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Convocation Address

Jay A. Smith

Distinguished Professor

"Comparison Symbols"

Commencement is an occasion made meaningful through symbolism. This day stands for more than receiving a degree or completing your tenure at North Florida and saying good-by to old friends. It is a reminder of obligations acquired, of debts to be paid, or responsibilities gained, and of challenges ahead. This commencement, in a sense, completes your Olympiad that was started four years ago for some of you and somewhat longer for others.

You will recall that the Olympic Games open with a great procession of officials and competing national delegations. The athletes march in wearing their colorful Olympic uniforms or native costumes and are carrying the flags of their countries. Leading the way are the Greeks, with 75 to 100 groups following in alphabetical order. After they circle the field, they line up in the center of the stadium for the opening ceremonies. The President of the International Olympic Committee delivers a brief speech and introduces the leader of the host country who opens the games.

The trumpet sounds the Olympic Hymn; the five-ringed Olympic flag is hoisted; a dozen or so pigeons are released; and a three gun salute is fired. But the quadrennial ritual is not complete until one more symbolic event takes place. A runner dashes into the stadium carrying a lighted torch and circles the field. That flame has made a long journey, because many days before it was ignited by the rays of the sun on Mount Olympus in old Greece. A relay of runners carried it to the present site. When it starts the great fire that burns above the stadium throughout the games, the Olympic competition is officially open.

What does that flame signify? It links the past with the present and future in the following ways:

It is a reminder of the debt that the present owes to its past, especially ancient Greek civilization, and of the ideals and meaning of Olympic competition.

It is a reminder that the present participants must exert themselves mightily to meet the challenges set forth by past winners.

It is a reminder that those present have responsibilities beyond the present games to carry the Olympic message back to their own country and keep the flame burning brightly for future Olympians.

What are the parallels between the Olympic flame and this commencement? Motivated by their sense of unity, awe, and reverence, the Greeks saw in the Olympics more than a competition. To the Greeks, the games had religious significance and stood as symbols for the best in the Greek experience. They would have found no difficulty understanding the analogy between the games and this academic occasion.

First, this symbolic day should suggest what the past has contributed to you. Your whole academic experience grows out of a long tradition that has evolved through the painful striving for excellence of untold scholars that continues to thrive on this campus and at other universities. What your professors have brought to your attention in classrooms, laboratories, the library, and in your particular field of study is but a tiny sampling of this legacy. This great gift from the past exists because of the inquiry of many searchers, thinkers, philosophers, explorers, and dreamers.

In their specific ways and in this little niche, the University of North Florida faculty and staff have pursued the tradition of excellence and have attempted to keep the flame burning brightly here at Jacksonville. In making their mark, they have sometimes encountered obstacles, adversities, lack of respect, and not enough resources. In spite of these deterrents, they have persevered --- hoping always to develop in you the ideals, insights, rigor, and discipline necessary for inquiry and problem solving. Perhaps on this important day, you remember some of those teachers who have touched you, moved you along, in fact, made the flame grow for you.

Second, the flame has a message for the present, a reminder to exert great effort to match the accomplishments of past UNF graduates, to excel among your present colleagues, and to set records which will challenge future students at this school.

Coming as you have from distant points as well as Jacksonville, you not doubt have discovered that many others are superior to you in ability and performance and more eager to succeed than you are. Most of you are now more modest than when you came to UNF.

But the competition beyond this day when you will become a professional will be more intense and keener. You will find that many people will come to expect that you will perform your very best at every time in every circumstance. In fact, they want optimum performance and not excuses --- no excuses at all.

How will you react when you no longer have a friendly faculty to hold your hand, to suggest how to cope with problems, to soothe your hurts? Are you prepared to compete with the best talent, driven by the competitive urge to succeed? How will you be counted amongst the UNF graduates? Will you match up to the achievers of this institution?

Third, this commencement is a reminder of the responsibilities that you have as a UNF communicator. Today, you become a representative and a spokesperson for North Florida. Wherever you go and whatever you accomplish will reflect on this University and its faculty. Frequently, you will be asked, “Where did you get your education and training?” “Who were your teachers?” But your achievements will speak even louder than the reputation of your teachers or the status of the University of North Florida.

The University communicates through its faculty productivity and research, services to the citizens, and its teaching activities --- You. But your achievements will add much to the status of UNF in its future years.

To keep the flame burning brightly, UNF is presently undertaking an expansion of its role in the community services, particularly through its programs such as the Department of Transportation and Logistics Center of Excellence, which is striving to become one of the prominent areas in universities throughout the United States. UNF needs greater financial support, a greater library, more equipment, more eminent faculty members, and better students.

In this quest, you are the best resource. Consider for a moment what favorable light you would throw upon your alma mater if any of you would discover a cure for cancer, find a way to harness the energy of the sun, write a Pulitzer price winning novel, earn the Nobel Prize, win an Oscar for a dramatic work or performance, or manage a great corporation.

Ridiculous, you say! Such goals are too grandiose. Then please take a look at your neighbor, for he or she may become a gold medal winner and achieve great things. And you will tell your grandchildren that you sat by him or her at this commencement.

But if you think such accomplishments are beyond you, then go back to Jacksonville and the Florida community and become a great teacher, an active community worker, an ardent crime fighter, a fearless conservationist, or whatever you choose to devote yourself toward doing well --- the equivalent of the gold medal. With your abilities and training, we expect that you will become a spokesperson and leader in your field and in whatever community you join.

When you gain the notice of your fellow citizens, they will remember that you are a UNF graduate. Knowing you, they will think more highly of the University of North Florida and thank their lucky stars that this great institution continues to strive for excellence. And you will be keeping the flame burning brightly.