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Speakers Offer Wisdom, Inspiration and Humor in Addressing Members of ODU's Class of 2012

Three high-profile speakers offered words of wisdom and inspiration to members of Old Dominion University's class of 2012 at spring commencement exercises May 4 and 5.

Spread out over two days in order to accommodate friends and family members of graduates from ODU's six colleges, three separate commencement exercises were held at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Approximately 2,500 students participated in the ceremonies.

At the first program, Friday evening, May 4, graduates of the College of Arts and Letters, ODU's largest college graduating class, heard from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Les Payne, who offered many nuggets of advice throughout a brief talk that also had its humorous moments, and even included popular-culture references to skateboards and Kim Kardashian.

Announcing that his remarks were intended "to share a few tips on how to succeed in an up and down job market and life itself," he advised the graduates not to worry unduly about the U.S. economy, noting that it is cyclical. And while he said it's OK to earn a lot of money, Payne cautioned, "It is not OK to make earning a lot of money your primary goal in life."

Telling the graduates to follow their bliss, but not to stay in a job just because it pays well, Payne added, "There are too many people holding down good-paying jobs that they hate. ... Find a vocation that engages you fully."

Speculating on the different careers that members of the class of 2012 might embark on, Payne said: "The teachers among you have the greatest responsibility of all. The success of our entire society rests upon your shoulders. ... Teach young students as if they were your own children. They will make you as proud as if you were their parents. I challenge each of you to enter your life's work as if the future of the world depends on it."

Stating that "the power to secure a better world resides in each of you in this building," Payne said that from this class could emerge great statesmen as well as those who may well solve problems of hunger and civil strife.

"And I am hopeful," he continued, "that this Old Dominion graduating class will produce a future president of the United States, and she will ..." At that point, cheers and shouts from the crowd drowned out the rest of his remark. But by then, his message of inspiration had been delivered and received.

In closing, Payne turned to the words of poet Langston Hughes, who wrote: "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly."

Wendy Bahr, senior vice president of Global and Strategic Partners for the Worldwide Partner Organization for Cisco, addressed graduates of the College of Sciences, College of Health Sciences and Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology Saturday morning.

Bahr, an ODU graduate herself, remarked that she didn't receive her degree in such a beautiful facility as the Constant Center. She spoke directly to the graduates, saying that many of them likely have their entire life planned out.

"If, on the other hand, there are just a few of you that don't quite know what the future holds, I need to offer a little advice. Take a deep breath, it's going to be OK," she said.

Bahr described the corporate ladder as a lattice. "You have to be willing to go sideways in order to go up." She said it's just fine to make a decision that isn't laser-focused on the next rung on the ladder. "Corporations and organizations are looking for well-rounded professionals," she said. "Be open to the possibility that it's not just a straight shot to the top."

In concluding, Bahr told the graduates that, because of advances in technology, their future is full of promise. "I am absolutely confident our future has never been brighter, your opportunities have never been greater and I can't wait to see what you accomplish."

At the university's final commencement program Saturday afternoon, ODU alumnus Jack J. Ross, president and chief operating officer with Dominion Enterprises, delivered the address to graduates of the College of Business and Public Administration and Darden College of Education.

His message was one of perseverance, and he used his experiences as the son of a single mother growing up in Norfolk to illustrate how determination and perseverance would propel him to success. He noted that although he lived in low-income housing and began working 20 hours a week at age 14, he remained determined, managing to attend high school, play football and baseball, become an Eagle Scout and ultimately earn admission to ODU.

Admitting that he wasn't a great student and joking that his ambition exceeded his intellect, Ross recounted his college years at ODU. "I majored in business and worked while in college. I sold advertising for the Mace & Crown, coached high school football each fall, worked five nights a week 6-to-midnight at a grocery store and was a full-time student," he said. Ross added, however, that his college life wasn't completely bereft of good times. "I had fun, laughed often and attended my share of midnight madness frat parties," he said.

The theme of perseverance carried over to Ross' time after college as a young and determined graduate who, after many interviews and a brief stint selling computer supplies, landed a job as an advertising sales representative for The Virginian-Pilot. He described how he continued to move up the ladder, taking progressively more significant management jobs until he worked his way to the very top as president and COO of Dominion Enterprises.

Ross underscored the importance of a positive attitude in life and in a career. "Surviving and thriving is an attitude and a skill. It sounds cliché, but attitude is a critical factor in what you will achieve in your life. It is more important than your past, than what you have or how you look. And only you can determine your attitude, and manage it. It can be your greatest asset or your biggest liability," he said.

Ross finished his address with well-wishes for the graduates and a final bit of wise counsel. "I hope each and every one of you has a life filled with successes, happiness, contentment and rich experiences. A lot of that will depend on the choices you make and your attitude toward life."

ODU awarded honorary doctorates to four members of the Hampton Roads chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen during the three programs, each of whom received a heartfelt, standing ovation.

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of individuals who were involved in the Army Air Corps' program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft during World War II.

"Due to their hard work and determination, the Tuskegee Airmen overcame segregation and prejudice to become one of the most highly respected fighter groups during that time," ODU President John R. Broderick said at the commencement programs.

Receiving the awards were Wilbert Gore Sr., Ezra Hill, Harry Quinton and Grant Williams. A fifth member, Francis Horne, who was unable to attend, will also receive an honorary degree. An honorary doctorate was also presented to commencement speaker Les Payne.