Commencement Address – Donna K. Sollenberger

Prepared Remarks
University of Illinois Springfield
May 14, 2016

Thank you Chancellor Koch. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the graduates, and their families and friends who are here today to support them. It is an honor to be back at UIS and to celebrate with you today!

In the spring of 2001, I had the opportunity to provide some advice to a young woman. Her name was Shannon, and she was about to graduate with an MBA from Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Shannon was bright and talented, and she already had several job offers on the table. The first was from a consulting firm, the second was from a Houston-based energy firm, and the third was from a not-for-profit organization.

As Shannon contemplated her choices, she felt increasingly conflicted about which job she should accept. She knew this was a critical life decision, so she sought the advice of many friends, mentors and family members to help her decide what path she should take.

The first two jobs were exceptional and well-paying opportunities, and all of her friends encouraged her to take the job with either the consulting firm or the energy company. After all, why would she pass up two jobs that would allow her to start her career at twice the salary of the not-for-profit?

But Shannon’s heart kept calling her back to the job at the not-for-profit. Her friends scoffed at her reasons for this choice. She began to doubt herself and her ability to make the right decision. Was she making a mistake?

All throughout high school and college, Shannon had the opportunity to attend many fundraising events. Many of these benefits were for MD Anderson Cancer Center and City of Hope National Medical Center, both comprehensive cancer centers devoted to finding cures for cancer and delivering life-saving patient care. She felt inspired by the idea of working in philanthropy to help raise money for a worthy organization. You could say this is what ignited her passion. So she decided to pursue an MBA in order to work successfully with donors, who were often successful business people. She wanted to bring them a good business case to assure that their donations would be sound investments.

On the eve of her graduation with her long sought after MBA, Shannon still had a nagging feeling that she might make a mistake in her job choice. She wasn’t sure what the right choice was. That’s when she talked to me.

I asked her which of the jobs energized her. What job ignited her passion? Which job would make her want to get out of bed every day and go to work? After all, we spend as much time at work as we do at home, if not more.

Shannon weighed the pros and cons of each. When she talked about the consulting firm or the energy company, she mentioned three things that appealed to her: (1) she would make a great salary at both right out of college; (2) they both offered great opportunities for advancement, so she would get a bigger title and more money sooner; and (3) they were both outstanding and well-known organizations. Shannon’s reasonable and rational arguments were compelling. Shouldn’t reason prevail, she asked?

Then, she began to talk about what it would be like to work at the not-for-profit organization. As we talked, I could immediately see the answer in her eyes. They lit up. She became animated, smiling broadly as she thought about how her work would help change lives. There was a spark of energy as she thought about how she could find endless opportunities for others to come to the aid of those less fortunate or down on their luck. There were so many worthy causes.

“Take the job at the United Way,” I said.

Shannon was taken aback at my answer. Why would I say that?

“Shannon, you have many years of work ahead of you – maybe 40 to 50 years,” I told her. “Make the most of those years. Do what inspires you; do what ignites the fire of your passion for life and for work. We spend too much time at work not to be passionate about what we do with our careers. Yes, money helps pay the bills, but it should not be the sole or primary reason for your decision. Your happiness and fulfillment in life matters more. As I watched you talk to me about the job at United Way, it was clear that this is the job for you. Follow your dreams. Do your best, and be driven in your journey by your passion to help others.”

The next day, Shannon accepted the job at the United Way, and she has never looked back. That same day she ceased her job pursuit at the other two organizations. By the way, those other two organizations were Arthur Anderson Consulting and Enron, both of which are now out of business as a result of some very public and poor choices.  And to be completely transparent, I am Shannon’s mother.

Shannon has had a wonderful career so far, helping philanthropists understand how their contributions can benefit others and, through that financial support, she helps assure that the organizations for whom she has worked will continue to thrive and improve their community. Today, she helps fundraise for an eight-state area with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. She is by any measure a success.

So why do I tell you Shannon’s story?

You may be thinking, “I already have a job”; or “I don’t have the benefit of choosing like Shannon did. I have to take whatever job is offered to me because I have a family to support; I have to pay my bills; I have student debt to repay.”

While this may be true, what I want you to remember is that the choices you make will become the story of your life. Those choices and decisions will shape your life and the lives of so many others.

Some of you today will follow in your parent’s footsteps. For others, you will become the first person in your family to finish college, or the first person in your family to receive a master’s degree. For some of you, today you will have earned the degree that enables you to pursue your lifelong dream, and you’re ready to shoot out of the starting gate like a thoroughbred. Some of you will start new businesses. And some of you will find ways to pursue your passion through volunteer opportunities in your community. This will be your story, and it begins today. As your stories unfold, they will define who you are and will show the world why you are so important.

Looking back, my story has been a journey of firsts: I was the first in my family to finish college. I was in the first graduating class of UIS, then Sangamon State University. I become the first female vice president in the University of Texas System. And I was the first female to lead an academic medical center in Wisconsin. But, in between those accomplishments, there are chapters in my story that are about making professional decisions that involved some risk, having the courage to take on new assignments even when I wasn’t really sure I knew enough to complete them, and changing courses on the path I was traveling when I encountered unexpected circumstances and the realities of life.

When I was in my late thirties, I worked at a job I loved. I was managing life as a career woman and as a wife and mother of an 8-year old. I had been at my job less than four months when I learned I was two months pregnant…with twins. Then, three months into the pregnancy, I was put on bed rest for several weeks; ultimately, the twins arrived seven weeks early. It was not an easy time. It was even harder when I returned to work two months after they were born. But my husband and I learned to manage as we traveled down this unexpected path. Managing those first five years was not easy, but we made it work. And it became a defining chapter in the story of my life.

Years later when the twins were in high school and we lived in Wisconsin, I was serving as president and CEO of the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics. Because of my position, many predominantly female organizations invited me to tell my story. Almost always, someone would ask me the inevitable question: “How have you managed to ‘have it all?’”

And my answer to that question is that no one really ever “has it all”. We make choices that suit us and our circumstances. We make it work by making the choices that are best for us, specifically and individually, while taking the opportunities that help us grow. And sometimes we stay the course, even in the face of challenges. These are some of the ways we shape our own unique story.

Today you are receiving your degree. This is the first big step toward a new journey; it is the next big chapter in the story of your life, and the pages are blank. So here are some words of advice to take with you when you leave today.

First, shape your story; do not let the story shape you. Second, if you are unsure about a decision, follow your heart. So long as you follow your heart, you will make the right choices.

Third, no matter how impossible or improbable an idea may seem, if it is your passion driving you forward, go! You will end up where you are meant to be; where you desire to be. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Increase your resolve and go forth—after all, it is your story, not theirs!

And finally, don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and take a few risks. Many times something that once seemed impossible becomes possible with hard work, determination, resilience – and with some creativity thrown in.

I would like to leave you with a quote by Deodatta Shenai-Khatkhate that has helped me shape my own life story:

“It’s impossible, “said pride.

“It’s risky,” said experience.

“It’s pointless,” said reason.

“Give it a try,” whispered the heart.

As you leave today with a blank page in a new chapter of your life’s story, listen to the whispers of your heart. It is then, and only then, that you will achieve your fullest potential – the best possible story of you!

Thank you for letting me be part of your story today. Congratulations, graduates and all of those who are here today supporting you!