Financial expert and accomplished journalist Stephanie Ruhle ’97 returned to Lehigh two decades after she graduated to offer no-nonsense advice for newly minted graduates. But she began her roughly 20-minute address by confessing to a less-than-ideal experience on South Mountain.
“In truth, I had a tough time at Lehigh,” she said. “I couldn’t find my place on the Hill – so much, that I went across the world instead.” Ruhle studied international business in Kenya, Guatemala and Italy before “scampering back to finish up and collect my diploma.”
Battling feelings of failure and insignificance, Ruhle said it took time for her to realize that she was measuring success by the wrong yardstick, and that every day presents a fresh opportunity to embrace the following guiding principles:
• Keep an open mind. “We’ve become attached to these big ideas as labels: Republican. Democrat. Feminist. Alpha Chi Omega. Mountain Hawk. Engineer. We used these labels to find our tribes, get comfortable and then stick with them. And it is suffocating.” Ruhle said the smartest and most successful people she knows are those who are always learning. “It doesn’t end with school. Seek out different perspectives. Maybe even change your mind. Just try to be good.”
• Be selfish. Take care of yourself first and enforce the boundaries that make that possible. Ruhle said her moment of truth came when she was in the back seat of a car, scrambling to change into a bathing suit for a mother-son swim class, while she was on a work-related conference call. In the next car was a man who honked his horn at her and said, “Hey lady, you need a break.” The message she shared with graduates was to “do what you have do to exercise and be healthy. Get active.”
• Be kind for the sake of kindness, not public acclimation. “In order for you to win, someone else doesn’t have to lose brutally,” she said. “Say thank you and be thankful. Do something good in your community – preferably something that doesn’t have a name or a hashtag.”
• Act with integrity. “In your careers, you’re going to take on tasks that you think are beneath you,” she said. “But that is no excuse to do a crummy job. If you said you’re going to do it, do it. And do it on time. Be the best damn food-getter, copy-maker, note-taker you possibly can. That’s integrity. It’s also, by the way, how you earn your next job….No one gets a bigger assignment for bailing on the first one, the easy one.”
• Show remorse. “No one has a perfect record. Good people forgive you when you admit mistakes and apologize. If you break something, say sorry. If you flake on a commitment, say sorry….A good apology is like a gallon of ammonia on the floor of Theta Xi after a Beirut tournament,” she said to laughter from the crowd. “It wipes out all that nasty and lets you start the day new. We’re human. We all do bad things sometimes. Just admit it and move on.”
• Recognize that no one is going to save you. Don’t seek a mentor to get ahead without putting in the effort to succeed on your own merits. “People will get interested in you and your career when you demonstrate what you bring to the table,” she said. “If you add value and make yourself indispensable, you and mentors will find each other.” The person you should “bet on, believe in, fight for and even kiss up to is you.” And women, she said, should learn an important lesson: Don’t ask, don’t get. “We know that women ask less than men do. You will not get a promotion just by doing a good job. Now is the time when you need to see around corners.”
Although Ruhle’s commentary focused more on the path ahead for the young graduates, she didn’t shy away from references to the current president, stating early in her address that she followed governors and senators, iconic writers and a “yuuuuuuuuge business leader” who delivered the Lehigh commencement address 29 years ago.
“He descended in his big black helicopter, with his name emblazoned on the side in gold,” she said. “The chopper. Maybe he did it for effect. Maybe, unlike us, he couldn’t handle hiking up the campus.”
She sprinkled her address with references to business leaders who don’t often personify the commendable traits of kindness, fairness and decency, reminding her audience that “you don’t need to be a billionaire with a namesake foundation” to be generous and charitable.
Later in her address, she cautioned that happiness is not the direct result of a lifelong pursuit of material wealth.
“If you’re convinced it’s all about the quest for the money and power, I challenge you over the next four years, turn on the news any day, and you’ll probably see coverage of someone with more money and power than most people could ever dream of. And you decide: Does that person seem fulfilled? Does he seem happy?”
Just last week, Ruhle said, President Trump addressed another group of graduates, and complained that no other president has been treated worse, or more unfairly.
“When I was in your seats,” Ruhle said, “I thought Lehigh had been really unfair to me. I was wrong. And the president is wrong. It’s life! Not Lehigh, and not people holding the president accountable for his own words. Life. Life is not fair. But it can be extraordinary.”
Concluding by wishing the president the best in his new role, she said she did agree with one of his comments in his inaugural address, wherein he insisted that in America, the power belongs to the people.
“I agree,” she said. “So please, take the power. Do not just resist. Do not simply follow blind. Use your power, use your mind, your youth and your voice. Make today a day of impact. And if you don’t, you can’t complain when somebody else does. These are scary times. But Class of 2017, you cannot be scared.”
Ruhle was introduced by outgoing Lehigh Chairman of the Board of the Trustees Brad Scheler ’74, ’05P, ’08P, ’09PG, who described his treasured friend as someone whose “true essence is her ability to advocate for those who may not have a voice….her ability to inspire countless women and men to embrace their dreams and expect excellence, her ability to see the potential for boundless possibility…and her ability to challenge the status quo because to not, would be settling.”
Scheler praised not only her journalistic accomplishments, but also her ability to “speak truth to power,” her openness, candor and directness.
“In all that she does,” Scheler said, “Stephanie resists the herd, pushes back against conformity, marches to her own drum, and makes her own mark every day, with warmth and expression from the heart that is neither faux nor sugar-coated. Perhaps, as never before in our nation’s history, we need, we must look to and we depend on those who embody these ideals and values. In Stephanie, we need look no further. She is the best exemplar for each and for all of us. And she is a leader who embodies the very best of Lehigh.”
Lehigh President John Simon began the ceremony by greeting those assembled under the gloomy and threatening skies, including members of the Class of 1967, who participated in their 50-year class reunion this past weekend.
Before turning the ceremony over to the student speakers, Simon provided the graduates with a class profile, noting that the 1,071 undergraduates hailed from 41 states and 28 countries, that the most popular major was finance (followed by mechanical engineering, accounting, marketing and chemical engineering), and the students collectively chose a “staggering 61 different majors – a true reflection of the broad intellectual engagement of your class.”
Listing major accomplishments of several students, Simon expressed his confidence that the young graduates “will all do great things.”
Class of 2017 President Freddie Coleman reminded his fellow graduates that they had had experiences unique to the classes that came before them. During our time, he said, “we’ve seen the 150th celebration of our institution, the 150th rendition of the country’s longest played college football rivalry, the leadership of three university presidents, and two football wins over Lafayette. The amount of pride we have for institution is deeply rooted in the traditions set forth by students prior, but they are magnified by the opportunities to instill new traditions for the people that will follow.”
But he and his classmates were also witness to the university’s ongoing evolution as a more diverse institution.
“We’ve found over the years that diversity and opportunity can walk hand-in-hand,” Coleman said. “Whenever our institution needed someone to step up to the plate to do the extraordinary, to fill a void, to create, to lead – it was usually from the Class of 2017.”
Coleman cited circumstances such as rallying students together during polarizing national moments, creating outlets for culture like the African Renaissance dance team, building water distribution systems in Nicaragua and championing gender equality.
“Members of the Class of 2017 have been leaders with initiative,” Coleman said. “You are leaders with the skill set and know-how to change the world, and I truly believe that.”
Graduate student speaker Matt Dragovich, who was being awarded his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering, surprised some in the audience by admitting he didn’t work hard in high school, didn’t earn good grades, and started his post-high school education at Northampton Community College.
“While I was (at NCC) and working two jobs, I realized something,” he said. “I realized that I had a great opportunity to obtain an education, and I realized that I had previously wasted that opportunity. This epiphany is what led me to obtain a B.S. in physics at Moravian College and finally earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering here at Lehigh University.”
After congratulating his fellow students on the honors conferred upon them at commencement, he also cautioned against complacency and misplaced pride.
“A good place to start is not break your arm patting yourself on the back today and to continue the pursuit of knowledge and take advantage of opportunity,” he said. “Let us understand that this is only the beginning of a hopefully long life. It is incumbent upon all of us take what we have learned here at Lehigh and apply it to the world. Let’s take responsibility for ourselves and live our lives with meaning. Let’s use our knowledge to empower ourselves as individuals, because when we are strong as individuals we can use our knowledge to help others. This is the real meaning of an education.”
Commencement day weather was gray and drizzly, with a light rain falling intermittently during the morning… (temps reached degrees 57 degrees F by the 10 a.m. start of the ceremony) …there were 1,071 undergraduates in the Class of 2017…they hailed from 41 states and 28 countries….there were 360 students who received Master’s Degrees and 49 who received doctoral degrees…of the nearly 1,500 graduates, degree recipients came from 41 states and 38 countries, majoring in 94 different disciplines … for the fifth year, the commencement ceremony incorporated live video through two large-scale video boards on either side of the stage. …. the ceremony began with a blessing from Rabbi Danielle A. Stillman, associate university chaplain and director of Jewish Student Life, and was followed by the national anthem, which was sung by Sarah A. Dudney ‘17 … Matthew A. Dragovich ‘17G, delivered the Graduate Student Remarks, and Frederick R. Coleman ’17,, president of the Class of 2017, delivered the Senior Class Remarks … Gary Chan ‘80, outgoing president of the LUAA, welcomed the new alumni … the ceremony officially concluded with the ringing of the bell by representatives of the classes of 1967 and 2017 ... the benediction was offered by Rev. Lloyd H. Steffen, university chaplain and professor of religion studies… the Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, delivered their 36th consecutive performance at Lehigh’s commencement ceremony. It is America's oldest civilian concert band, with its first documented performance on July 4, 1828.
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