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My advice to 2014 graduates

From: The Detroit News

By Mary Sue Coleman

May 29, 2014

Congratulations to the class of 2014. As you move on to college, I encourage you to study science and technology. Whether as an academic major or a one-time elective, courses in science, technology, engineering and math will serve you well.

America has long been recognized as a global leader in science and technology. But we know, from the National Science Foundation and other organizations, that our nation is slipping in how we prepare and nurture the talent of tomorrow. We are not producing enough college graduates to replace the scientists and engineers who are retiring.

I am one of those on the brink of retirement, concluding 45 years in higher education. And I would not have succeeded without an understanding of science.

Science cures disease and helps end suffering. Science explains the environment so that we can better protect it. Science improves communication and technology, and brings us closer together as human beings.

Science defines us as people who want to improve the world.

When I was a high school senior in Cedar Falls, Iowa, I was named a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. This was the nation’s premier science competition for high school students, and I was the first student from Iowa to ever be named a Westinghouse finalist.

If you had told me then that I would become president of one of the world’s leading research universities, I would have laughed. All I knew at 17 was I loved chemistry and maybe, just maybe, I would become a college professor.

That leads me to first piece of advice: Always embrace the unknown.

None of you know where your interests will take you. You will face opportunities that will seem foreign, and not what you envisioned for yourself. Don’t turn away from them.

My career began as a university biochemist in cancer research, and I did that for 20 years. When I was asked to move from the laboratory to university administration, I was certain it would be dull and boring.

What I didn’t see was the opportunity to work with so many interesting people, to build academic programs or to raise money to fund good ideas of students and faculty. I didn’t see then, as I do now, that I could change the direction of a major institution and have a real impact.

Whatever the direction, your career will be well served by science. Science teaches you to be deliberate about planning and executing strategies. And planning and executing great ideas are critical to success and leadership.

My second piece of advice is expect to fail.

Failure is absolutely fundamental in pursuing new knowledge, particularly in the sciences. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, keeps a quote from Winston Churchill on his office wall. It says, “Success is nothing more than going from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm.”

Enthusiasm leads me to my final piece of advice. It comes from my experience as a university president, a scientist, and a mother — and mothers are always right.

Do what you love.

Never apologize if you believe science and math are fascinating, or that your science teacher is a role model, or because you spend weekends in the library or a laboratory.

An eagerness to explore, to really throw yourself at something, is the very essence of scholarship. That is my hope for you as our country’s next scientists, doctors and engineers: that you celebrate the sheer joy of learning, and how new knowledge allows you to see today’s world from different vantage points.

We need your ideas, your enthusiasm, and your love of math, science, engineering and technology. And we, as a country, need to always celebrate and reward your scientific achievements.

There is nothing more powerful, more invigorating, and more essential than creating and sharing knowledge. And there is nothing more inspiring than knowing you will be shaping our future.

Mary Sue Coleman is president of the University of Michigan.