Heather Wilson: Speak up, serve others and build relationships of trust

U.S. Secretary of the Air Force poses three important choices to UND graduates on their big day

Heather Wilson

Wilson’s speech to graduates implored them to speak up, serve others and build relationships of trust. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

Throughout UND’s Spring  commencement celebrations, since the School of Law’s on May 4, there have been many great speakers who’ve addressed UND’s graduating classes. From retiring and distinguished faculty members to a former U.S. .Senator in Heidi Heitkamp, they all left indelible marks on the hearts and minds of the Class of 2019. The following is a full transcript of the commencement address of U.S. Secretary of the Air Force (The Hon.) Heather Wilson, given on Saturday, May 11 at the Alerus Center:

President Kennedy, thank you.

Congratulations to you, as you move from one rectangle state with sunshine, snow and buffalo to another rectangle state with sunshine, snow and … buffalo.

Mark and I served together in the Congress a few years ago before stumbling into the best job in America: being a college president.

To the members of the faculty and staff, congratulations on a fine year.

And to the students, who after four-ish long years, are ready to be called graduates.

You’ve worked hard.

Simon Sinek wrote that “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”

I know you have experienced the stress.

I hope that you have found your passion.

For a moment, I want you to think about who had your back all these years … who took the phone calls when you needed to vent … when you wanted to celebrate. Chances are they are here in this arena. Your parents and grandparents, spouses and aunts and uncles, have taken this journey with you.

Don’t let this day pass without saying thank you.

Everybody needs a wingman.

If anybody here understands the power of collaboration, it’s the student body. Late nights doing homework, studying for exams, practicing for concerts, re-writing the description of majors for Barstool UND…

But there are some collaborations that your nation cares deeply about.

I was in Grand Forks last August when you, graduates, were looking forward to your last year.

I gave a speech on the history of unmanned aerial systems—in the Air Force we call them Remotely Piloted Aircraft—and we celebrated a milestone at the Grand Sky Unmanned Aerials Systems facility: letting large remotely piloted aircraft fly around the state without a chase plane keeping tabs on them.

It’s what we call flying “Beyond Visual Line of Sight.”

You’ve probably seen the MQ-1 Predator in the sky from time to time.

For those in the unmanned aerial systems business, getting certified to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight is a coveted milestone. For our national defense, it leads to better technologies. UND students and professors are collaborating with our military, small businesses and civilian leaders to put more muscle behind America’s punch.

UND also has a one-of-a-kind Space Studies department, founded nearly 33 years ago with the help of Buzz Aldrin.

Last month, the first North Dakotan to fly in space, 73-year-old Jim Buchli, was inducted into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame. He circled the Earth over 300 times in four Space Shuttle missions on Challenger and Discovery.

When asked about his induction, he said, “Being from North Dakota, that’s a hard one. You kind of go, aw shucks, and look at your feet.”

If humans one day return to the moon, or go to Mars, one of the many things they will have to contend with is the fine, electrostatically charged dust particles that get into everything, clogging seals and degrading materials.

Also last month, NASA chose a novel dust-repellent spacesuit fabric developed here at UND and launched it to the International Space Station for a year of harsh environmental testing.

Around the world, advanced technologies for space are getting cheaper and the cost of launch is plummeting. Access to space has never been easier or more affordable for countries, businesses, and even private individuals. Space is rapidly becoming a common domain for human endeavor. Space systems support a multi-trillion dollar global economy, the American way of life and our ability to protect our national borders and project power anywhere around the world.

The students and professors at UND are contributing.

There is a reason UND was named one of the Top 25 Innovative Colleges in the United States last year. Ladies and gentlemen, these students are graduating with skills that will change our world for the better. Thank you for helping them reach this day.

To the 2019 Fighting Hawks, wherever you go from here, I hope you make three choices about your lives.

First, I hope you develop the ability to say, “That’s not good enough.”

With your bachelor’s degree, you are joining the top third of your peers in this country.

You will be the ones called upon to say, “Do we really understand everything we need to know?”

“Are we thinking about the right questions?”

“Is there another way to figure this out?”

But there is an even more important statement you must learn to say. And, as leaders, you are going to have to develop the good judgement and confidence on when to say, “That’s not good enough.”

Confidence can be built.

President Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.”

He should know. He spent three harsh winters in the Dakota Territory in his mid-20s, not much older than you. He said those years opened his eyes to the “wealth of character” found in the people of the Dakotas. As you take on new roles, your character will help you face your fears when you are called upon for a decision.

Take the plunge, and speak up.

Teddy Roosevelt would say, “In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

I have an example from the Air Force.

Maybe some of you have read about Navy and Air Force pilots getting hypoxic – losing oxygen while flying.

The Air Force calls these “unexplained physiological events.” And 1-1/2 years ago, after about 2 million safe flying hours, we had a series of events in our fleet of training aircraft. Pilots suddenly began reporting hypoxic events.

On a commercial airliner it’s not a big deal. They give you that briefing, tell you if the masks drop out from overhead put your own mask on first, then choose your favorite child and help them put on their mask. But high performance aircraft have to change altitude and oxygen concentration very rapidly, and oxygen masks are really uncomfortable.

We had a problem and we had to ground our training aircraft.

All of them.

Grounding the trainers meant stopping about 700 flights per day and we have a critical pilot shortage. The On-Board Oxygen Generation Systems were pulled apart and examined piece by piece. The team discovered that a few parts were failing at higher-than-expected rates, and we replaced those parts in the whole fleet.

The commanders wanted to get back to their mission, get the jets back in the air. Problem solved.

But we had one key person who had just joined the Air Force team. He is the head of acquisition, an undergraduate physicist from Georgia Tech with a Ph.D. in mathematics. In his first week on the job, in the face of all the generals and the pressure to get back to flight operations, he spoke up.

You see, the team had concluded that it was these parts that were the problem based on the first few aircraft checked out from a fleet of almost 500 aircraft. He came to see me and he said, “The initial sample size was not statistically significant. We may not be right about the root cause.”

Imagine what that is like for a second. You are the new guy or the new gal on the job and you are telling the CEO and the members of a large engineering team of including people a lot older than you, “This isn’t good enough.”

But he was right.

And, to their credit, the engineers working on the job looked at the merit of his argument, did the math, and agreed with him.

Behind failed products, broken processes and mistaken decisions are people who chose to hold their tongues rather than to speak up.

Develop the judgement to be able to say, “That’s not good enough.”

The second choice I hope you make about your lives is to serve others.

Frank McVey was the fourth president of the University of North Dakota.

He established the North Dakota Quarterly in 1911, which is still published with art, poetry and short stories, and sent around the world.

President McVey had a motto: “To Be the Servant of the People.”

So, when you get settled in the new job, when you get that first apartment that you don’t share with 4 other people and stop wearing torn hoodies and sneakers every day… When you get to that point, sometime in the next year, not 20 years from now… Ask yourself how are you going to make a difference.

Will you volunteer on the planning commission, or serve on the school board?

Will you be a merit badge counselor for the Scouts or spend your Saturdays with Habitat for Humanity?

Will you be on the fundraising committee for the new church roof?

You have gifts. You have chosen to develop those gifts. All of you have an obligation to use your gifts to build a better world. Choose in some way to serve others.

I want to tell you about a North Dakotan named Agnes Shurr, or Aunt Aggie, as she was known.

Born on a small farm north of Minot, North Dakota in 1915, she went to nursing school and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps in 1938.

Nurses in the service often led dangerous lives.

Agnes was asleep on one of two hospital ships when bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor. There were only 13 nurses on board, and they were quickly overwhelmed with broken and burned bodies.

That experience armored her to care for the sick and wounded for the remainder of World War II.

The Navy sent her to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Columbia University at the age of 35. She became a flight nurse and served through the Korean War.

She retired as a Commander in the Navy in 1958 and started a nurse anesthetist’s school at St. Michael’s Hospital here in Grand Forks. That’s now the brick building down on Lewis Boulevard called Riverside Manor that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

But Agnes wasn’t done.

She joined the World Health Organization and went to Afghanistan for two years in the early 1960s to train nurses. When she returned, she went back to Columbia at the age of 50 to earn a Master’s Degree in nursing. Then she came home to Grand Forks and became a professor in the nursing department at the University of North Dakota.

After she retired for the second time, in 1977, she still wasn’t done.

She volunteered in the surgery center at Altru Hospital until she couldn’t, and she passed four years ago at the age of 99. One of her students said she was as calm as she was dominating. Aunt Aggie was a bright light of deep compassion who never stopped learning, never stopped teaching and never stopped giving.

What began as a humble upbringing on a North Dakota farm led to a life of humble service to her students, her community and her nation.

Live a life that is bigger than your own by choosing to serve others.

The third choice I hope you make is to develop relationships of trust.

The work that you will do, the problems that you will solve, matter. But let me tell you something that some of you might not believe yet: the people matter more.

When you look back on the experiences you have had here at UND—the first time you soloed, the late nights before finals—what do you remember? What made the difference?

When I look back on all of the things I have done in life, the hard decisions and the difficult projects that took months or years of work, what I remember—what endures—are the relationships.

It’s the people who were there with me.

Relationships of trust are more valuable than gold, and they last a lifetime. The people who helped you through and brought jumper cables when your car didn’t start will be there at your wedding, and will give advice to your children when they stop listening to you.

As you grow professionally, building that network of people who can help you on the hardest problems will matter even more in 20 years than it does in the next five.

Because all those friends are building experience and perspective, just like you will be.

Relationships of trust will allow you to benefit from their experiences, as well as your own.

Keep building relationships of trust, and you will weave a rich tapestry of a life well lived.

So I hope you choose to develop the ability to say, “That’s not good enough.” Choose to use your gifts to serve others, and choose to build relationships of trust.

You are well-educated, hard-working leaders, and you live in a free and self-governing country. You are coming of age at a time of innovation and discovery unparalleled in human history. The truth is, we’re all a little envious of you and the lives on which you are about to embark.

Congratulations to each of you.

May God bless you all.