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Aris Mardirossian Commencement Speech

Spring 2011

Isn’t this a wonderful day?

It’s great to be up here speaking to all of you graduates and your families.

I was surprised, really astonished, that Dean Pines would ask ME to give the commencement address for the Clark School of Engineering. He certainly did not ask me because of my public speaking skills (as you’ll see), nor because of my perfect diction, or my lack of an Armenian accent. Hopefully you can understand me. And it was not because of my family connections or political contacts – I was an immigrant to this great country who washed dishes at Shakey’s pizza parlor to make my tuition payments to this great institution.

It also wasn’t because of my perfect record of success in business or life. I’ve made numerous mistakes in my personal, professional and business life. In the early 1990’s, I was in so much debt, and my companies were performing so poorly, that the only thing that stood between me and bankruptcy court was a miracle.

That miracle happened. But it happened for a reason. It happened because no matter how dark things became I remembered the lessons I learned right here at the University of Maryland.

I’m going to share a little bit of my experiences being with you here today, because life doesn’t just go in one direction. Some days, like today, it seems to leap ahead by years. And other days, darker days, like the early 1990’s were for me, it can be overwhelming; it can feel like you’ve lost all the ground you’ve ever gained and then some. You will have more of those dark days than you expect. Why must I warn you of this? Because life is competitive, because life can be cruel, because life is always finding a way around your plans, your dreams, your hopes, and looking for a way to humble you.

I don’t say any of this to dampen your spirits. On the contrary, I am explaining this because I want you to know the secret to overcoming these obstacles, which I assure you, await us all. That secret is not very complicated. In fact, it’s a lot easier to learn than most of what you’ve been taught here these last few years. That is correct, I said easier to learn, but I did not say it was necessarily easier to do.

And that lesson is: Don’t quit. I know it sounds like a bit of cliché, but you would be surprised how quickly people forget this fundamental truth. I learned very young: “Never quit, quitters never win and winners never quit.” Why do I mention this one point first?

Because I have achieved some remarkable things in my life, I hold or have pending over 50 patents, I have been involved with the creation and development of many successful companies and even entire communities, and along the way I have made virtually every mistake you can make except one – I never quit. I’m here today to hammer home this lesson. You are here today because you are the best. You are the ones who didn’t quit. You are the ones who have those keen minds that can solve the problems of today while raising the families that will solve the problems of tomorrow. Don’t forget that last part. A good engineer solves the problem. A great engineer solves the problem and leaves behind some more little engineers to solve more problems.

I was reading some old commencement speeches to gather inspiration for all of you here today, and I came across one that captured these ideas perfectly and was delivered less than 20 miles from here at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School by President John F. Kennedy 52 years ago.

“What we need now in this nation, more than atomic power, or airpower, or financial, industrial or even manpower, is brainpower.” Kennedy continued, “We need new ideas –new ideas to obtain an endless supply of fresh water, food and energy from the ocean depths – to expand the world’s arable land 7 times – to multiply the output per acre even more – to replace our dwindling supply of energy resources from the granite that lies beneath every continent – and, instead of beating our swords into plow-shares, to convert our bombs into power reactors that can electrify the frontier and the jungle. All of this we can do with new ideas.”

While searching for inspiration I found another example that was frankly just as uplifting because it happened here, on the ground under your feet today.

Right here, in 1912, this amazing and wonderful place burned literally to the ground. That fire, which began on Thanksgiving Day, destroyed all the school’s records and most of its academic buildings. Morrill Hall is the only academic building standing today that was untouched by that fire. Many people, including the University’s President – who resigned because he was so devastated by the damage the fire had done – predicted that would be the end of this college. Even the halls where the students had lodged were burnt completely to the ground. But something unexpected happened that next spring. All but 2 of the students returned to the campus and found lodging in people’s homes in every surrounding town.

They refused to quit.

They didn’t let the bad thing that had happened to them, had happened to all of them – poison their minds. They realized that the problem they faced – had a solution.

They all came back because they wanted to learn. They wanted to learn, and they trusted the higher power with their future. They trusted because they believed in this institution. They had faith in this place, and they had faith in themselves.

They had faith that if they displayed courage, that if they didn’t quit, that if they demanded that the institution survive, that it teach them what they expected it to – that somehow it would survive, that it would rise up, literally from the ashes and become what it is today, one of the greatest research and learning universities in the world.

They all came back because they were leaders, just like you are. Trouble will come, it will come at the worst possible moment. It will appear unbeatable and when it does come, many of those around you will lose faith, and will turn around. You won’t remember what I had to say here today when that moment comes – you’ll have many other things on your mind. But you will have your faith. And I hope you will remember just this one lesson. Don’t quit. JUST TWO WORDS. Don’t quit and you will overcome.

WHEN YOUR LUCK IS DOWN
AND YOUR WORLD GOES WRONG
AND LIFE’S ALL UPHILL
AND THE ROAD IS LONG
KEEP YOUR SPIRITS HIGH
FOR THROUGH THICK AND THIN
YOU MUST CARRY ON
IF YOU ARE TO WIN
NEVER MIND IF THINGS
HOLD YOU BACK A BIT
YOU WILL COME OUT ON TOP
BUT YOU MUST NOT QUIT.

I remember exactly what I felt like the day I graduated from this magnificent university, nearly 40 years ago and so I think I know how you feel here today. I was excited, anxious to get out into the “real” world and make my mark. I was sure the University had taught me all I needed to know and I was ready to get out there and show everybody how smart I was. And of course, I also had the opposite emotion; I was already nostalgic for my friends and my professors who had become my family in just a few short years on campus. I had all of these conflicting emotions rushing around inside me – before I even received my diploma. Which brings me to one final thought that I have for you today;

Don’t ever completely leave this wonderful place. Take your university experience with you in your heart and in your head. The world today requires constant learning, constant re-education, constant attention to continued development as a person and no institution, no job, no training course or even life experience can match what they have here for you, at your home, your university, your partner, your very own University of Maryland.

I remain friends with faculty members like the great Bill Fourney who is up here on this stage with me here today. My experience here on this campus changed me in ways that I can never forget and that still drive me today. Thank you to all of the great professors past and present who challenged me to think, who believed in me, who showed me love – and who I still love to this day. I know each and every one of you has similar experiences here and I urge to keep them going after today’s celebration.

I hope after today is over, after the party tonight has died down, after you have gotten comfortable with the idea that you came here, you met the challenge and you succeeded, you will also come to realize that this institution is more than a stepping stone on your life path. This institution is a resource that you should utilize everyday for the rest of your life. Remember those students from 1912; they knew that if they believed there was still a college here, then there was one. And they were right. There is a college here, a great college.

I’m standing here, looking at a room full of people that I know have that same spirit and share that same belief. And I repeat, the reason is sitting in front of my eyes. I have faith in you. I have faith in this country, and I have faith in God.

The diploma you are leaving here with today is the least important thing you will need to have successful and fruitful life. The important things are what you learned here, how to think, how to learn, how to lead, how NOT to quit, and finally: how to believe, first in yourself and secondly in your fellow students, professors and country men and women – those are the things that you learned that will be the difference between success and failure, between accomplishment and wasted effort, between knowledge and useless information, between courage and dangerous pride.

In closing, I just want to say that although I don’t have the speaking skill of a John F. Kennedy – I have something he didn’t have – and that something has served me well all my life – the staunch support of the greatest University in the United States – the University of Maryland!!

MAY GOD BLESS EACH AND EVERY ONE OF YOU. AND MAY GOD BLESS THE USA.

DREAM ON GRADUATES, BUT DO NOT LET YOUR DREAMS BE IDLE.

Aris Mardirossian
May 20, 2011

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