on society. Our University is on the move. For the eleventh consecutive year, Western Illinois University has been named a “Best Midwestern University” by U.S. News and World Report and for the twelfth consecutive year, the Princeton Review has named Western a “Best Midwestern College.” For the sixth consecutive year, Western Illinois University has been selected as a “Best for Vets College” by Military Times EDGE magazine. For the seventh consecutive year, Western has been designated as a “Military Friendly School” by GI Jobs Magazine. All of these accomplishments are tangible and real. Give your University a round of applause.

While composing this commencement address, I pondered the contrast between reality and fantasy and then I found myself honing in on the word, “reality” and those things associated with reality. I then transitioned to contemplate the real meaning of “reality.” Being an English professor, I took out my trusty dictionary to look up the word, “Realism.” Realism is the attitude or practice of accepting a situation, as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly. A realist has an interest and concern for the actual and real as distinguished from the abstract or speculative. After all of this rich, rational, cerebral, philosophical, intellectual contemplation, my mind settled on (of all things) reality television.

During the 1990s and 2000s, reality television became all the rage with shows like MTV’s the Real World, Survivor, Big Brother, X Factor, the Voice, John and Kate Plus Eight, Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, Jersey Shore, Catfish, Chopped, Next Top Model, the Bachelor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, The Biggest Loser, Shark Tank, Love at First Sight, and I could go on and on.

Graduates, I do not know if you all realize this, but reality television is not real. Reality television has been criticized because it uses the term reality as these shows attempt to mask themselves as straightforward. These shows do not reflect reality because often, the people on reality shows are coached in how to react in front of the camera. Moreover, through the magic of television editing, stories can be sliced and diced anyway the editors and producers want the story to conclude. As I said in the Honors Convocation yesterday, “the choice is yours” and you can choose to write the conclusion of your own story. You have gained tangibles and intangibles while you have studied within the gates of Western Illinois University. You have gained real knowledge, met real people, and now you are about to go out into the real world.

Real Knowledge

Knowledge is information, facts, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education. Knowledge is also the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. Universities are in the knowledge business. This university is in the business of transferring knowledge to people who are willing to obtain and retain the knowledge that our wonderful professors transfer.

The knowledge that you have gained here will open doors for you. For some of you the knowledge that you have gained at this University has changed your life for the better. It has shaped you in ways that some of you will not realize until later in your life. The real knowledge that your professors have imparted into you while you studied under their tutelage will be much appreciated when you reach certain phases of your life. The instruction that you have been provided has equipped you for future endeavors, be it graduate or professional school, military service, or your career. Hopefully, the faculty and staff at this institution have also infused a good dose of common sense because it does you absolutely no good to be brilliant, if you are unable to function in a real world environment. Higher education is not only about the knowledge that you gain inside the classroom, but the knowledge that you gain outside the classroom as well. At a time when some are questioning the relevance of a college degree, statistics still show that those who earn a college degree are more likely to secure gainful employment and make at least a million dollars more than the person who does not have a college degree.

During your experiences at Western, you have built your knowledge, polished your skills, and enhanced your abilities. The knowledge that you have gained at Western has led you to discover new passions, how to follow those passions, and satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Hopefully, you have gained the knowledge that everything on the internet is not real (pause for laughter). You have gained knowledge about people and casted off preconceived notions about people of different races, religions, ethnicities, cultures and all that has been used to separate and divide us as people. Hopefully, you have learned that stereotypes are simplistic observations and superficial information applied to groups of people that are often times not based in real knowledge. American poet, Walt Whitman once said, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

At Western, you have learned that judging people does not define who they are. It defines who you are. In most cases, it is the figment of a shallow mind that operates in stereotypes. It is a shallow mind that has not gained true knowledge of humans who refuses to be friends with someone because of superficial notions like how they look on the exterior. One of the ways to get to know someone who is different than you and to truly understand their culture, their way of life, and their way of thinking is to spend significant time with them. College allows you to have these experiences with diversity and learning in safe spaces that are designed for the exploration of other cultures and people. A campus is its own world, and students have the chance to experience a wide range of activities. Hopefully, you have learned while you have been on these grounds at Western, more knowledge about varying topics, people, and most importantly you have learned more about yourself. Famed author, Lorraine Hansberry once said, “Never be afraid to sit awhile and think.” Hopefully, you have gained self-knowledge and have come to learn who you really are as a person.

Real People

While you have been here, I know you have met some real people.

I want you to have fond memories of this place, your alma mater. When you are thinking about your time at Western, I want you to smile and remember all of the bonding activities in which you and your friends participated. I want you to smile when you think about painting the paws during homecoming week. Hopefully, you will remember the weekend that you and your roommates laughed so hard that you couldn’t feel your face and you loved it. Hopefully, you will remember the time that you and your classmates volunteered to help with a special cause in the community through one of our many student organizations. I want you to smile when you think about how you and a classmate spent a late night in the Malpass Library studying for your exams. As you engage in this free thinking, I want you to smile as you think about you and an acquaintance enjoying a cup of java for an afternoon caffeine burst at Dividends in Stipes Hall. You have met real people, made lifelong friends, and gained memories for a life time. In life you meet people for a reason and they are either a blessing or a lesson. True friendship means the memories last even if the contact is lost. Not only have you met real people at Western Illinois University, you have gained preparation for real life.

Real Life

A campus is its own world, and students have the chance to experience a wide range of activities. Through these activities, most of you have been prepared for the real world. Over the years, I have learned a few things that I attempt to apply to my life. I want to share some of these with you today. I have learned that there are times when your heart needs more time to accept what your mind already knows. I have learned that you could ruin a good today by thinking about a bad yesterday. I have learned that you cannot allow your happiness to depend on something that you may lose. For some after graduation, real life will be as cool as a summer breeze in the Florida Keys. For others, real life can be as cold as a Wisconsin winter. Famed author James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Rarely in life, do people get do overs and when you do, you must make the best of them. No matter our situations in life, we must affirm ourselves and say, “I am going to make the rest of my life the best of my life.”

There is a difference between your college years and the real world. Most of you already know this but some of you will get a quick dose of reality, now that you are graduating. In college, for the most part, you can schedule your classes as you wish. In the real world, you will learn that the work day does not begin at noon and you work more than just Tuesdays and Thursdays. In college, you can miss a few days and then inform your professors that you were ill and that is why you missed class. In the real world, you will also learn that you cannot miss sixteen days of work without calling and notifying your supervisor and still expect to have a job. In college, you move off campus and pull all-nighters. In the real world, you will learn that living on your own and having your own place is not all that it is cracked up to be and that pulling and all-nighter makes you real cranky the next day. In college, you have access to the Rec Center and you can work out and partake in other activities all day long for a small student fee. In the real world, you will learn that fitness centers are not so cheap and no matter how often you deny yourself a slice of Pattie LaBelle’s sweet potato pie, you will still manage to gain a few pounds. In college, you do not ever miss Wing Nights or the half-off special on your favorite pizza at Larry A’s or Aurelio’s on Monday nights. In the real world, you will also learn that there are times when there is more month than money and some tough decisions must be made. In college, there is so much free time to watch reality shows. In the real world, you also will learn that free time is a luxury and there is never enough of it. In the urban dictionary the phrase “keeping it real” means being true to your authentic self. Initially, I posed the question, “Are you a realist?” To be a realist, be true to yourself and do not be afraid to take chances and do what is right.

I will end this commencement address with a portion of the Maya Angelou poem titled, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.”

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Mean old Mother Goose
Lions on the loose
They don’t frighten me at all

Dragons breathing flame
On my counterpane
That doesn’t frighten me at all.

I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won’t cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don't frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

I’ve got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

Congratulations to the 2015 fall graduating class of Western Illinois University.