A short ride in a fast machine

March 21, 2012

At Baylor's December 2011 commencement ceremony, President Ken Starr took the university's newest alumni through a look back at the previous year to glean some lessons they could carry forth into the real world. We felt these lessons were good reminders for all of us, not just new graduates, to live a life that fulfills our calling, so the following is an edited version of Judge Starr's remarks.

To the winter graduates of 2011: Today we mark Baylor University's 166th year -- older than the State of Texas. From Baylor's first graduation ceremony in 1854 at Independence to this gathering in the Paul J. Meyer Arena in the Ferrell Center, our "green and gold" has been flung afar. And now you join that good old Baylor Line -- 155,000 living alumni worldwide. Congratulations.

You are graduating in a year marked by great triumph, as well as great tragedy. Natural disasters in Japan and Australia called for our prayers and our assistance. The Arab Spring proved once again that -- even in our fallen world -- the human spirit is indomitable. The conclusion of the Iraq war is an important milestone in a chain of events set tragically in motion on Sept. 11, 2001.

Closer to home, this has been a historic year for us at Baylor University, as Bears near and far celebrated the accomplishments of our first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III. Robert's performance on the field, and in the classroom, has been truly extraordinary. As a result, he stands out as a symbol of hope at a time when our nation so desperately longs for athletes who can once again be heroes and role models.

Perhaps you've seen some of our billboards up and down I-35. The message: "Baylor University. Educating leaders ... and Heisman Trophy winners."

As RG3's experience eloquently attests, a university draws together people of many talents. Some of those talents further our knowledge of the world and deepen our relationship with God.

Many employ their God-given talents to engage the world through creative expression. At its fall concert, our Baylor Symphony Orchestra performed a zesty piece called "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." Composed by John Adams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2003, the piece is quite short and very fast.

With this high-energy piece, the award-winning composer did something remarkable. He combined his classical education with pop sensibility to craft a highly unconventional composition. He connected disparate dots. On the one hand, the piece builds on a continuum of sound that unfolds gradually. Yet this steady beat can be broken into phrases, measures and beats. Each part, in turn, encapsulates the whole.

Like composer John Adams, you've spent considerable energy composing your own music at Baylor. Your time has been, in effect, a "Short Ride in a Fast Machine." Looking back on your "short ride" at Baylor, you will recall your own landmark achievements and special moments.

Today, we reflect on your years at Baylor. If one musical composition can be broken into movements, measures and beats, then life at Baylor can likewise be broken into months, weeks, days, and even moments. Lessons drawn from a single busy week -- one measure of your music here at Baylor -- can serve as a microcosm of your time riding in the Baylor fast machine.

In the same month that the Baylor Symphony Orchestra performed John Adams's remarkable piece, the world remained abuzz with dramatic international news. At Baylor, we paid special attention; for in this Global Century, we are called to be a global university.

Today, as you launch into your own part of what Baylor's mission statement calls "worldwide leadership and service" -- rallying us again as a global university -- I invite you to reflect briefly on four lessons from that important month.

Lesson One: Think bigger.

The date was Oct. 5, 2011. Steve Jobs died at roughly 3 in the afternoon. The next morning's New York Times headline trumpeted, "Steven P. Jobs, 1955-2011 -- Apple's Visionary Redefined Digital Age." Virtually every newspaper in the country -- and many around the world -- announced the news on page one. Steve Jobs' death had special meaning. He was far more than a wildly successful businessman; above all, he was known for his creativity-driven vision.

Without question, Steve Jobs had a magnificent line of sight into the future of technology. As the creative force behind Apple's vision, he imagined products that would defy the popular notion of cutting-edge technology's complexity.  For building the "Machine of the Year" (the computer, according to Time magazine in 1982), Steve Jobs was dubbed "maestro of the micro."

Through Steve Jobs' visionary example, we learn both to reflect on our own past and to shape -- by God's grace -- our own future. As you cross the stage a few moments from now, you are poised to do just that -- to look back on your Baylor experience and then to jump headlong into your own future.

In his iconic graduation speech at Stanford six years ago, Steve Jobs posed this challenge: "The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking."

Great advice. "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."  

Lesson Two: Dare to dream.

In that same week back in October, the world received news of the 2011 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Baylor, the global university, paid attention. Three women -- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman -- jointly received this signal honor for what the Nobel committee described as their "diplomatic efforts for the safety of women and for women's rights to vital peace-building efforts." Their stories are exceptional. Like the example of Steve Jobs, these stories inspire.

The first: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. A few days after her birth in Monrovia, Liberia, in October 1938, an elderly friend came to visit Sirleaf's parents to offer his best wishes. This village elder took one look at the newborn child and said to her mother, "This child shall be great. This child is going to lead." Like Simeon in the New Testament, this village elder was prescient.

But Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's journey to become the first female president on the entire continent of Africa -- and an eloquent voice for women's rights -- came only in the face of great hardship. Born to parents raised in poverty, Sirleaf was well aware of the class divide long overwhelming Liberia.

Yet Ellen dared to dream of something better. Escaping from an abusive marriage, she pursued her education here in the United States. She then returned to Liberia, going on to serve as minister of finance.

Six years ago, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Liberia's first duly elected female president. Her policies, both foreign and domestic, have been widely acclaimed. The Economist described her as "arguably the best president the country has ever had."

As she said in a commencement speech at Harvard earlier this year, "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough."

Lesson Three: Stay true to your course.

For the third lesson, we turn to President Sirleaf's two co-laureates: Tawakkol Karman and Leymah Gbowee -- two courageous women who persevered boldly in the face of profound danger.

For her part, Tawakkol Karman helped lead non-violent protests in her native Yemen to combat what she viewed as a corrupt government regime. Her goal was simple and elegant -- democracy and freedom. Despite being a woman in the Arab world, and the mother of three young children, Karman bravely led protests against the Yemeni government. Every day, she faced possible injury and death. She was sent to prison, but upon release carried on her non-violent protests. At only 32 years of age, Karman became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history. She embodies the spirit of 1 Timothy 4:12: "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young ... "

Karman's co-laureate, Leymah Gbowee, worked for peace in Liberia as leader of a national women's movement. Gbowee was convinced that her native land would not enjoy peace without her efforts. In her words, "Don't wait for a Gandhi, don't wait for a [Martin Luther] King, don't wait for a [Nelson] Mandela. You are your own Mandela, you are your own Gandhi, you are your own [Dr.] King." Leymah answered the call by leading thousands of women, young and old, Christian and Muslim, to the presidential palace. Wearing white t-shirts to symbolize peace, these brave women prayed in silent protest against Liberia's seemingly endless civil war. Their non-violent demonstrations were instrumental in advancing peace talks that ended 14 years of bloody strife.

When asked about the source of her courage, Leymah answered this way: "My faith. I have come to one conclusion: All that I am, all that I aspire to be, all that I was before, is by the grace of God."

Purpose drives everything we do, and each one of us has a unique -- and irreplaceable -- role defined by that purpose. As Gbowee has opined, "There is something in this world that every individual can do. God has created us all with something unique to contribute."

And that Nobel Laureate's admonition leads to our fourth and final lesson: Live generously.

The wise and generous Sir Winston Churchill has said, "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."

On Oct. 29, nearly 3,000 student, staff and faculty volunteers descended upon the city of Waco to participate in the wonderfully generous community service tradition we at Baylor call "Steppin' Out." Gardens were planted, homes were painted and playgrounds were constructed. For some of our neighbors, hope was restored.

Making a life for oneself has always been part of the fabric of the American dream. And yet, consider Churchill's gentle but powerful admonition. Making a living will sustain us, but making a life will fulfill us. Be fulfilled. Practice the art of generous living.

You all well know Baylor's noble -- and global -- mission. "to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community."

Your "short ride in this fast machine" may be ending, but your music is truly just beginning. The next movements of your composition lie ahead.

At the same time, as you enter this next phase -- a phase of worldwide leadership and service -- remember that Baylor will forever be your home. Come back. Come home often.

And so, your time as an undergraduate -- or graduate student -- has flown by, and life marches on. My prediction: as you leave the Paul J. Meyer Arena today, history will seem to speed up even more. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, life will seem to be "a short ride in a fast machine." As the seconds beat rhythmically on, recall these four simple lessons: Think bigger; have the vision to think differently. Dare to dream in the face of difficulty. Stay true to your course, persevering through difficulties, so that you may live generously and contribute magnificently using the gifts God has graciously given to you.

To be sure, college graduates and doctoral candidates face acute challenges in this, the second decade of the Global Century. For example, we follow with concern the unfolding events in the eurozone. However, whether boom or bust, growth or decline, I encourage you to let no external force stand between you and the path ahead. In the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, "Go forth and embrace a future that awaits you."

God bless you, and all those you hold dear.