President's Blog

The real return of education is not cash but choices

Northern Virginia Community College Commencement Address

Fairfax, VA, May 19, 2013

Good afternoon.  It is a true pleasure to welcome the Northern Virginia Community College family to the Mason campus!

You know what NoVa stands for, right?  A cataclysmic explosion on the surface of a star that makes the star to suddenly brighten up.  This concentration of talent and energy is making the Patriot Center brighten up.  I’m sure it’s visible from outer space: we’ll call it the NoVa power!

Y para quienes hablan español, muy buenas tardes a todos y muchísimas felicidades por su logro o el logro de su familiar.  Bienvenidos al campus de la universidad George Mason.

President Templin, thank you so much for inviting me to share in this very special moment.

I hope you all know that president Bob Templin is a relentless advocate for you and for our community.  He, his staff and faculty, will leave no rock unturned to ensure that every person in our community with talent and motivation has access to education.  They work tirelessly to bring business and community leaders together to make sure Northern Virginia remains one the most-educated areas in the Nation.

George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College have parallel and intimately connected histories.  The question of which of the two was started first is still somehow contentious. Technically Mason was started a few years earlier, but NoVa graduated its first class in 1967, one year before Mason did!

In the last 20 years alone, almost 40,000 people have gone through both NoVa and Mason.  Last year alone, about 1,500 NoVa graduates took advantage of the guaranteed acceptance system and transferred to Mason.  I expect even more people will do so this year, so I will pay close attention as I expect to see you next year around campus!

Our partnership continues to evolve. In 2005 we established the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program that works with high school students to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks and get to graduate from both NoVa and Mason.

And this is only the beginning, as NoVa and Mason continue to explore new ways to provide better education to more people.

America doesn’t have great universities because it is a prosperous Nation.  It is a prosperous Nation because it built great universities.  Northern Virginia would not be what it is today, one of the most prosperous and most educated regions in the world, if it had not built these two unique public education institutions, Nova and George Mason University.  Now that you’re about to receive your first degree, we count on you to help us build an even stronger Community College!

But let me do what you probably had hoped I would do and that is to congratulate you.

For your dedication, your hard work, your determination, your openness to learn, your desire to grow and do better, you have my profound admiration.  You decided to go to school when I’m sure you had plenty of other things to do.  You invested precious time and money, you persevered, you worked hard, you went to class, you studied, you dug in, you pressed on, and you made it. You are here.  You have proven to yourself that you could do it.  And you got your first college degree to prove it.  Yes you heard right, your first college degree.  Because there will be others.  But this will be the first and most important of all. Ladies and gentlemen, my most heartfelt congratulations!!!

Over the last few years, it has become fashionable to question whether it is worth to go to college.  Newspaper articles cite Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples of individuals who didn’t need a college degree to be successful, and a very rich man, Peter Thiel, has created a fellowship to convince very talented students not to go to college.

The reality though is that for every Bill Gates and every Steve Jobs there are not thousands, not millions, but tens of millions of us, for whom a college degree is essential to build a prosperous life.

The reality too is that the very rich man I mentioned, Peter Thiel, earned two degrees from Stanford before making the money he’s now using to convince others not to go to college.

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can.  The value of education is not shrinking, it is growing.  Your ability to get a good job, one that pays reasonably well and provides you and your family with benefits and security depends more and more on your education.  The gap between those who have education and those who don’t is widening. And don’t expect the trend to reverse any time soon, because in today’s economy winner are those who can outsmart the rest.

In case you still have any doubt, let me clear it: Going to NoVa was one of the smartest decisions you have ever made!

Why am I talking about money and jobs?  In fact it is customary in situations like this to try to convince you that money does not buy happiness.  Is it true?  Not entirely.

One of the best psychologists of our time, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, has shown that the less money a family makes below $75,000 a year, the more stressful, less happy life the family has.

Interestingly, Kahneman also found that once you make more that $75,000, money no longer determines how happy your daily life is.  See, very often, people who are invited to give commencement speeches like me happen to make more than $75,000 and therefore try to convince you that you shouldn’t worry about money.  But truthfully, you should.

I suspect that many of you didn’t need a Nobel Laureate to figure out that making reasonable money will in fact help you and your family be happier, and that’s why you decided to go to college!  Again, one of the smartest things you’ve done.

Now, at the risk of confusing you some, I will argue that there is something more valuable than money that you will get with education.

Let me illustrate this with my own story.

I grew up in Spain, in the great city of Madrid, the second of 4 brothers. Neither of my parents went to college.  My mom grew up in a poor farming village in the mountains of Extremadura.  Her dad, who was the village’s teacher, could only afford to send one child to college and he chose to send the boy.

My dad, who grew up in Madrid, didn’t go to college either because he had to work in the family business from dusk to dawn.  When my mom was 19, her parents moved to Madrid, my parents met, fell in love, and the rest is history.

Before they got married, my parents had not traveled anywhere outside Spain.  They just worked hard and raised a family.  They did the best they could with the options they had.  Because of their work and sacrifice, my brothers and I were able to study.  We even spent summers abroad to learn languages and see the world my parents had never been able to see themselves.

I went to college (a public university) and studied computer engineering.  I got very good grades and was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to come to America for graduate school: a dream come true.  So I ended up at Georgia Tech (another public university), where I got a Masters, a PhD and a wife, Beth Fraser, of Florence, Alabama, to whom I’m still happily married.

Against the advise of my parents and my professors, I decided to change fields, so I got my doctorate in Psychology.  When we graduated, we moved back to Spain, where I ended up working as a business consultant, a business professor, and a college administrator.   I continued to take classes, to go to conferences, to meet people from around the world.

Then we moved back to the U.S. where I became the president of a school in Arizona (Thunderbird) when I was in my 30s and then the president of Mason in my 40s.

Students often ask me how I ended up where I am, what is the secret recipe.  They are convinced that my career must be the result of a perfectly laid out master plan and a bigger-than-life ambition.

And yet, my career, like the careers of pretty much everyone, has been nothing but a series of accidents: one after another, many happy accidents, some less so (I have my own share of failures to share!).

But here’s the catch, none of these accidents would have been possible without the education I received along the way.  Each course I took, each degree I received, each language I studied, opened up new doors, new options. At times I made decisions that were not conventional, that raised eyebrows and were questioned by people I respected and loved.  But each of those doors led to another wonderful chapter: new things to learn, new people to meet, new doors to be unlocked.

Only one generation separates that girl in the mountains of Extremadura, whose most exciting event of the year was to ride into town in a truck full of cattle, from my brothers and me.  One generation, loving parents, and good public education.

So, while it is true that education pays in economic terms, listen carefully. The real return of education is not cash but choices.

Keep studying, keep investing in yourself, and wonderful and surprising opportunities will open up.  Opportunities that you cannot even imagine now.  Opportunities that will make you freer to decide for yourself and your family.

The motto of George Mason University consists of two simple but profound words: “Freedom and Learning”. Today’s degree will make most of you a bit wealthier and a bit happier, but most important of all it will make you a bit freer.

Let’s now start thinking about what our second degree will be.  But in a few years, when life smiles at you and people ask you how you did it, remember that it all started at NOVA.

Congratulations and all the best to all.