Downing Speaks at Honors Convocation

The annual Southeast Missouri State University Honors Convocation was held May 15, 2004, during which 253 undergraduates and 70 graduate students were honored. Dr. Craig Downing, assistant professor of industrial and engineering technology, presented the Honors Convocation address and served as grand marshal at the commencement ceremony. His remarks to the honor students follows:

Good morning graduates,

First let me thank you for a job well done.  Also, for getting up early on this Saturday morning to hear what could quite possibly be your last 50-minute lecture from Southeast Missouri State University, just kidding.  Today my remarks won’t take 50 minutes nor will it be a lecture.  I have an 11:30 tee-time at Dalhousie.

Seriously, today, this beautiful Saturday morning is not about me trying to score birdies or bogeys it is about honoring you. 

When I first became aware of this opportunity from Provost Stephens I was stoked.  But after about 15 minutes of elation IT set in.  FEAR!  The same feelings, excitement and fear, many of you will feel as you depart from campus this weekend.  Rather than letting fear overcome me I went home and started digging through my academic memorabilia to find inspiration.  As I was rummaging through my papers and plaques I remembered a quote from a Heartland favorite from Fenton MO, Joyce Meyer, relating to fear.  Fear is nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real.  So I continued to dig until I found my seventh grade memory book.  Once I started looking through my book, my feelings of Fear dwindled and the elation returned. 

This book is very important as it documented my dreams at that time in my life.  Within in this book where the outrageous thoughts of a 12 year old inner-city youth who skipped eighth grade, graduated with honors and proceeded directly to the #1 high school in Chicago.  Like many of you I was on my way!

My goals were#1 Attend Southern Illinois University Carbondale #2 Become an Aerospace Engineer#3 Make $50,000 a year #4 Buy a BMW

Of these goals only two have fully materialized, attending Southern Illinois University and making $50,000 a year.  Does this make me a failure?  Not at all.  However, these thoughts were the impetus for my remarks today: “Graduating with Honors: the gateway to advanced opportunities and experiences.” 

So today please allow me to share with you how graduating with honors has effected my life.  From this brief snapshot I hope you can find a small nugget of encouragement.  To better understand my perspective let’s look back at three major academically-related benchmarks in life: high school, college, and the first full-time job.

High schoolBeing 12 and a freshman has its fair share of challenges.  The social pressures outweighed the academic and my focus started shifting away from academics and towards trying to fit in.  At 12 I was not much of a jock and my game with the ladies was weak.  Therefore, I was not much of a success.  My main goal was to do well in Chemistry so I could develop a crème that would make me invisible during the swimming portion of PE.  So after three years of squandering academic opportunities and barely fitting in I decided to do what I do best, academics.  Still pursuing my desire to be an aeronautical engineer I started attending a Saturday college program through the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Now that I was back in my environment my short-term goal was to close out strong.  However, my final year of strong academic performance did little to offset three years of academic apathy.  Fortunately, I scored well on the ACT which allowed me to continue my education and achieve goal #1 attend SIU.

CollegeBeing the first member of my family to leave the Chicagoland area to attend college was an honor.  My parents, counselors, and neighbors all had big dreams for me.  I was going to blaze the trial for all of my peers to follow.  I was going to graduate in four years and go on to work for Boeing, McDonald Douglas, or the like.  That was a great plan, but my execution once again fell short.  First semester a 2.9 GPA and I am close but not quite there.  Second, semester 2.6 and things are becoming more difficult by the day.  Sophomore year I hit rock bottom academically, the calculus series was getting the best of me and I discovered two new friends, Ernest & Julio Gallo.  From my perspective everyone one was hanging out and having a good time while I tried to understand why some mathematical series converge and others don’t.  After dropping Calc II I decided to start hanging out more and experiencing the social aspects of college like the majority of my friends. After all SIU is one of the top ten party schools in the nation.  Fortunately for me, I received a sobering phone call from home reminding me of my professional options if I continued on that path.  Again I had placed the social values and experiences over the academic opportunities and put myself in a compromised situation.  I never transferred to Emery Riddle Aeronautical Institute.  Goal #2 not accomplished.  Bachelors degree acquired but in not Aerospace Engineering.

First Job After batting 500 with my first two goals I completed a Masters and starting working full-time.  At this stage in my life I knew Goal #3 was on the horizon.  Two years into my professional career as Process Engineer Goal #3 was realized.  Unfortunately, the money was not doing it for me, but by the standards of others I should have been tinkled pink (as if that is really possible).  As I contemplated what was next for me, I remembered how satisfied I was making $10,000 a year as a teaching assistant in grad school.  So to maintain a level of personal and professional happiness I started teaching at a John A Logan college, began working on a Ph. D., and got married.  As the market tightened and production began to slow down at work my financial security became shaky.  It was 5 years and one month ago it all came to crashing halt.  I got downsized, right-sized, laid-off, given a chance to explore new opportunities, disengaged.  I got fired.  At first I was stunned, I was one of the top producers in our group and one of the only engineers that didn’t jump ship during troubled times.  However, we know all things have a purpose in life.  Had I not been fired I quite possibly could still be making tape for a living trying to get that convertible BMW M3 series.

After being fired I had no choice but to finish my academic studies and move on with life.  After all I had a family to support and two unfinished goals. After investigating the private sector, my department chair recommended that I investigate opportunities in academe.  And so I did.  After few phone calls, a fax, and a 50-mile drive I had found my new home, Southeast Missouri State University.

Over the five years that I have been with the university I have enjoyed great professional opportunities and experiences.  One of the primary reasons is because I found my niche in life; serving and helping others meet their academic goals.  My academic success was the foundation for my true calling, teaching and serving.  For many of you it won’t take five years nor will you have to be fired from your first job to find your niche.  And if it does take a traumatic event to open your eyes don’t fear you have a strong academic foundation that won’t give way.

So as you leave campus today ask yourself: “Are my motives purely for my advancement and gratification or am I maximizing my opportunities to help myself and others at the same time?”  To paraphrase a quote from John F Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech: ask not what society can do for you, but ask what you can do for society.  Use your academic gifts to assist those who can not assist themselves; use them to add value to our society through good citizenship; Because true success is not measured in dollars and cents, yet it is the ability to wake up each morning with a purpose that motivates you and go to bed with a smile your face.  So in closing let me ask a favor of each of you, and that is that you: Do not conform to the ideas of your friends, society or this world, but be transformed by the constant refreshing and renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good and acceptable for you and your true goals; and remember the university’s mantra

Experience Southeast…Experience Success.

Oh, by the way, as of January 1, 2004 Goal #2 has been realized through the industrial outreach of our university and my batting average has jumped from 500 to 750.   And who knows maybe next year I will get that convertible and be batting a 1000.