Your Grace Archbishop-Metropolitan Borys Gudziak, for Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia and President of UCU, Rev. Father and Rector Bohdan Prah, Reverend Fathers, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Members of the Senate and Academic Council, professors and employees of UCU, distinguished guests and friends of the university, parents and most importantly our graduates!
I was very deeply honored and humbled to be asked to speak at this momentous event, I am not worthy of this honor, so I prayed and prayed as I wrote so that in your hearing, not in my speaking the Lord may impart some pearls of wisdom on each of you. I would like to first share with you a verse from sacred scripture that I thought was appropriate for this event and a story to illustrate.
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. A verse from the letter of St. James.
In October of 2001 as workers were digging through the ruins at ground zero of the terrible September 11 attack they uncovered a tree. It was severely damaged. The branches were broken and burned, the roots where torn, and tons of debris lay on it, but the workers noticed on one of the branches a few new leaves struggling to grow. There was still life in this damaged and beaten tree determined to survive, determined to succeed! The workers removed the tree and sent it to the New York Parks Department to an area where it could be cared for and planted in new fertile soil and hopefully brought back to its full splendor.
It was replanted, it was given the basic necessities of water, nutrients and sunlight and after being nurtured the tree began to revive, to grow, it sprouted new healthy shoots. The old burned and broken branches where removed and began to heal over. The following spring a dove made a nest in the new branches of this tree. It seemed to be a sign. It has since been brought back to its original home at ground zero, and is flourishing. You can visit the place where it is now planted. This tree is known as the “Survival Tree” because of all that it endured all that it experienced, yet it not only lived, but it has thrived! A determination to survive, a determination to succeed. Many have said it was a sign from above to show the power life and the power of the will to succeed!
I grew up not very far from where this tree grows, it was in an area where many Ukrainian and other Eastern European immigrants settled in the New York suburbs. I heard stories about the struggles and difficulties they endured at the hands of an oppressive regime, often they were denied the basic necessities of life and freedom, like the survival tree, they were beaten down, broken, imprisoned, ripped from their homelands. Many who were not able to leave were even killed some because of their faith, those who were able to come, came to recover to set roots in a fertile soil. THEY ALSO! had the DETERMINATION TO SURVIVE, they had the DETERMINATION TO SUCCEED! They were able to grow new roots, they were able to grow new branches of success!
Some of those people were my ancestors, many others became for me teachers and mentors, one in particular the son of a Ukrainian coal miner, who is still very much like a father to me. Taught me countless life skills: to grow in intellect, and to never stop learning, never stop experiencing the wonders of God’s creation, to nurture my MIND. He taught me to honor and take care of the HEART. What he meant by this was to not only take care for our own physical being, but to care for the physical needs of others, to live a clean and healthy life and the help those in need. He helped me to grow in FAITH, to always remind myself that there was One much greater than ourselves who gave HIMSELF for us, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. After a time in military service and the corporate world this individual became a Greek Catholic Franciscan monk and still in his advanced years inspires many.
Years later after being raised with so many Eastern European traditions one day I was asked by an IBM colleague… Steve would you be interested in lecturing at a University in Ukraine?… Where I asked? Lviv, … Really? Which University? … Well It’s a small University that grew from a seminary. It really is an innovative institution. It’s called Ukrainian Catholic University. You probably are not familiar with the term but it is a Greek Catholic University… Why yes I am, as a matter of fact, I am a Greek Catholic! He told me about the budding new Computer Science program as well as a number of other initiatives in the arts and sciences. Immediately I said Yes of course, I would be honored! So he set up a web meeting with Dean Prytula, to discuss the details, the plans were set and I was on my way. I was not quite sure what to expect. I had lectured in a number of universities in different countries but UCU was different, there seemed to be a personal connection, even though I had never been here. I was excited to meet the students not only to share my experiences from the corporate world and the church but also to learn from all of you. From the moment I arrived there seemed to be a spirit and a life that you could SEE and FEEL in the students, in the leadership, in the professors, in the staff. There clearly was a Determination to Succeed. As I learned more about the history of the University it became clear that there would be no obstacle that could not be overcome.
This determination to Succeed, no matter what it would take was clearly in the DNA of this institution from the vision of its president, all the hierarchs, the rector, the senate, the faculty and staff, and the many supporters from around the globe who have wanted to provide a new fertile soil for generations to come…
In your time at UCU you have had the opportunity to be planted in this new fertile soil, you were nurtured in MIND, in HEART, and in FAITH. I’m sure it was not always easy, just like a tree sometimes the dead wood and broken branches need to be removed. For us humans, very often we have to get rid of old habits and ways of doing things, overcome personal obstacles and find new ways to fit in all the demands of life. To find new ways of learning. As humanity advances we are constantly challenged with needing new skills while, eliminating the need for old, constant and continuous learning. For example, today we are challenged with the need to understand and sift through massive amounts of information which is at our fingertips, dealing with global teams, global competition, technology advances bringing along with them both new threats and new opportunities that we never imagined. There is no doubt that during your time here you were forced to change and to grow and of course to work. You may have even felt like that tree buried in piles of work, with only a few leaves left trying to survive, wondering… will I ever be able to do it? As one of my son’s told me after his first year at University, when I asked what was the one major thing you learned this year? He thought or a moment and said I learned “they don’t give degrees away you really have to earn them” and all of you have earned your degree for which you should be very proud! You have earned another level of knowledge, and no one can take that away from you now.
The new level of knowledge you now possess built on a series of successes and failures. Adriana Huffington, an author and executive had a wonderful quote, she said, “Failure is not the opposite of success, it is part of it”, if we take our setbacks and our failures and learn from them. Sometimes the sting of something not going the way we expect becomes more of a learning experience than when things come easy. Failures become the forcing factor for us to learn new ways of doing things. Failures become building blocks in our knowledge, in our character, and both are required for us to progress. Another great quote by Henry Ford one of the fathers of the assembly line and interchangeable parts once said: “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”
And that is what all of us will be challenged to do, to continue to change to adapt to adjust our thinking and our ideas. Never be afraid to challenge the “status quo” to look at things from a different angle from a different perspective. Learn from everyone around you. That is where innovation begins, where entrepreneurs and leaders are born!
That is the only way you will continue to grow and blossom, to sprout new shoots of innovative ideas, to spread the Gospel with energy and zeal! to start new businesses to grow old business, to change governments, to protect and improve the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and to change the world. Through advancements in Theological studies, technologies, data science, innovations in social work, defense of human rights, history, Christian education, leisure studies, management, building and running non-profit organizations like this very University. Whatever your field of study, make it your passion. Nothing truly great ever happens with mediocre goals. If you strive for average you will never be more than average, but if you strive for great things and perfection, you may not get there, but you will get that much closer.
The survival tree I told you about, there is more to the story. This tree which now flourishes in its original home, each year seeds are collected from it and planted to grow new seedlings from the original. Those seedlings are then sent to places around the world that have endured and survived major traumatic events as a reminder and a symbol of the determination to not only survive but to succeed.
Each and every one of you, as part of your goals should be thinking about how you can plant your seeds of knowledge and experience? How can you grow and return the gifts you were given? How can you help those around you and how can you truly make a difference in the world!
Some parting thoughts I would like to leave with you: remember the basics: give yourself some time to recover from your work here. Celebrate your success, thank those who helped you along the way. Strive to plant yourself in good soil. Surround yourselves with good people, people you admire people who help you progress even more. Never be too proud or too good to learn from someone else, whether the CEO or the gardener, treat everyone with respect. Always reflect on what you can do better. Find ways to share your time, your talent and your treasure with others.
And most importantly: Never forget the ONE that created you! And with prayer what happened to the Survival tree will happen to you. The Dove of the Holy Spirit will build its nest in your branches!
Slava Isisu Christu!