Daniels to Purdue grads: The antonym of snowflake is Boilermaker

Here we are again. My favorite moment of the year. It’s a genuine day of dreams: in the student
section, dreams of new careers, marriage, children, new adventures. In the parents’ seating, dreams of what
to do with that disposable income they’re no longer sending to West Lafayette. All in all, a day like no other. My own dreams about today are more like nightmares. What to say that’s fitting – that’s meaningful
but still concise enough to get us on to the main event quickly? Hardest of all, what to say that’s the least
bit original? While dreaming, or daydreaming, about today,
I found myself thinking about Purdue Pete. Again this year, Pete was ranked among the
most identified college mascots in the country, and the favorite in our Big Ten Conference. A few years before your class arrived on campus,
someone tried to redo Pete and turn him into some new symbol of our school. I wasn’t here, either, but as told to me,
the idea started an immediate backlash, a near-riot, and died within days. I got to thinking about “why?” Maybe part of it was his uniqueness. At last count, there were 64 Eagles, 46 Tigers,
and 33 Wildcats among college mascots. There’s only one set of Boilermakers. But I think our attachment to Pete stems mainly
from the way he personifies our self-image of strength. When our up-and-coming football program chose
its slogan for this year, it was “Only the Strong.” One of the year’s YouTube sensations featured
a five-foot-nine Purdue player squatting 600 pounds. Strength is a big part of the Boilermaker
mystique. And it comes in forms even more important
than the physical strength of our terrific athletes or those of you I see at the Co-Rec
and our intramural fields. Purdue has always been known for sending into
the world young men and women who are strong and ready in all the ways that matter in adult
life. That’s never been more important, or a bigger
advantage, than right now. By making it to this hall today, you have
proven that you are strong intellectually. Your university has never believed in participation
trophies. Your parents can rest assured that, in the
words of a long-ago commercial they will remember, you got your diploma the old-fashioned way. “You earned it.” I can testify that you are strong in character. In each of your years here, our campus was
rated among the safest in the country, in large part because of fewer incidents of student
misconduct. Each year on our big event weekends, police
calls here are a small fraction of those at nearby universities of similar size. Naming no names. You have not just behaved well yourselves,
you have demanded it of others. Bystander actions and reports that prevent
harm to other students have risen sharply in recent years. And your heart for others is truly inspiring. We watch with admiration your dance marathons
and countless other charity projects demonstrating the ethic of service and selflessness that
we associate with great character. But there’s even more to strength than muscle,
smarts and character. For the last few years, the air has been filled
with studies, surveys, and books reporting a growing “fragility” among American young
people, a decreasing capability to handle even modest stress or setbacks without seeking
some sort of adult assistance. The number of college students requesting
counseling or therapy has doubled in just four or five years. Experts offer various explanations for this
surge. Clearly more perceptive diagnosis of real
mental illness is a factor, and a highly positive one. It seems just yesterday when, working in the
business that brought the world the first highly safe and effective antidepressant,
I took part in a huge worldwide effort to destigmatize depression, schizophrenia, and
related illnesses. We must and will do all we can to find those
among us who suffer from these soul-searing, treatable diseases and bring them effective
help. But, the data say, something broader is going
on. As one scholar has written, “There has been
an increase in diagnosable mental health problems, but … also a decrease in the ability of
many young people to manage the everyday bumps in the road of life.” At other places, but I’m happy to say not
yet at Purdue, students have demanded to be kept “safe” from speech, that is, mere
words, that challenge or discomfit them. At one large university, one “study” purported
to find a quarter of the student body suffering from PTSD because of an election outcome. Referring to such young people, someone has
coined the distasteful but descriptive term “snowflakes.” Some find a cause in the social media, which
have reduced personal interaction among your younger contemporaries. Easier grading in high schools can lead to
an unexpected jolt when a student arrives at college, at least if it’s a place like
Purdue where top grades are still hard to come by. Another diagnosis points to overprotective
parenting that limits children’s opportunities to play and explore in unsupervised ways that
require them to solve problems and resolve conflicts on their own. I don’t pretend to know what’s causing
the phenomenon. I do know that in the world you’re about
to enter, emotional strength, in the form people are now terming “resilience” or
“grit,” will be essential for you to realize the enormous potential we see in you. For those who possess and display it, it will
be a competitive advantage in any endeavor they pursue. After watching you these last few years, I’m
betting you’ll be in that category. You’re about to hear a fine student response
at the end of today’s program. (I know that because I get a sneak peek at
those remarks.) But I wish you could also have heard the two
talks given at last December’s winter commencements. Jordan Cebulla told of being a poor student
in high school here locally who almost abandoned any idea of higher education. But, told by a family friend that Lafayette
is “a gritty town full of gritty people,” he gave Ivy Tech a try. Four years later, he is a Purdue alum. He told his classmates, “In the end, if
we quit on ourselves, everyone else will quit on us, too.” In his response speech, Seon Shoopman confided
that, out of sixteen schools he applied to, Purdue was the only one to admit him, provided
he attend our summer boot camp. Three and a half years later, he, too, earned
his Purdue degree, with honors, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. Seon said that, more than any other motive,
he wanted to do it for the mother who had pushed him all the way. “When I wanted to quit, she told me not
to. When I wanted to leave school, she told me
not to. She told me to fight, be strong, and make
something of myself.” Some in today’s world think they have discovered
something new in the concept of “grit.” A Harvard Business School article just last
fall was titled “Organizational Grit,” and reported that “High achievers have extraordinary
stamina. … When easier paths beckon, their commitment
is steadfast. Grit predicts who will accomplish challenging
goals.” So that’s why a Harvard MBA costs 200 grand. Maybe this is all revelatory at Harvard. In our part of the country, it’s not news. The slogan of the Whiteland (Indiana) High
School Class of 1930 was “Grit Wins.” It could be a slogan at Purdue every year. I’m tempted to call Roget’s Thesaurus
and let them know the antonym of “snowflake” is “Boilermaker.” Just as physical strength is built through
hard exercise, emotional fortitude is enhanced by adversity and conflict. Every great achievement requires a confrontation
with stress, a conquest of fear. Our engineers know, there is no traction without
friction. Wilbur Wright, the father of the aviation
world Purdue now leads, wrote, “No bird soars in a calm.” Your strength of intellect and character will
give you opportunities to lead, but it will be your strength of purpose, your resilience,
your grit that will enable you to lead successfully, and by your example to give new heart and
strength to those around you. There’s one sure way to minimize stress
and difficulty in life: attempt nothing that’s bold, challenge nothing that’s wrong, risk
nothing that’s dangerous. Those endeavors always bring disappointment,
frustration, criticism, setbacks. But they also are the source of the achievements
that make life fulfilling, and the even greater grit that will get you ready for the next
challenge. From opposite ends of life’s continuum,
I offer you two closing examples of the qualities I hope you have built here at this institution. Both stories involve Purdue students even
younger than you are today. Last December, we said goodbye to a great
man. A great man, but a typical Boilermaker. In his 94 years, Fred Fehsenfeld built a series
of businesses that employed and enriched thousands of people around Indiana and the world. A model for what we now call lifelong learning,
he was always on top of the latest technology, always conceiving large new projects and looking
far into a future he could not possibly live to see. And modest about his achievements every step
of the way. He almost didn’t get the chance to do any
of that. On his 18th birthday, in 1942, he left his
freshman dorm room in Cary Hall and enlisted in the Army. He flew 86 missions over Europe with a storied
unit in which almost half his fellow pilots were killed in action. In an oral history of his experiences, Fred
told of his first close-air dogfight combat. He was low to the ground, with bullets everywhere,
and death perhaps an instant away. The interviewer asked, “What were you thinking
at a moment like that?” Fred answered, “I was thinking, I finally
got a chance to make some German pay for yanking me out of Purdue University.” He survived the war, came back, still younger
than most of you, to finish his M.E. degree and lead a life of epic accomplishment. Long after you leave us, your senior year
will be remembered as the year of Tyler Trent. His is a story I need not recount; everyone
here knows who he was, and how he faced a situation for which words like “adversity”
and “stress” don’t come close. He impacted more people, and left deeper footprints,
than most who will enjoy lives several times longer than his. We’ll never forget you, Tyler. God willing, none of you will face at any
age the kind of dangers and fears that Fred and Tyler did. But they, and so many others like them, have
left us all a legacy that provides perspective and proportion for those inevitable moments
when the pressures and disappointments of life get us down. Don’t misunderstand this, but I wish for
you many such tough moments. You can easily avoid them; just lead a safely
inconsequential life: run no risks, confront no injustice, accept no roles of leadership. But that’s not the path we expect you to
choose. You are about to become graduates of Purdue
University, which throughout its history has supplied leaders to a world that needs them
now as rarely before. Leaders with the academic preparation to solve
mind-bending technological challenges. With the moral character to help society navigate
times of blurringly fast change, in ways that are ethical, equitable, and humanistic. Most of all, with the inner strength to take
on the burdens of high responsibility, and the heat, envy, and hostility that comes with
them, and deliver the positive change that human progress requires. You showed the quality of grit before you
arrived here. That’s why we admitted you. I hope that your days here, with a faculty
that pushed and stretched you, and classmates like Jordan and Seon to inspire you, built
your reserves of resilience. Now take the strength you brought here, and
the new strength I trust you built here, into a world where the need and, therefore, the
opportunities, for real leadership are enormous. Seek out the hard jobs and the toughest problems. When you find them, or they find you, think
of Fred and Tyler, maybe even Pete. And you’ll make yourself, your family, and
your university proud of you, as Boilermakers have for a century and a half. Hail Purdue, and each of you.

7 thoughts on “Daniels to Purdue grads: The antonym of snowflake is Boilermaker”

  1. Who cares, really? You have a son with polio. Your wife is flirting with the produce man. Your doctor told you that there's a lump on the x-ray. Your daughter is dating an undesirable.
    Purdue Pete? The Boilermaker Special? These are gags to get your whiney kids to enroll. More bullshit, if you hadn't guessed.
    Did you know that you could pay to have your kid's test scores fudged? Half a clam will let you in. I knew a woman that did it…Oh, wait, She's on the news now.

  2. I would hate to lose Mitch, but I think he would make a great Education Secretary, maybe even President.

  3. I hope none of you have any student loan debt, because high paid white collar jobs are outsourcing to India and China!
    While offshoring so far only affected clerical back-office jobs, now highly-skilled jobs in accounting and engineering, once thought to be invulnerable, are also migrating. Even such a prestigious field as the legal profession in the US is seeing jobs draining away to India's Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO) industry. 

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