Good evening and thank you, Dr. Johnson. As a CCAC graduate, it is truly an honor for me to be here with you tonight. In the next 10 minutes—I promise to be brief—my goal is to do the following: celebrate your accomplishment; tell the story of how I went from your seat to the c-suite; share a few of my lessons learned in life thus far; and help you to understand your obligation to “pay it forward.”
So I will begin by saying, “Congratulations, graduates!” I am guessing that most of you have worked hard and sacrificed much to reach this important milestone in your lives. Before you get all stressed out worrying about finding a job or whether or not to continue your formal education immediately, take a moment, exhale and celebrate what you have just accomplished. I think you all deserve a round of applause!
Now on to my story—the abbreviated version. I was born in McKeesport Hospital to a stay-at-home mother and union steelworker father. No one in my family, including my 11 first cousins, had a college degree. I decided I was going to be the first. When I was a high school sophomore, I began visiting four-year schools with the goal of studying Nursing. When I excitedly announced to my father that I had decided which college I wanted to attend, he immediately stuck the pin in my balloon by responding, “You are a girl. Girls don’t go to college. Girls get married and have babies.” Knowing that my father has the hardest head in the universe and that there was nothing I could say or do to change his mind, I cried.
Then I decided to figure out “Plan B,” because at that time in my life, I was not interested in getting married or having babies. So, I learned how to type—very fast—and had the good fortune to land a job at the Westinghouse Advanced Energy Systems division on Route 51 in Large, Pennsylvania. I was hired as a word processing operator, a fancy title for a small job, back in the days of large centralized computer systems.
After a couple of months, I was summoned to the Personnel office. Since everyone knows that being summoned to the personnel office is never a good thing, I began wondering what I had done wrong and if my career was already over. So I meekly walked into Linda’s office. Yes, I still remember her name as if it was yesterday, and she was the personnel specialist. Linda said, “I’ve been hearing good things about you and your work. People here think you have potential, so there’s something you should know. Our company values education and without a college degree, your opportunities here will be limited.” She handed me a copy of the Westinghouse Educational Assistance Policy. I immediately read it and began asking questions. Linda responded with, “If I were you, I would start at CCAC. South Campus is just a few miles away. Come with me. I am going to introduce you to a girl who works upstairs who is going there.” That girl she referenced showed me how to apply and register for classes at CCAC. At one point in my Westinghouse career, she was my supervisor, and we are still friends today.
So, thanks to Linda’s interest in me, and in my career, it was then that I decided that I wanted to work in the Personnel department. And if I can take a bit of credit myself—there is also the fact that I never gave up. I continued to forge ahead against all odds and that is a lifelong lesson that I hope each of you remembers.
So, in order to continue down the career path that I had chosen, I began my classes at CCAC and my first college experience was fantastic! I truly believe that it was the caring faculty and the perfectly sized classes that gave me confidence and the opportunity to grow. I completed my associate’s degree and immediately began working on a bachelor’s degree at Duquesne University. When I was promoted at Westinghouse and relocated to the Philadelphia area, I went back to school again and completed my master’s degree at Temple University.
I have had the privilege of working for a number of world-class companies, such as Tenneco, Johnson and Johnson and Merck. Since 2003, I have held the top Human Resources position at EQT Corporation, the Appalachian basin’s largest producer of natural gas. EQT is headquartered right here in Pittsburgh, and I look upon my CCAC education as the foundation that made my professional success possible.
Enough about me—on to practical advice. I recently listened to a gentleman speak to a room full of undergraduate seniors. I could not believe that he was talking about basic management principles that I learned in my first semester at CCAC (way back in 1980) and acting like he was imparting the very latest in leadership principles. I believe it is far more valuable if my messages resonate and have some down-to-earth meaning; therefore, I want to share with you some of my personal life lessons. I must say, there are many. However, in the interest of time and in no particular order, I will highlight my top five.
So, in closing . . . Now that you have graduated, what is your obligation (other than those nasty student loans)? The French have a saying: “Noblesse oblige.” Translation: “The obligation of the noble class. To whom much is given, much is expected.” I want you to remember this because as your career progresses you will receive contribution requests from a number of charitable organizations. Although you may not be able to afford charity donations immediately —or even in the near future—you will at some point in your career. It is then that I ask you to remember the others who helped you to get here, perhaps others whom you do not even know, and be sure to “pay it forward.”
I will leave you with one last piece of advice, a quote from Maxine, the old, grumpy Hallmark character, who said, “Don’t take life too seriously. No one gets out alive!”
Again, congratulations on the completion of this educational milestone. My wish is that the angel on my shoulder is cloned and lands on each of yours. Thank you for your attention.