University News

The Gold Standard: Grind, Grit, and Grow

2016 Fall Commencement Address

Dr. Jack Thomas, President - Saturday, December 17, 2016

Graduates, members of the faculty and staff, board of trustees, and distinguished guests, welcome to Western Illinois University. We are pleased that you are with us today to celebrate the accomplishments of these graduates as they commence to the next stages of their lives. Graduates, this is your day, so give yourselves a round of applause. Parents and guardians, there is no doubt that you are proud of your sons and daughters today, and I know that you are happy that you have one less bill to pay. Let’s give our graduates a round of applause.

Parents, thank you for trusting this University with your sons and daughters. Nelson Mandela once said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Faculty and staff, thank you for educating these wonderful graduates. I extend my gratitude and appreciation to all individuals who ensure that this university continues to be ranked as a “Best Midwestern College” and as a “Best Regional University” by The Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report. Western Illinois University also continues to be named a “Military Friendly School” by GI Jobs Magazine. We continue to be the best university in this region, and we have been recognized for our ability to graduate students from diverse backgrounds. We are committed to serving all students, while providing a quality and well-rounded education.

The Gold Standard

At Western Illinois University, I call our commitment to our students, “The Gold Standard.” Webster’s dictionary offers several definitions for the word gold. However, for purposes of this illustration, I will share the two relevant definitions in this address. The first interpretation defines gold as something valued as the finest of its kind and the second refers to a medal awarded, meaning an object that is awarded as the first prize in a competition. Let me propose that it is no coincidence that the color gold is one of Western’s colors. Gold represents something valuable, such as the education you have received at Western Illinois University and the connections you have made.

People often ask, “what is the value of a college education? What is the return on such a large investment?” Well, most college graduates and their loved ones can answer these questions positively. A college graduate earns $1 million more over the course of a lifetime than a non-college graduate. Graduates, aren’t you excited that you are going to be millionaires?

A comprehensive baccalaureate degree helps students to look at the world through different lenses and to expand their worldview. A college education helps to broaden individuals’ minds and exposes them to new cultures, ideas and opportunities. A comprehensive education generates skills and a passion for lifelong learning. At Western, graduates receive a Gold Standard education. Our students receive the best education from some of the most outstanding and caring faculty in the world.

The Grind

One aspect of our appreciation for gold that is often overlooked, is the work it takes to extract this rare and precious metal from the earth. I call the process of obtaining gold “the grind.” Graduates, in order to receive benefits from your gold standard education at Western, you had to put forth effort and work. To earn your degree, you had to exert a great deal of energy over many days and nights by studying at the Malpass Library. You had to attend class (even in the snow, and we never close, even when we got all those phone calls). You had to complete assignments and manage your time wisely. Many of you had to balance academic work, leadership in student organizations, and in some cases, work outside of the University to maintain your living expenses or meet your financial obligations for school. I know this because I have seen many of you working with Sodexo, Buffalo Wild Wings, Wal-Mart, Chicks, HyVee, the Red Ox, Rocky’s and all over Macomb.

Working diligently as a college student becomes “a daily grind,” and is an excellent skill to develop early in life. A good work ethic will be useful as you begin your career or continue your academic studies at the graduate level. For those who are not going on to graduate or professional schools, you will have to do as Rihanna says: “work, work, work, work, work.” And I am sure your parents will be happy because you will be bringing home a “check, check, check, check, check.”

You must continue to work and strive every day to achieve your goals and to accomplish all that you choose to do. Employers will recognize your willingness to put forth the effort to get things done efficiently, properly and within deadlines. Graduates, you may not realize it, but your efforts at extracting a gold standard education through diligent work has put you on a course for continued success.


In addition to participating in the grind through work, you must also exhibit grit. You must be of a strong mind and spirit. Sometimes, in addition to working to get a job done or accomplishing some task, you must apply grit to make sure that you stay on track. In today’s world, it is easy to get off track and distracted from what is most important. Be sure to maintain meaningful relationships with people, and make time for strengthening traditional connections that require you to communicate face-to-face and one-on-one with people.

You must have grit, because you do not want to lose the common touch. Do not be afraid of building positive relationships outside of social media. Learn to communicate and build relationships with the real people around you so that you can run that company, be an effective teacher, command a courtroom as an attorney or a judge, build that building or bridge, and accomplish most anything else. To do those things takes confidence, grit, and good communication skills.

Graduates, grit will give you the courage, resolve and strength of character to avoid the negativity in your lives and pursue meaningful endeavors. Put aside negative influences and do not allow them to distract you from your path of success.


Since you have entered Western, you have grown into fine young people who are prepared to pursue brilliant futures. With this growth, comes a responsibility to carry yourselves with dignity, honor, and respect. You now represent Western Illinois University, and I invite you to hold high our banner.

Now that you are transitioning from student to WIU alumni, you must move boldly into the world to leave an indelible mark. You are equipped with the tools that are necessary to change the world for the better. Each class, each major, and each degree prepares you to enhance the lives of others and prepares you to make the world a better place. Be extraordinary. Be Great.

Marianne Williamson, the founder of the Peace Alliance, once said “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It's not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

As graduates of Western Illinois University, I encourage you to let your light shine for all the world to see. I am asking you to represent yourselves, your families, and this university well in all of your endeavors.

Graduates, do not forget to express gratitude to those who have supported you in your journey toward this accomplishment. You have received a Gold Standard education from this fine University through your grit and hard work. Do not stray from this standard, but continue to work tirelessly as you learn, grow and impact this world in a positive manner. Remember: Leathernecks never quit. Leathernecks outwork their opponents. And Leathernecks strive for greatness in all that they do. After all, you are from a tradition of tough.

Finally graduates, I want to leave you with these words from an unknown author who says, “The road to success is not straight, there’s a curve called failure, loops called confusion, speed bumps called enemies, red lights called friends, and caution lights called family. You may have flats called jobs in this tough economy. But if you have a spare called determination, an engine called perseverance, and insurance called faith, you will make it to a place called success.”

Thank you and I wish you well in your endeavors!