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The 2024 Commencement Address by Dr. Elizabeth Davis, President of Furman University


I’m delighted to be here this evening.  


It’s always nice to be in Charleston, a city very much like my hometown of New Orleans.  They both have beautiful architecture, wonderful restaurants, and warm, friendly faces.  I also grew up in a Baptist church and graduated from a Baptist university, so I feel right at home.  I was going to suggest we all sign a hymn, but I don’t believe we could do any better than the choir.     


But enough of my nostalgia.  Let’s just say I know a little bit about the world you’ve been brought up in.  It’s special, and I’m sure it has prepared you well. 


I understand that all of our graduates are going to college.  That’s terrific!  College may not be for everyone, but a college education is still the surest path to gaining knowledge and learning skills that will help you succeed in your career, contribute to your community, and have a fulfilling life.


Several years ago, the global polling organization, Gallup, partnered with Purdue University to determine what experiences in college resulted in great jobs and fulfilling lives for alumni.  Turns out, life in college affects life after college.   The Gallup-Purdue Index found that students who were emotionally supported during college and who had experiential and deep learning were more likely to report that they were thriving in life after college.  Emotional support included these three things: at least one professor made me excited about learning; my professors cared about me as a person; and I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.  Experiential learning included these three things: I had a project that took a semester or more to complete; I had an internship or job that allowed me to apply what I was learning in the classroom; and I was extremely active in extra-curricular activities and organizations.


Of the 30,000 alumni who participated in the initial Gallup-Purdue study, only 3% indicated they had all six.  In some ways that’s startling, though in other ways it’s not.  Universities aren’t ranked or rated on how happy or fulfilled their alumni are. Believe me, all presidents want their alumni to have adequate financial resources, but we know that’s not enough to thrive in today’s world.  At Furman, we let this Gallup data inform how we conceive of a Furman education, and as a result, we ensure all of our students have the opportunity to experience all six of the factors that contribute to emotional and experiential support.


Since none of you are going to Furman, I can’t be sure that your colleges will make a point of helping you experience all six factors, but I am sure that each institution has the resources you need — you might just need to be proactive in finding them.


So here’s what I recommend you do when you get to college.


First, find your people.  Students who join an organization or have a circle of friends within the first six weeks of school are more likely to stay in college than those who don’t.  And when you find an organization or group that is meaningful to you — go deep.  Take on leadership roles and hone your leadership skills.  Employers would rather see a commitment to one or two priorities than superficial participation in a bunch of organizations just to fill a résumé.  


Second, get to know your professors.  Not only will they impart knowledge and challenge your thinking, but they will also help you understand the skills you are developing in their classes and how those skills can apply to a variety of careers.  The summer after my daughter’s sophomore year in college, she worked for an insurance company.  After a couple of weeks, I asked her what she had learned in her two years of college that prepared her for this summer job.   She said, “Nothing, I haven’t taken an insurance class.”  That answer made perfect sense to a college sophomore.  It’s not uncommon to link skills and knowledge with course topics or majors.  I pressed her further and asked, “What are they asking you to do?” As it turns out, she was assigned to edit documents and create presentations.  I asked her why, and she said it was because she had good writing and presentation skills.  She didn’t have those skills before college.  Her coursework made the difference. Your professors can help you understand what skills you’re developing beyond the content of a particular course.


Third, find a mentor.  Mentors not only offer advice; they help shoulder burdens by lending an ear, sharing new ideas or different perspectives, and introducing you to others who can help.  A mentor doesn’t have to be someone in a lofty position.  Just find someone you admire, who does something you want to do, and who listens well.  You’ll find that most people want to share their knowledge and experiences with you.

Fourth, engage in experiences that allow you to apply what you learned in the classroom.  This is what we mean by experiential learning.  More often than not, it will be an internship or job.  As you are doing the work, reflect on how it reinforces and builds on what you learned in class.  Did you know you don’t learn from experience?  You learn from reflecting on experience.  At Furman, reflection is at the core of the student experience.  It can be a drag, I won’t lie.  Writing a reflection takes effort.  It’s easier not to reflect.  But without reflection, the learning is lost, and we’re about learning, so we’re going to write reflections.  For some of you, an internship may not be the right experience.  Maybe you want to do research with a professor or study in a foreign country.  There are many ways that you can put your classroom learning to work.  Find as many opportunities as you can…and reflect.


Fifth, and this has nothing to do with the Gallup-Purdue results but it is a high priority of mine: learn to listen to various points of view and, when necessary, disagree civilly.  It’s no secret that opinions on everything from borders to Beyonce, in our country and around the world, are strong and often divisive.   In college, you will study, live, and work with many different types of people. Even for those of you who stay close to home. You’ll meet people whose ideas are different from yours because they come from different backgrounds, different countries, and different religions.  So when you talk with people with whom you don’t agree, don’t react emphatically until you have listened empathically.  Get to know your community, and do so with curiosity and an open mind.  Ask questions.  Don’t assume.  In the words of 19th-century writer Walt Whitman, as told by modern philosopher Ted Lasso, “Be curious, not judgmental.”   Listening with empathy is a skill, which means it improves with practice.   So is engaging in conversations with respect, and engaging in a way that honors the humanity of everyone involved. Nobody wins if we cover our ears and shout our fears and frustrations.  Learn to have respectful dialogue.


A few weeks ago, our ROTC cadets were commissioned as military officers.  The guest speaker was Major General John Rafferty, chief of Public Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of the Army.  General Rafferty said, “Training helps us manage the known; education helps us manage the unknown.” 


Manage the unknown.  What does that mean?  Our world is changing rapidly.  Some of it is of our own doing — think artificial intelligence.  Some of it is not — think COVID.  Your education will help you think through challenging circumstances that you have never seen.  Why?  Because you will be critical thinkers.  You will know how to weigh evidence.  You will know how to balance competing priorities and arrive at optimal decisions.  But you will have to be courageous.  You will need to have established your own values because when things get tough, a lot of people will stand on the sidelines and tell you why you are wrong.  


Class of 2024, we are counting on you.  No pressure.  You have the opportunity to make a difference wherever you reside.  You don’t have to cure cancer.  You just need to decide that you are willing to be a part of the solution.


I want to leave you with an abridged version of the “Man in the Arena” speech by President Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”


Graduates, be the person in the arena.  Engage with all your might, and with all you have learned until now, and all you are going to learn.  You will have bumps and bruises, and you will fall short sometimes.  But you will have proud mentors cheering you on. You will have allies among the opposition because you disagreed civilly and respectfully.  


Finally, parents, families, and friends of the Class of 2024, congratulations to you.  These students didn’t arrive here by themselves, and they are going to need your continued support. 


And to the First Baptist School Class of 2024, I’m excited for you!  Whether you’re eager or anxious about what lies ahead, I promise you that you are ready for it.  Congratulations!  I wish all of you the very best.


 

About Dr. Elizabeth Davis


Elizabeth Davis became Furman University’s 12th President on July 1, 2014. Under her leadership, the university has instituted The Furman Advantage, a distinctive vision for higher education that combines learning with immersive experiences outside the classroom, creating a personalized pathway that prepares students for lives of purpose, successful careers and community benefit. The groundbreaking effort, which has received more than $52.5 million in support from The Duke Endowment, was launched in October 2016.


President Davis is a member of the Council of Presidents, an advisory group of college and university chief executives who provide guidance to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges on issues of governance in higher education. She is also a member of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) Board of Directors.

Dr. Davis serves on the Board of Directors of the Greenville Chamber of Commerce. She is a member of the Greenville Rotary Club, American Council on Education’s Women’s Network Executive Committee, and the South Carolina Higher Education Tuition Grants Commission. She has been recognized by Greenville Business Magazine as one of Greenville’s “50 Most Influential People,” and, in 2020, she was added to the magazine’s Hall of Fame for the recognition.


Dr. Davis has addressed numerous organizations in the Upstate since arriving at Furman, and she has also spoken throughout the U.S. on issues involving higher education, university leadership and financial management. She has been quoted in national media, written op-eds for The Greenville News, University Business and other publications, and done many interviews on radio and television on the subject of higher education.

Before coming to Furman, Dr. Davis spent 22 years at Baylor University in Texas, where she most recently held the position of Executive Vice President and Provost. In addition to being a member of the accounting faculty at Baylor, she also served as Vice Provost for Financial and Academic Administration, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Business Programs, and Acting Chair of the Department of Accounting and Business Law. Before beginning her higher education career, she spent three years at Arthur Andersen & Co. in New Orleans.


Dr. Davis received her Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Baylor in 1984 and earned her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1992. She and her husband, Charles, have two children, Chad and Claire.


Dr. Davis has been a passionate advocate for the study of the liberal arts. She combines her advocacy with a keen awareness of the need to adapt to the changing face of work life. Under her leadership, Furman has been an exemplar of integrating the intellectual training of the liberal arts with the expectations of employers and corporate cultures.


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