Chatham University

Commencement Address

Bill Benter
Chairman and International CEO, Acusis
May 23, 2010

President Barazzone, faculty and administrators, family and friends, thank you for that warm welcome.

To the Class of 2010, congratulations. Thank you for letting me share this day with you.

The opportunity to address you is a great but improbable honor. I'm not a wordsmith, an orator or a man of letters. I'm a native son of Pittsburgh. My mother and father raised our family not far from here. So it's no exaggeration to say that coming here feels like coming home.

And Chatham is important to me for another reason as well. Sixty-five years ago, my late mother, Dorothy Firth, sat where you sit now as a graduate of Chatham's Class of 1945, known then as the Pennsylvania College for Women.

My mother's time on campus meant the world to her. And I know how much it would mean to her to see me standing here today. But she also knew better than anyone that I was never much of a student. So if she found out that I was not only speaking this afternoon, but receiving an honorary doctorate, she would probably question the academic standards of her beloved Alma Mater!

So while I'm not certain that my scholarly credentials justify it, I'm thrilled to be here with you and grateful for this honor.

Since I'm not much of a speech-giver, when I found out that I would be addressing you today, I did what one does these days: I Googled the phrase: "commencement speech." And the consensus wisdom of the internet basically came down to this: commencement speakers have one task -- to impart the wisdom they have gained during their life's journey to those whose journey is just beginning. And, to do so in no more than ten minutes.

I could start with my childhood in Pittsburgh, but in the interest of time, I'll begin my story at the point where my life really began to take focus. I had the good fortune during college to spend my junior year studying abroad in England.

That experience transformed me, and I came back home with a more international outlook, which over the years has enriched my life tremendously. Professionally, personally and spiritually.

Being "international" has given me my worldly success through my business ventures in Southeast Asia and India. It's given me my lovely wife Vivian from Hong Kong. An it's even given me what I believe is my life's larger purpose.

I'm not a religious man in the conventional sense. But I have developed an abiding faith in the power -- and indeed the necessity -- of human empathy in overcoming conflict.

The really big lesson I've learned from my many travels is that people are basically the same everywhere. Surprisingly the same. Even amazingly the same.

No matter what language they speak, no matter what God they worship, no matter what the shape of their eye or the color of their skin, the differences that separate us are trivial compared with that which we share in common.

Now, I'm certainly not the first person to experience this revelation. It pains me to say that I'm not sure if the younger generation will be familiar with this, but when I was growing up the Walt Disney Company had a famous theme song called "It's a Small World After All."

If I may quote from the lyrics of that song, and I promise I'm not going to sing:

"There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone. There's so much that we share that it's time we're aware, it's a small world after all."

I've seen the truth of those simple, if admittedly corny words, demonstrated again and again in the far corners of the earth. I've also seen that unfortunate consequences can follow when not every person or government appreciates that great wisdom.

Today our nation finds itself in multiple conflicts with countries and peoples in the Islamic World. While the specific causes of each of these conflicts can be debated, it is my belief that much of what sustains them is a failure to empathize and to appreciate our fundamental sameness as human beings.

And I believe that this failure cuts both ways. Foreigners often don't understand us, but perhaps more importantly, we often don't understand them.

Institutions of higher learning are playing an important role in addressing this "deficit of understanding," though there is still much work to be done -- particularly with respect to the Islamic World.

The most recent statistics show that of the nearly quarter million American students who receive credit for overseas study each year, fewer than 2% were studying in predominantly Islamic countries.

No doubt there are understandable reasons for this. Barriers of language, culture, security and lack of historical connections all present very real challenges.

I am pleased to see that Chatham University, long a leader in promoting "internationalism," continues to work to overcome these challenges and has recently launched new programs aimed at fostering cultural exchange with the Islamic World. And I am pleased that some of the students graduating here today have had the benefit of participating in those programs.

But the troubled state of world affairs leaves little doubt that there is far, far more to be done, and starting today, the responsibility to be part of the solution falls to you.

And while it's true that the world that you inherit faces many daunting challenges, from terrorism to global warming, from poverty to disease, it is also true that you have been given a set of tools and technologies that can help address those problems and bring our vast world closer together.

I hope you will make full use of what you have learned and seize the opportunity to remake the world. But as you do, I hope you will also follow some advice my mother gave me:

"Always remember where you came from."

I've traveled the world, but my long road has led me back to where I started -- right here in Pittsburgh. And now that I am blessed with the means to contribute, there is nowhere I would rather make a difference than in my own hometown.

Wherever you settle, I urge you to do the same. Look at your fellow graduates seated around you, and you will see a powerful force for positive change.

And wherever the future may take you, I know from my mother's experience, a piece of Chatham will always stay with you. In her later years, I helped my mother by among other things computerizing her address book. By then, there were only about a dozen old friends with whom she still exchanged letters.

Six of those -- Emily, Marjorie, Janet, Helen, Jean and Grace -- all once sat where you sit now. They all graduated together in Chatham's Class of 1945.

I hope that the bonds of friendship forged during your time here will likewise last a lifetime.

And so, while today may feel like an ending, it is really just the first page of a new chapter.

The book is yours to write. The world is yours to explore. And the future -- humanity's common future -- is yours to shape.

Thank you. Congratulations. And good luck