I have been blessed to receive many honors in my life, but quite honestly, one of the greatest happened in early December when I served as the commencement speaker at the winter graduation ceremony at Youngstown State University.
I was deeply humbled to stand before the 900 men and women who earned degrees from YSU. Some were the first in their families to graduate from college; others were parents who started college later in life.
As I stood at the podium, I tried to remember what it felt like to be sitting where they were. Frankly, it’s been a long time since I graduated from college, but I still can recall the feeling that somehow I was different from when I started.
It wasn’t that I had gained so much knowledge or insight. Instead, it was far more intangible. I had learned a different way of thinking and I had also proven something to myself: I had battled through literature and science and courses that I was sure would never ever matter to me again only to discover that I had learned along the way.
It wasn’t the minutia about what battle was fought in what year or how to form a compelling argument or how various parts of the earth have different rocks that I was taking with me as a college graduate. Instead, it was the outlook that I had about myself that was different.
I believed then and still do now that I had it in me to figure things out and to accomplish. I gained confidence in college.
That same confidence is what I hope the 900 YSU graduates are taking with them from their years of studies. And that’s something that will last them a lifetime. It’s given me the courage to open new restaurants, to build a company that now employs thousands and to rank as the nation’s largest franchisee of Panera Bread restaurants.
I told the YSU graduates to stand proud but to also remember that everything from here forward is no longer part of a prescribed curriculum. Everything is now an elective.
I urged them to take responsibility for themselves and their future and to recognize that they – regardless of their pasts – stand on even ground with everyone else. Education is the great equalizer in life.
I asked them to stand tall and to stretch and I reminded them that confidence, coupled with a sense of social justice and humility, will propel them to achieve greatness and improve the lives of others.