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Computer Engineering Professor Urges Graduates to be "Agents of Change"

It is a Penn State Behrend tradition to have a faculty member give the commencement address; Dr. Christopher Coulston, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and chair of the computer science and software engineering degree programs, spoke to the spring 2012 graduates at the May 4 ceremony held in downtown Erie’s Louis J. Tullio Arena.

Coulston himself is a Penn State alumnus, having earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in computer engineering at the University Park campus. With Dr. Ralph Ford, the director of Penn State Behrend's School of Engineering, he is co-author of the textbook "Design for Electrical and Computer Engineers: Theory, Concepts and Practice."

Coulston also is a past winner of the college’s Guy W. Wilson Award for Excellence in Academic Advising, and an avid recreational and competitive bicyclist.

The title of his address was “Be the Agent of Change.”

Thank you, Dr. Christensen. Welcome students, soon-to-be alumni, family, faculty, staff and administration. It’s an honor and a privilege to be invited to speak to you today.

From the time from when you began your studies, you have worked to obtain a liberal education— an understanding of principles which govern the natural world, art, mathematics, history, engineering, and business. Your college has changed with you, with new majors, student organizations, outreach activities, not one but two new dining halls, and the athletic fields. It certainly has been an exciting four, five, six years.

Undoubtedly as you continue your life journey forward, your perspective on the world will change. Think back to when you were a kid. (For some of us this is going to take longer than others.) Do you remember watching “The Magic School Bus?” For most of you that was about 10 years ago. Trust me when I say that looking back on your college experiences 20 years from now, you will be looking back in much the same way. Your perspective and views will certainly change in that interval.

So I have adopted change as my theme today because you are a primary agent of change. Change in your personal life, in the organizations that you work for, and your impact on society. When writing this speech, I thought to myself, What advice I would give my younger self, things that I’ve had to learn the hard way. Hopefully this will help you avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve fallen into along the way. So here it goes.

Part I: Vision

We start with a story I heard a long time ago…

While reading the evening paper, a vicar purchases a basket of fish and chips and sits down at a table. When he finishes reading the paper he puts it down and notices that he has been joined at the table by a stranger. The stranger is eating a piece of his fish! Being polite and British, he doesn’t complain, but rather reaches out and grabs a piece of the fried fish and sticks it in his mouth. The stranger looks at the vicar with an expression of disbelief, grabs a piece of fish and proceeds to eat it. The nerve of that man, the vicar thinks, he didn’t even ask me for some. The pair proceeds to eat the fish in short order. When they are done, the stranger gets up and with a stiff “Good day” stalks off. The vicar reflects to himself how English manners have changed since he was younger. With a sigh, he picks up the paper to leave and discovers his basket of uneaten chips sitting on the table.

I’m not even sure if this is an accurate rendition of the story I heard many years ago, but the idea that it communicates has stayed with me. At some time or other we all have been guilty of ascribing motives to the actions of others. It’s easy for these motives to become unflattering, to think worse of others to elevate our moral indignation, or to make our argument righteous. We can create filters to see the world operating as we would like it to, not necessarily how it actually is working.

Postpone judgment until you have all the facts. If it helps, remember the “Stop Kony” movement. In order to be an agent of change you need to work personally on having vision, to see the real problem.

Part II: Personal Change

When offered the opportunity to make this address I was enticed by the offer to regale you with a bike story. So here it is. One day in the not too distant past I saw a picture of myself at a social function. I was approaching middle age, gaining weight, and had a cigarette hanging from my lips. Not a pretty picture. I realized that this lifestyle could easily lead to my untimely demise, so I made a decision to trade in the cigarettes for a bike with the intention of riding a bike to work. I remember the first day riding my bike to work. That eight-mile self-powered journey seemed so vast, like a journey into the unknown. In a little time I got comfortable with that journey and have continued to look for new ways to explore the world by bike.

All of us have confronted the need to make personal change in our lives whether for your health, your personal relationship with family and friends, or professional development. The first step in this process is to have the vision to see the real problem. To listen to others without filtering what they are saying to fit your world view. With this you can make a plan and implement it. Ask any former smoker and they will all agree that quitting was a difficult process.

Consequently, it might be tempting to consider the implementation of a plan to be the hardest part of personal change. However, every former smoker found a plan which worked for them, often after many other plans failed. So I would argue that discovering the right plan to address a problem means that you are half the way to implementing change.

Part III: Organizational Change

It seems obvious, that in order to effect change, you will need to work with others, not for others, and not against others. An important first step is to surround yourself with people who have characteristics you admire. The saying that you are judged by the people you associate with makes sense at a superficial level, but it goes deeper because the behaviors of those around you will become the norms by which you judge your own actions. The behavior of your peers will rub off on you. Choose your friends and associates wisely.

Remember, your actions and behavior will ripple outward in any organization you are a part of. The collective morale of an organization, the culture of an organization, can be significantly impacted by just a few people. I have worked at both functional and dysfunctional organizations, and once a culture is established it’s difficult to change. By your behaviors and actions strive to be the agent of change in your organization.

Part IV: Social Change

In H.G. Well’s The Time Machine, he says “It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.” Wells explains that intellectual versatility arises from the need to thrive in a changing world. It’s the natural order that each generation is the agent of change, and pushes our society forward. In time you will have to move aside and let the next generation take its turn.

In this changing world, you will need to partake in Well’s intelligence. In order to do this you will need vision, and the ability to clearly see past your biases and prejudices to the real issues. You will need to be motivated to explore uncharted territories, the ability to dig deep and persist in the face of adversity to see a task to completion. You will need others to guide your personal development as well as professional accomplishment. You won’t always succeed, but your failures will teach you wisdom and your successes confidence.

No matter where you go, no matter what you do, know this: You will always carry with you the pride of the faculty, staff and administration of Penn State. Congratulations to the class of 2012.

Thank you.