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2017 University of Rochester Master’s Degree Commencement Speech

“yoUR Meliora Challenge” - Robert T. Dirksen

I would first like to thank Provost Clark, our distinguished Deans, dedicated faculty, family, friends, and most importantly, the University of Rochester Class of 2017, for extending this opportunity to me to share a few thoughts as each of you embark on the next phase of your life.

I think I know why Provost Clark scheduled me at the beginning of this ceremony. As Mark Twain once wrote “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” With this in mind, I am honored to be served up as the “live frog for this ceremony.”

As those that know me can attest, I have forever been a deeply devoted and passionate fan of the Buffalo Bills. Thus, on this auspicious occasion, I am tempted to quote what Marv Levy told his team just before kick-off against the NY Giants in Super Bowl XXV: “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

However, I am not going to do that because we all know how that game turned out, as well as the subsequent 3 Super Bowls, not to mention the last 17 years.

First off, I would like to applaud each of you for your commitment in reaching higher for the education and training needed to pursue your passions and to lead the life that you want to live. You have endured much to bring you to this singular rewarding day; a day where your family and friends, as well as your professors and indeed all of the Deans and faculty here at the University of Rochester, share with great pride in your collective accomplishments and the tremendous promise of your futures! Congratulations, by the way!

When I was asked to deliver this speech, I wracked my mind and search my heart for advice or ‘pearls of wisdom’ that I could impart to such an accomplished group of graduates with seemingly endless potential. One thing I have learned over the years is that one typically spends more than 8hrs/day at work, ~8hrs/day with loved ones, and ~8hrs/day in bed. So, my advice to you is to doggedly pursue both a career and companion you love unconditionally … and then go out and buy a really comfortable mattress.”

More seriously, the central message that I would like to pass along to you today is the importance, reward, and indeed responsibility, of using your unique talents and energy to make a positive impact on your community. And by community, I mean that in the broadest of terms; this could be your family, work place, neighborhood, place of worship, or simply a stranger you meet in Wegmans during the course of your day. If all we taught you here were the skills needed to advance in your career and enjoy a comfortable living, then we have failed you.

As Winston Churchill once stated: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

I am going to tell you a story, in the making now for nearly 7 decades, of how the University of Rochester profoundly imprinted this central core value on my life.

I am a legacy, alumnus, and faculty member of the University of Rochester. My father graduated with a business degree 69 years ago this month. After working for several years at Buffalo Steel, he moved back to Rochester to establish and grow his own company; Allied Rochester Steel. Allied Rochester provided steel and rebar during a major growth phase of the City of Rochester and Monroe County. They provided reinforcement for numerous buildings downtown, in Kodak Park, as well as the inner loop and the I-390/490 highways. As a result, Allied Rochester employed many “Rochestarians” over the years and shaped what now serve as the arteries and heart of our city. Thus, my father’s University of Rochester education positioned him to make a lasting impact on the people, infrastructure, and skyline of the city of Rochester.

I received my Master’s and Ph.D. in Pharmacology in the late 80s and early 90s. During that time, I met my wife who also completed her Ph.D. in Pharmacology and has since gone on to enjoy a highly successful career within the private sector. Ours was the typical Hollywood story of two naive, starry-eyed young Pharmacologists who fell in love while working across a lab bench from one another; it’s a story I am sure you’ve heard many times. But I digress … After graduation, I spent 6 years of postdoctoral training in Colorado, but then like my father before me, I returned to Rochester but in this case to be a faculty member at the University of Rochester in the same department where I received my graduate training.

As a junior faculty member, I benefited greatly from two very supportive Chairs and selfless mentoring from several senior faculty members in the department, who took me under their wing, critiqued my grants and scholarly works, and helped me to become a more effective educator. Simply put, I would not be here with you today if not for the exceptional training and mentoring that I received from the University of Rochester over the last 30 years.

My fortunes as a student and faculty member at the University of Rochester drive my passion for mentoring students, postdocs, and junior faculty. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing one’s student win an award, get a paper accepted for publication, learn that their grant will be funded, or be offered their dream job. As Chair, I now have the wonderful opportunity to continue my department’s missions of educating and training life-long learners to become the next generation of leading scientists, clinicians, and scholars. I also enjoy recruiting and mentoring junior faculty to be effective educators, successfully establish their independent research program and become recognized scholars and leaders in their field. One of my favorite quotes from Lou Holtz, the last head coach to win a national championship at the University of Notre Dame, my undergraduate alma mater, is: “We can all be successful and make money, but when we die, that ends. But when you are significant is when you help other people be successful. That lasts many a lifetime.” Thus, I encourage you to work tirelessly to help others around you to be successful and reach their full potential.

Well, that’s the end of my story. But, I would like to leave you with a challenge.

By a show of hands, how many of you have heard of the “Meliora Challenge?”

Great! So, then you know that the Meliora Challenge was a comprehensive 5-year fundraising campaign launched by the University of Rochester in 2011. The objective was to raise the resources needed to elevate to the next level the institution’s missions in learning, discovery, healing, and creativity; the overall goal being to make the world “ever better!” The campaign met its ambitious $1.2B fundraising goal more than 1 year ahead of schedule. By the time the campaign ended last summer, nearly $1.4B was raised from >200,000 donors, funding >450 new scholarships for students and >100 new endowed professorships to recruit/retain outstanding faculty. The campaign also led to the formation of the new Goergen Institute for Data Science housed in Wegmans Hall, which was dedicated last fall, opened last month, and will be completed soon. 

By all accounts, the Meliora Challenge was a huge financial and programmatic success. The campaign successfully positioned the University of Rochester to continue to be a leader in education, innovation, health care, and the arts for many years to come.

Today, as you receive your well-earned degree and move on to the next phase of your life, I ask you to accept a different type of “Meliora Challenge.”  I challenge you to use your talents and energy, developed and honed here at the University of Rochester, to make a positive impact on your community; take the institution’s motto to heart; go out and make your world “ever better.”

Indeed, the University of Rochester promotes this core value, to make a positive impact on the Rochester community, in each of its missions. You can see this in many ways. You see it in faculty commitment to education, research, and scholarship. You see it in our undergraduate students’ passion for community service to the city of Rochester during Wilson Day each fall. You see it in the Eastman Dental Center SMILEmobiles, “dental offices on wheels” that provide much needed dental care to the elderly, individuals with developmental disabilities, and Rochester City School students. You see it in the Warner School of Education’s ongoing leadership and commitment to transforming and improving student outcomes at East High School. You see it in the Eastman School’s “Music for All Program,” where different chamber music groups go out into the local community to perform free concerts for audiences ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens. You see it in the UR Well Student Outreach Program, an entirely student-run program in which University of Rochester medical students and physicians partner with local churches to provide free clinics to uninsured and underinsured families and individuals who might otherwise have limited access to care in an effort to improve the health of the Rochester community, while promoting the spirit of education, social justice, and collaboration.

Thus, ours is not an institution that simply preaches from high atop an Ivory Tower, but rather one that takes seriously its responsibility to make a positive impact on the Rochester community.

In this vein, I challenge each of you to similarly give generously of your time, expertise, financial means, insight, experience and advice to others. Raise your sense of self-worth by giving a hand up to someone else in need. Serve as an engaged and committed mentor to a junior person in your company or a less-fortunate child in your community. Do not just listen to them, but hear what they need. Even the smallest gesture, like paying for the breakfast of that elderly pharmacology couple sitting at the corner table of your neighborhood diner, can be transformative. Always err on the side of selflessness. In short, leave it all out on the field. As noted actor Denzel Washington once said: “You will never see a U-Haul behind a Hearse. You can’t take it with you.”

As one final request, I urge you to keep in touch with your professors, particularly those that served as close mentors to you during your time here at the University of Rochester. You are our professional offspring. Call us. Email us. Heck, SnapChat us if you want; we would rather see you for 8 seconds than not at all! We want to know how you are doing, what career moves have you made, what are your current passions and how are you pursuing them. Come back to visit us over Meliora Weekend each fall. Speak with our students and tell them about your experiences and career path. Help them find their way during times of uncertainty as others have done for you during your journey.

When you do return to campus, come find me. I’ll either be in my lab or in a classroom somewhere in the medical center working with the next generation of bright-eyed scholars, scientists and clinicians with boundless energy and promise like you. If you do, I will ask if you accepted my “Meliora Challenge” today and then enjoy learning how you are transforming your community to be “ever better.” Congratulations Class of 2017, I wish you great happiness and all the luck in the world. Thank you very much. Meliora!