President's Blog

W. T. Woodson High School Graduation Speech

Thank you Woodson Class of 2015 for inviting me to be part of your special day. And thanks to my son Alex, who’s graduating with you today, for not vetoing me! I am really touched.

Parents are rarely invited to speak at high school graduations. I realize what a rare privilege this is. I will try my best not to abuse it, lest I ruin the chances that another parent one day be afforded the same opportunity.

Let me start by congratulating your teachers, for they have done a superb job educating and inspiring an impressive class.

A couple of weeks ago my wife Beth and I spent some time at the Relay for Life event organized by students in partnership with the American Cancer Society. We sat back and admired the work of these students, their leadership, their commitment to a great cause, their artistic talent. Wow!

Four years ago we sent you our children. Today you’re sending off a class of young adults, ready to find their way in life and make a contribution in the world. You should feel really proud. As parents we are extremely grateful.

Now let me share with you three parting pieces of advice. One has to do with taking full advantage of your college experience. The second one is a hash tag. And the third, a very cool app.

Let me start with the college thing.

The majority of you are going to college next year. To all of you in this category, congratulations. Unless you’re lucky to get family and friends shares in the next Google or Facebook, going to college will very likely be the smartest investment you will ever make.

People with college degrees are more likely to be employed, have decent incomes, health care and retirement plans than non-graduates. Even after you factor in tuition checks and student loans, statistics say it will be worth your while.

And the value of education is not shrinking, but growing.  The gap between those who have earned a college degree and those who haven’t is widening, because in today’s economy, the only way to compete successfully is to outsmart others.

Beware the pundits who question the value of a college degree, for chances are they went to a fine university themselves. When they tell you that college is not for everyone, ask them whether they would have preferred not to go to college or whether they would advise their own children not to go. That normally makes for a short conversation.

If you cannot go to college at his point, don’t worry, it’s by no means the end of the world.

Neither of my parents went to college and, by all measures, they have had a pretty good life. They worked hard, were reasonably fortunate with business, and raised four boys who are doing very well today. No one knows if they would be better off had they gone to college.

What I’m saying is that it is a lot easier to be lucky if you go to college than if you don’t. Education opens up new doors. It gives you more options.

If I had not gone to college, I wouldn’t have earned the Fulbright scholarship that allowed me to come to graduate school in the US. I wouldn’t have become a professor, let alone a university president. I would definitely not have married Beth nor have had the exciting life we have had.

Some of you may still be wondering if you made the right choice of university. Or you may be sad that you weren’t accepted by your top choice.

I have good news for you. It doesn’t matter all that much where you go (unless of course you come to George Mason!).

Say you dream of becoming the CEO of one of the greatest companies in America. Where do big-time CEOs go to school?

The CEO of Apple went to Auburn. The CEO of Microsoft went to the Manipal Institute of Technology (in Karnataka, India). The CEO of Exxon Mobil went to UT-Austin. The CEO of Google went to the University of Michigan (and his co-founder, to the University of Maryland). Warren Buffet went to the University of Nebraska. The CEO of Johnson & Johnson went to West Point. The CEO of Wells Fargo went to St. Cloud State University. The CEO of Walmart went to the University of Arkansas. The CEO of Coca Cola went to Tarsus American College in Turkey. Only the CEO of Facebook went to Harvard but, guess what, he dropped out (go figure!).

Conclusion. It does not matter where you go to college. What matters is what you do when you get there. That you take full advantage of all the opportunities, that you work hard and graduate in four years or not much longer, and that you don’t make too many stupid decisions along the way. That’s all.

So relax, embrace your choice, and turn it into the best university choice for you!

Speaking of embracing, let me switch to my second piece of advice: embrace your weirdness.

As adolescents, it is normal that you may have spent much of the last four years trying to fit in, to be accepted by others, to be more like everyone else.  That’s OK, it’s part of growing up. But four years of it is enough.

Your assignment for the next four is not to fit in, but to stand out, to focus on what makes you unique and different. What makes you weird may well be your best secret weapon, your competitive edge.

When I moved to the U.S., I was often the token foreigner in the room, the Spaniard, the European.  My accent was funny, my clothes were funny (well, according to my daughter some things never change!).  Then when we moved to Spain, I became the “Americano”, the strange guy who spoke English with his wife and kids.  Then, to make things more interesting, I spent time working in Turkey.

I wasn’t fully American or fully Spanish. I was, well, weird.

Yet, in an odd way, I owe my career success to that weirdness.  When I joined the faculty of IE Business School, Spain’s largest business school, there were plenty of great professors.  Yet I was the one who was appointed dean, even though I was barely older than our students at the time, because I was seen as the guy who could help internationalize the school.

A few years later, I was recruited to lead a business school in the U.S., again, not in spite of my weirdness, but because of it.  This business school was known around the world for its international focus. And it was my “foreignness” that made me stand out from a pool of great candidates.

I even wonder if it was my exotic accent that helped me get the attention of Beth Fraser, the top student in my graduate school class, and persuade her to marry me!

You may have regretted your differences until now.  Maybe you look different. Maybe your parents come from countries most people can’t place on a map.  Maybe you’re too tall, or too short, or too big or too small. Maybe you’ve been a closet tuba player or butterfly collector. (By the way, the biggest celebrity at George Mason has a PhD in tuba).

Embrace your weirdness because that’s likely to be your edge.

I promised you a hashtag. Here you have it #BYOP: Be your own person!

A good friend of mine, Linda Rottenberg, recently wrote a book entitled “Crazy is a compliment: The power of zigging when everyone else zags”.

When I graduated from Spain’s leading Engineering School, I decided I would try to get my doctorate in psychology.  Yes, I know, it sounds crazy.  It sounded crazy to my parents and to my esteemed professors too.  And they weren’t shy about letting me know!

Remember this was the early nineties, when the first personal computers were finally becoming widespread, the Internet was being deployed and the information revolution was about to explode.  And here I am, a top graduate from the most selective school of computer engineering in my country, giving it all up for a “crazy” interest in psychology.

I did listen to them.  They made me question myself.  And all these “are you crazy” conversations were actually quite useful.  They forced me to dig deeper into the reasons for my decision.  And when I finally decided to go for it and “be crazy” I was much better prepared for it.

In retrospect, I can say with confidence that I would not have become the president of George Mason University if I hadn’t been that crazy.  Accenture hired me out of graduate school because they needed people who could understand the human side of technology. Being a good engineer alone or a good psychologist would not have been enough. It was the crazy combination of the two. Without Accenture I would not have ended up teaching in a business school, let alone become a dean, which helped me become the first Spaniard to lead an American university!

It had never crossed my mind that one day I would become a college president. I honestly had no clue what my life would look like. No one does! But the combination of good education and a bit of “craziness”, of unconventional decisions, of embracing your weirdness, can open up wonderful life adventures that you cannot even imagine.

Again, my suggestion is not that you be crazy for the sake of it.  My point is that you don’t give up because some people think it’s crazy.

So yes, #BYOP: be your own person!

Finally, the cool app I promised! That got your attention, didn’t it?

I know you weren’t allowed to bring your cellphones. But I did bring mine! There’s a very cool app that most of you barely use and that you need to check out.

On most phones it shows up on your main screen. It’s usually green and its icon looks like an old-fashioned telephone handset. This app does wonderful things. When you open it up, you can dial your mom’s phone and, guess what, you can talk to her. Live!

My last and most important piece of advice: use the app and call your mom when you’re in college. There are several good reasons for it. For one, this is the least you can do for the person who loves you more unconditionally than anyone else in the world. OK, there’s dad too. He also loves you immensely, but if your time is limited, calling mom is probably your smartest choice for reasons it would take too long to explain.

But if none of this is convincing enough, let me warn you: if you don’t call her, she will call you. She’s an expert at using the app. And she won’t stop until she gets to you.

Texting is nice, but it won’t do. Facebook status updates don’t do the trick either, just click the green button on your phone and call mom at least once a week!

So there you have it. Enjoy college, work hard and savor every day. Be your own person. And please, please call your mom!

The world today is a better place than it was four years ago, because this group of talented, committed young adults is about to go out there and make a difference.

Congratulations, class of 2015.

Thank you!


Ángel Cabrera

W.T. Woodson High School

Fairfax, VA

June 16, 2015


One reply on “W. T. Woodson High School Graduation Speech”

This speech is endearing and (from experience) I agree that calling your mom at least once a week is the BEST college advice. It’s one of the top things that, in hindsight, I would have put more time aside for in college.

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