Stu Shea 2022 Spring Commencement remarks


Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning!

Let me first thank President Washington and the Board of Visitors for inviting me to participate in this celebration.

To the faculty, parents, siblings, grandparents, family members, and friends…I am honored to be with you today, celebrating the 50th anniversary of George Mason University!

Think about how truly unique and memorable that number is…50…the golden 50th anniversary. You are the only class that will ever graduate from Mason, celebrating part of the signature color of the University…Pantone 116…Gold. The graduating classes of the 49th and 51st anniversaries will do great things, but they are kind of like the silver and bronze medals of commencements. You are the gold-medal class, and everyone will remember you and the impact you will make.

According to your website, Mason Gold represents optimism, enthusiasm, fun, clarity, and confidence. I can’t think of a better way to describe what lies ahead for you in the next 50 years.

Stu Shea addresses the graduates in his doctoral regalia
Commencement speaker Stu Shea, Chairman, President, and CEO of Peraton, gives the keynote address during the 2022 Spring Commencement Ceremony at EagleBank Arena. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

Looking back on my own life 50 years ago, I was a sophomore in high school, contemplating what I would study in college. My major went from math, to biology, to chemistry, to forestry, ultimately making a choice to pursue a career in medicine. So, with complete clarity of purpose, I got my degree in geology. After all, geologists were in high demand at the time. There was a worldwide oil crisis…and believe it or not, a gallon of gas was a staggering $0.36 per gallon.

But as I was finishing my degree, I realized…I didn’t want to search for oil in Alaska.

I always found maps fascinating, so instead I decided to attend graduate school to study cartography. I went to the University of Kansas for my master’s and had hoped to continue with my doctorate and eventually teach. But I had a chance instead to jump into the nascent field of computer mapping. It was just too exciting to pass up given the birth of two new technologies…one called the internet and the other, the personal computer.

I left Kansas in 1982…my doctorate would have to wait. It took me a few years to start thinking about completing my Ph.D. and fulfilling that goal. So, in 1987 I took an initial class at a local university doing some exciting map research. That school was George Mason University.

Once again, however, other life priorities took precedence over finishing that last remaining academic goal. I can assure you, however, that I’ve had no regrets in the path I followed on my journey…because I alone made those choices.

Well, here we are, 35 years later, and I am humbled to be asked to come back to Mason, to celebrate your special day. And in receiving an honorary doctorate, you have now completed my academic journey. Thank you.

To the graduates, congratulations on starting your career journey. Today is an important rite of passage for you. You have reached an inflection point in your journey, as you transition to full ownership of your own life choices, just as I did. I am confident that your time at Mason has fully prepared you to embark upon that voyage. And with each step along the way, you will have the support of friends, family, and classmates as a core foundation to build upon.

So, in celebration of taking that first step today, if you are able to join me, I would like you to stand. Now take one small step or lean in with your classmates. Okay, please be seated. We will come back to that later.

When you look at 50 years of accomplishments of the 225,000 alumni of George Mason University, it is mind boggling.

Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, novelists, ambassadors, poets, professors, doctors, lawyers, politicians, CEOs, scientists, public servants, moms and dads, and yes, even geologists.

And sitting here today in this audience is a comparable roll call.

Regardless of your chosen field of endeavor, each of you, in your own way, will influence the future of the world, through either a single act, or through a lifetime of effort.

As we look back upon history, there are many who have inspired us and made a difference by taking an important first step.

Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1963 marched along the National Mall, step by step, and delivered the exalted “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Or Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first person to set foot on the moon and said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Or the 343 courageous New York City firefighters, who in 2001 paid the ultimate sacrifice after climbing step after step into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Although these examples are often remembered as singular events, they are really the culmination of a lifetime of effort. There are so many who have inspired us and are recognized for making a difference over their lifetime.

Perhaps sitting amongst us is the next Nelson Mandela, Amelia Earhart, Charles Darwin, Mahatma Gandhi, Alan Turing, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, or Pablo Picasso.

Each of you will have your own story, and all of us are excited to see what you will accomplish. 

Now, a moment ago, I asked you to stand, or to lean in, to take a single step, and in doing so, we united together. As simple as that seems, our world, our nation, and even our families sometimes have difficulty uniting, yet we did it just now, merely because I asked you to.

No argument. No debate. No politics. No threat. No protest. You just trusted me. And we united.

The people I mentioned earlier each took a first step, and others trusted and followed them to unite as one. Simple acts, such as taking that first step, can inspire a nation, raise awareness for a cause, motivate change, invent something new, or allay the fears of the unknown.

As we celebrate together today, we are witness to that inspiration on a world stage. A former Ukrainian actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky, has united the people of Ukraine to defend their country. He stood up and has taken a first step. And many are trusting and following him. 

For those among you who will rise up as he has done, that first step often requires courage, tenacity, conviction, resiliency, and patience. And for those who will ultimately respond to and follow those who take that first step, it requires trust, respect, and openness.

But as we just did a moment ago, we can do more together than we can do apart in taking that first step.

Whatever your individual path is from today forward, I encourage you to always take the first step to champion change on your journey, rather than let change happen upon you.

I can assure you that your time at George Mason has prepared you well for your future. Mason has changed your lives, but Patriots can change the world.

Now as you look at those sitting next to you today, think about the changes that will soon take place.

Tomorrow you may never see these people again. For some of you, that may be a blessing and is one of the rewards of graduation—getting away from these people. But with all seriousness, you will soon realize the incredible impact those same people have made on your life. These relationships and many others will indeed matter through your lifetime. Value your relationships. Treat others with courtesy, dignity, and respect. Even if you passionately disagree with someone else’s view, you can always maintain civility in doing so.

In business, I have a simple corollary…never burn down a relationship in pursuit of a personal goal just so you can stand upon the smoldering ashes in victory…the person you step over on your career journey today may be your boss tomorrow.

Now, as you go forth today, one step at a time to change the world, accept that achieving your own goals may be hard, and somewhere along the way you may fail.

I honestly believe failure is just a dry run for future success. So take risks. Have courage. Be unafraid of the impossible. Start small, think big, and scale fast. And approach your life journey with a passion and attitude to do the can’t be done.

Finally, I want to offer some thoughts about what I learned along the way on my own journey. I hope they will help you navigate the sea of change that you will experience beginning today.

One of the first women in Congress…socialite Clare Boothe Luce…was well known for her quips, including the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished.”

But perhaps my favorite quip is, “A great man is one sentence.” 

So, as you begin your life journey today, what will your sentence be in 5, 25, or perhaps 50 years from now? How do you want to be remembered? Whose lives will you touch? What changes will you architect? What lasting impact will you make? What first step will you take? And who will follow you on your path?

All the decisions and choices that you will make from today forward will shape your one sentence.

In taking that career journey…always stay true to your goals.

As Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, once said: “Don’t waste your life living someone else’s life.” So be honest with yourself and your real motivations. Dig deep to understand what you feel most passionate about and pursue a future in what you honestly value in life. In other words, you now have the freedom to discover who you are, and the permission to become the authentic you. Along the way, accept that your career will likely be a composite of hard work, luck, and serendipity.

Sometimes you will make the wrong choices. But don’t be discouraged in doing so and don’t give up. You will have plenty of time left to make good choices in your life and ample opportunity to continue to screw up as well. Welcome to being real.

And life isn’t always fair, and things won’t always go your way. It’s okay to be disappointed, but then pick yourself up and learn from the obstacles you’ve encountered. With each roadblock, focus less on what happened and more on why it happened. Remember, life is filled with both questions and answers. The questions are far more important than the answers. Answers tend to stop a conversation; that is, unless the answer prompts the response, “Why is that the answer?” 

Questions, by contrast, express a powerful self-awareness of the limitations of your own skills necessary to overcome those obstacles. So, be vulnerable, ask questions, and have a goal to learn something new every day. I can assure you that the universe of knowledge that one does not have is far more expansive and exciting than the world of knowledge you know today.

Throughout your career, it is also enlightening to follow great leaders and emulate great role models.

John Quincy Adams (the sixth president of the United States) said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

Find people like that. Follow people like that. They will inspire you. Or, better yet, become a leader like that, for others will want to follow you. It will inspire them.

And when searching for role models, seek out those who demonstrate a strong moral compass. They are the ones who are: more focused on their character than their reputation, have a thirst for wisdom rather than for power, value compassion more than greed, and believe deeply that team success breeds personal success, and not the other way around.

What you will learn from these great leaders and great role models is truly a gift. What you do with that gift is entirely your responsibility starting today.

In conclusion: You are the canvas of your own future. Don’t paint within the lines. Be true to yourself. Find out who you are and who you were meant to become. And whatever path you choose, choose it because you will love what you do. And have fun creating the masterpiece of your life that is your one sentence.

Congratulations to you all, the Class of 2022.

Now trust your beliefs and go take that first step!