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May Commencement Address

President Vaughn presents Commencement Speaker Rob Blagojevich '77 with a commemorative plaque.
Rob Blagojevich '77 May 2008 Commencement Address

Josh, thank you for that warm and gracious introduction. Good job with the name. Mr. President, members of the board of trustees, faculty, and, most importantly, graduates, family, and friends, it is indeed an honor and a privilege for me to address the 2008 graduating class of my alma mater, the University of Tampa.

My years here were among the happiest and most formative of my life, to include meeting my wife and best friend Julie, in Western Civ. class freshman year. Plant Hall and the campus will always hold fond memories for both of us.

I graduated from this wonderful university 31 years ago, and to be honest with you, I don’t remember who our commencement speaker was or what he said. So I hold no illusions that you’re going to remember anything I say here today. I do hope however, that you’ll remember one request I make of you later in this speech.

For the last few years, you’ve been in a nurturing and enriching academic community. You’ve studied, written papers, worked in teams and passed exams. You may have even challenged yourselves with 8 a.m. classes. You’ve learned how to learn with discipline and how to think critically. And you’ve earned enough credits to graduate from this university and to move on to another phase of your life.

Now, as you anxiously wait to cross this stage, receive your diploma, and prepare to leave, you’re probably feeling a mix of emotions about the future, that’s normal.

No matter what field you’ve chosen, you know you’re entering the workforce at a time when the U.S. economy may be cycling through a recessionary phase. The job market may not be as robust as it was when you entered this university. Doom and gloom is the lead story of every news cycle these days, and it can get you down. I hope you won’t let this negative climate dampen your enthusiasm for the future because you live in the greatest country on the face of the earth with the most resilient and dynamic economy ever. The free market fueled by immigration, population growth and demographic shifts will drive demand for all goods and services and will create opportunities that may not be obvious today.

Despite the slowing economy, the unemployment rate is still at an historically low level. Opportunities actually are growing in the fields of healthcare services, environmental planning, emergency preparedness and international business development to name just a few.

You received a first-rate education at a prestigious, independent university which has equipped you with the tools to compete. Whether you leave here with a bachelor’s or a graduate degree today, you will enter a tough, competitive and evolving workplace.

Although it might be a little choppy out there for you, feel good about your future. Always believe that you have what it takes to succeed and never, never lose faith in yourself. Opportunity is all around you if look you for it.

Whether or not you have a job or have gotten the one you wanted, when you leave this place you may feel a little overwhelmed, and frankly, alone.

Let me tell you just a little bit about my dad who truly was alone and somehow figured it out. I believe his story is relevant today.

He was born a peasant in a village with no running water or electricity. Growing up, he worked the fields with his family to grow corn and raise livestock. They eventually managed to enroll him in military school. Several years after he completed his schooling WWII broke out. He was captured by the Nazis, taken from his country, and thrown into a German prison camp in 1941. He was liberated four years later by Allied Forces at the end of the war. Alone at that time, he chose not to return to his homeland because it had fallen to Communism. Instead, he migrated with other refugees to Austria where he worked for a couple of years at odd jobs to keep himself alive.

There, he connected with church leaders of his faith and learned that they would sponsor him to immigrate to a large city in the United States. The church, he was told, would welcome him into their community. It would help him connect with men and women who spoke his language. They, in turn, would help him find housing and employment.

So, he boarded a ship and came to the United States through New York City and traveled by train to Chicago. There, through new contacts and networks, he found a job in a tannery and began a new life. The work was difficult, and he labored long hours each day. Out of necessity, he learned English.

Three years later, he married and proudly became a U.S. citizen. Shortly after that, he noticed that his neighborhood had no full-service laundromat, he saw an opportunity. He had saved enough money to invest, so he bought machines, rented space and started his own business.

His journey may be an extreme example of how to network. However, it illustrates how it was possible to optimize meager resources to find a job on another continent and begin a new life.

I’m not saying you have to move out of your own country necessarily, but you have to be willing to go where opportunity exists and to take advantage of resources and tools that are available to you.

You live at a time when internet-based networking is second nature. With instantaneous global connectivity, you use Facebook, My Space, text and instant messaging, keeping you connected with family and friends 24/7. At an early age you’ve become very comfortable reaching out and connecting with people through technology.

Use your networking skills to your advantage and take them to another level and expand on them. This university, for instance, offers life-time services for graduates that provide job assistance and career management programs. If you haven’t explored it yet, find some time to check it out and see what it has to offer. I’m sure there are a number of you who can benefit for this.

As you know, this university is made up of faculty, administrators, staff and trustees all who have contacts who may be useful to you in your professional development. The UT Alumni Association is active and thriving. These are all centers of influence you should keep in mind as you prepare for the future. Don’t underestimate their power and their desire to help you.

My intent here is to strongly encourage you to take advantage of all of the resources at your disposal to help you get to where you want to go.

Experience has shown me that in order to maximize these contacts it’s important to come prepared to be helped. So, be able to articulate what it is you’re looking for and how you think you can be helped.

And just as importantly, if you are given a referral, follow through quickly and efficiently. By doing so, you’ll show respect for those who gave you the referral.

I’ve been very lucky to have benefited numerous times from people who knew people who lead me to a new opportunity or advanced me in my business.

Networking should be a two-way street, though. In order to build a network of centers of influence, you should be willing to help someone yourself. I can’t help remembering the times when I was growing up that we had visitors living with us in our five-room apartment for weeks at a time. My dad, many years later, was giving back to his community by sponsoring others who made a similar journey to his.

I was very fortunate to have had three UT professors whom I knew I could call if I needed help or guidance, and I did. They were Professors Speronis, Decker and Fesmire. Professor Fesmire is in the audience with the faculty today. In addition, I had several military science professors who were willing to help me as I entered active military duty. Each of them made a difference in my life and I’m certain you have similar relationships that are as meaningful to you.

You and I are connected in a unique and very special way by the bond of a shared university experience. We may not know one another personally. Yet, I feel a connection with each of you because of it. So in that spirit, I want to make myself available to you in any way that I can to help you expand your developing network.

I can be reached at (615) 269-6055. That’s my business phone number. Since I know you’re not prepared to write it down, you can find it in the bio portion of your program. Just give me a couple of days to get home before you call. I’m very serious about this offer. I would genuinely welcome and enjoy a chance to get to know you and to be of assistance to you if I can. You never know what can happen or where a conversation can lead.

In closing, I want to congratulate all of you! Be proud of your academic achievement. You are now members of an elite club of the 25 percent of the U.S. population that has a college degree. To the support network of parents, grandparents, family and friends, congratulations to you, as well. You’ve contributed in countless ways to this wonderful achievement. In addition, a very special salute to all 17 newly commissioned second lieutenants graduating today who have volunteered to serve our country during a time of war. We are indebted to you for your service and sacrifice.

Thank you for listening.

Have a good life and give me a call.