Nationally recognized speech/language scholar speaks at doctoral commencement

December 15, 2017
UF News
photographer: UF Photography

Susan Nittrouer has been a professor and chair of the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences in the College of Public Health and Health Professions at UF Health since 2015. Her research career, which focuses largely on questions regarding how children learn to recover language structure from the acoustic speech signal, spans more than 30 years. Her speech is below.

President Fuchs, esteemed faculty, family members, friends, and most of all, graduates. Thank you for this opportunity to be your commencement speaker. I’m thrilled to be here, but have to confess to having had some hesitation when the invitation was first issued. This is a big day for you. In a few moments, you’re going to walk across this stage and receive a doctoral diploma from one of the top ten public universities in the country. You deserve a speaker commensurate with the significance of that achievement. Someone like Bill Gates or Condoleezza Rice; Steve Spurrier, or that most famous of all commencement speakers – somewhat surprisingly – Amy Poehler. That’s the kind of speaker you should have, I thought.

But then I realized I could offer something most of those individuals could not: solidarity of experience. I have been exactly where you’re sitting now, and I got there the same way many of you probably did. Probably like you, my path to a doctorate was unplanned. I am quite certain that when 10-year-old me was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I did not respond by saying that I wanted to spend the majority of my waking hours in a windowless laboratory, poring over numbers, checking the calibration of my equipment, or rewriting that grant proposal one more time. Yet, with the advantage of hindsight, I realize that’s exactly how 10-year-old me would have responded, had I known what a rewarding career this would turn out to be.

You might say that my path to a doctorate started by volunteering here, at the William Penn Community Center in Levittown, Pennsylvania on Saturday afternoons when I was 12 years old. The Community Center offered activities to children with a variety of disabilities. While all these children were special, I was especially drawn to the quiet ones, the ones with communication disorders. The children who either could not easily understand others, or could not easily make themselves understood. They just seemed so – alone.

It wouldn’t be until years later, after I developed an interest in the life of Helen Keller that I would have that impression validated by learning that she herself had once said that of her two sensory impairments, deafness was the more debilitating because blindness separates us from things, but deafness separates us from people.

Over the years my interest in children with communication disorders grew, and my first job as an adult was teaching deaf children. Here are a couple of those children. Those things on their chests, by the way, are hearing aids. Even with the best intervention of the time, this is what they sounded like.

At this point I decided to make it the goal of my career to be helping design better interventions, so that all deaf children could learn spoken language, and communicate with everyone around them. So what had started as an interest in childhood blossomed into a passion in adulthood.

You probably have a similar story. If you’re getting a PhD in geology today, perhaps as a child you had a rock collection– maybe a secret rock collection you hid under your bed so your mother wouldn’t find it and scold you for bringing those dirty rocks into her clean house. Whatever your story, something that started as an interest grew into a passion, so here you sit.

Because of that shared experience I eventually decided I would be an appropriate commencement speaker. With that decision behind me, my next challenge was figuring out how to put together a commencement address. You see, I’ve never given one before. So faced with this challenge, I did what any good scientist would do: I googled it. Turns out there’s no shortage of advice on the internet for how to put together a commencement address. I perused a number of these sites and selected what I thought were the five best, assuming I could easily choose among them later. But then that task turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated, so I had to employ yet another tried-and-true scientific method. I closed my eyes and randomly picked one.

Now I had my online instruction manual, and committed myself entirely to following those instructions. Well, the site I picked recommends there are five cardinal rules for putting together a commencement address. I will now walk us all through those five rules, so that on this momentous occasion you will know that you have been the recipients of the perfect commencement address. Ready? Here we go. Cardinal Rule #1…..

Be funny. When I realized this was the first rule, I immediately had to question my selection methods. But being totally committed, I set about trying to find a way to follow this rule. After much thought, I finally concluded I was just going to have to nail the other four.

Cardinal Rule #2: Have a clear message. At this point I was close to panic. What is the just-right message for a commencement address? I didn’t know, so I went back to the internet, this time watching dozens of commencement addresses by other speakers, hoping to glean a common theme across them all. Turns out there are two common themes to these addresses. According to the first, I’m supposed to tell you how very special you are, having accomplished this achievement completely on your own. You’re one in a million. Well, actually, three in hundred. Three percent: that’s how many adults in the country have doctorates. According to the other theme, I’m supposed to tell you that now that you have this degree, you should follow your dreams, no matter where they may lead, no matter how esoteric or financially unproductive they may be.

The only problem is that the whole time I was watching these online addresses, one refrain kept running through my mind. It was: Congratulations, now get to work. And I believe there are two reasons this refrain kept popping into my head. First, yes, this is a wonderful accomplishment; no doubt about it. But the best decision you made really was in selecting the University of Florida at which to pursue your doctoral studies. Once here, you were guided and supported by the best minds in your field. The other reason is that now that you have this degree, we need you. Never before has our very civilization faced such serious and frankly existential threats. Granted, many of these threats are of our own making. For example – perhaps some of you will recall this bit of advice given to another graduate a half century ago.

Without question, the work in material sciences that led to the development of plastics has contributed to many great advances, such as disposable syringes, which have all but eliminated injection-related infections. And implantable devices, such as the cochlear implants that have helped so many of the deaf children I care about. But at the same time plastics have had unintended consequences. 

This is Midway Island, right smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 2000 miles from the nearest continent and home to the largest population of Albatrosses on the planet.

And this is what their home looks like now, because much of our discarded plastic washes up on the shores of Midway Island. This problem needs to be fixed.

Medical research has led to impressive declines in mortality rates for many forms of cancer. This is just one example.

Now we must develop equally as effective interventions for the sensory and cognitive impairments that so often accompany aging. This problem needs to be fixed. And I could go on and on and on, but you get the picture. There are lots of problems that need fixing.  So, my message to you today can be nothing short of “You need to go out … .and save the world.” Now, you don’t need to save the whole world and you don’t need to save it in every way it needs saving. But you need to bite off a substantial chunk and you need to make a meaningful difference. And if that directive still seems too ostentatious and unattainable, let me show you something. Remember the goal I set for my own career, of wanting to help deaf children learn spoken language? Well watch this.

Of course I’m not going to tell you I’m responsible for that outcome. That outcome is the product of work by an army of scientists, engineers, otologists, audiologists, teachers of the deaf, and parents, all of whom shared a common vision for deaf children. And I’m not going to tell you that we’re at the end of our journey. Even the best performing deaf children still face barriers to communication. And our most significant challenge still lies ahead, because the kinds of intensive interventions required for this outcome remain unavailable to most children who are born deaf. But the point is, if you set your sights high and work hard, you’ll be surprised at what gets accomplished.

Cardinal Rule #3: Describe the future. This one I’ve got covered. Before long, you will be visited by an administrator; perhaps a department chair, maybe a director of research, maybe a post-doc supervisor. That administrator will sit down with you and say, “Now, about that grant proposal.” And you will hear that message often. You will begin to think that your job is trolling for dollars for your institution. But that is not your job. Your job is to save the world.

That same administrator will also tell you that within the next year, you’re expected to publish 3 papers as first or senior author in journals with impact factors of 4 or greater. That is not your job. Your job is to save the world. And that administrator knows that. But we all have to work under the same constraints. Saving the world is expensive. You’re going to have to help foot the bill. And no discovery, no matter how big matters, unless you share it with others, so you’re going to have to publish. But most importantly, there are a lot of people claiming to be able to save the world. So as imperfect and pedestrian as these measures are, we need a way a separate the true contenders from the imposters. You need to make sure you end up in that first bucket.

Cardinal Rule #4: Offer sage advice. When I read this rule, my first instinct was simply to tell you not to make the same mistakes I’ve made. But then I realized that would lead to my having to list all those mistakes, and that would keep us all here far longer than any of us cares to be. So, I decided to boil down everything I’ve learned from all my mistakes to three salient lessons.

First, persevere. You might think it would be easy to save the world; that you’d just have to announce you’re going to do so and everything would fall into place. But that’s not how it works. You’re going to encounter challenges. Some of those challenges will be exogenous, others will be endogenous. The exogenous challenges arise precisely because of those very pedestrian chores we all need to do: Not just writing grant proposals and publishing papers, but completing requisitions for equipment, and travel authorization forms, responding to the IRB or the IACUC. It’s easy to get discouraged, but don’t. It’s all just paperwork you need to complete for your journey.

The endogenous challenges are actually the more significant ones. Before long, you’re going to achieve some success. You’re going to get papers published, you’re going to be invited to give talks, and you’re going to get tenure. In short, you’ll become comfortable. That’s when it becomes easy to settle for getting half way to saving the world. But don’t. Just when you feel yourself getting comfortable, that’s when you need to dig down, push through, and set a new short-term objective for yourself.

Reflect. It’s often said that failure is part of success, and that’s true. Similarly, it’s said that when you fall down, you should get right back up and get right back in the race. Not so fast. When you fall down, stay down there a while; figure out why you stumbled. Yes, it will be true some of the time that the individuals who criticize your work really are incapable of understanding it. But more often than not, they’ll be perfectly reasonable colleagues who are in your corner and would like nothing more than to see you save the world, but think there are a couple flaws in your plan. Take the time to consider their criticisms, and adjust course as need be.

Inspire. You’re going to need some help to reach your goals. So inspire those around you who are capable of grasping and sharing your aspirations. Include people who are senior to you, because, although you are well prepared, questions will arise and they can help answer those questions. Include people who are junior to you because they have boundless energy and can continue your work when you’re gone.

Finally, we come to Cardinal Rule #5: Finish big.

In 1861 the first doctorate was awarded at Yale University. Since then, this degree has been conferred upon those individuals demonstrating the highest level of knowledge in their chosen field. Today you join their ranks; the 3 percent. But you – you in this room – you are the brightest and the best prepared doctoral recipients of your generation. And that will mean everything to your ability to achieve your goals. We expect you to set those goals high, and work hard to achieve them.

Yes, you will encounter obstacles along the way. But you’re equipped to deal with them.

And no, your life will not look like the lives of your friends from high school and college who chose different career paths. You will not go home every day at 5:00, and you will not head for the beach every weekend. Instead, your rewards will be doled out over longer time spans, in years or even decades. And they will not be so tangible. Your best rewards will not come in the form of bonuses or plaques that bear your name, but in other, almost imperceptible ways. Depending on your area, your best reward might come one day in the future when you realize that habitats for our wildlife are cleaner. Or when you see that more of our elderly are enjoying those extra years in their lives, because they’re free from sensory and cognitive impairments. My best rewards come when I hear deaf children talk about playing in their back yard.

So, today we celebrate the end of one long and hard journey for you. But more importantly, we find joy in helping to launch you on a new journey, one that promises to be long and hard, but oh so rewarding. I am quite certain that if a future version of you were here today, he or she would tell you “Thank you for choosing this career path.” For my part, after all these rules and lessons, the best I really can do is to tell you “Congratulations. Now get to work.”

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