Gahan Endowed Professor of Entomology Jamie Ellis Commencement Speech For Summer 2021 Commencement
Dr. Jamie Ellis is the Gahan Endowed Professor of Entomology in the Entomology and Nematology Department at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Jamie is an internationally recognized expert on honey bee biology and management. He received a B.S. degree in biology from the University of Georgia and a PhD in Entomology from Rhodes University in South Africa.
Jamie’s appointment at UF/IFAS includes a three-way academic split between extension, research, and teaching responsibilities. To satisfy this appointment, Jamie directs the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory (HBREL). The mission of the HBREL is to advance understanding of honey bees in Florida, the U.S., and globally, with the goal of improving the health and productivity of honey bee colonies everywhere. Jamie addresses this goal by conducting basic and applied research with managed and wild honey bees, communicating his findings to assorted clientele groups through diverse extension programming, and training future generations of bee educators, researchers, conservationists, and more.
Jamie is among the most sought-after lecturers on beekeeping topics globally. Regarding his extension work, Jamie created the UF/IFAS Bee College and the UF/IFAS Master Beekeeper Program. As an instructor, Jamie supervises PhD and masters students and has contributed to the development of five courses on beekeeping at UF. Currently, Jamie and his team have over 30 active research projects in the fields of honey bee husbandry, conservation and ecology, and integrated crop pollination.
Jamie has received many state, regional and national awards for his work with honey bees. These include the National and Southern Region Excellence in Extension Awards (American Association for Public Land Grant Universities), Roger Hoopingarner Award (American Beekeeping Federation), Roger E. Morse Award for Teaching/Extension (Eastern Apicultural Society), Ed and Elaine Holcombe Distinguished Speaker Award (Eastern Apicultural Society), Research Foundation Professor (University of Florida), Superior Accomplishment Award (University of Florida), Outstanding Specialist (Florida Association of Agricultural Agents), and Entomologist of the Year (Florida Entomological Society).
Jamie is also a bi-vocational youth minister at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church in High Springs, FL, where he lives with his wife (Dr. Amanda Ellis) and their four children.
His speech for Summer 2021 Commencement is below:
Thank you for that introduction President Fuchs.
Class of 2021, it is my honor and privilege to speak at your graduation. As I begin, I want to extend a hearty congratulations to you. What an accomplishment you have made, especially given the circumstances and obstacles before you. Parents, families, friends, I also thank you for supporting your student through this shared journey. Congratulations to you all.
I have attended my own students’ graduations over the years. Correspondingly, I have seen different faculty members chosen for the honor of speaking at UF graduations. I have often wondered what qualifications it takes to be chosen to speak at graduation. Being now involved in the process, I have discovered that it takes none, really no qualifications at all.
President Fuchs called me about two years ago when I was in a Walmart. I did not answer the phone, mainly because I did not want to extend my car’s warranty, but also because I did not know it was the President who was calling. Shortly thereafter, I listened to the voice message, heard it was the President, and returned his call, only to be invited to speak at the 2020 summer graduation. Honestly, I was relieved that the August 2020 in-person graduation was delayed. Our world was in the grip of an international pandemic, our country in the throes of social tension. I did not feel equipped to impart words of wisdom and encouragement in such a trying time.
Furthermore, who am I to serve as speaker at your graduation? Literally, that same day, when I got home, I found out that the University of Wisconsin had just announced that JJ Watt (a professional NFL player) would be the speaker at an upcoming UW graduation. To make matters worse, I was given a white paper from the office of the President on how to develop graduation speeches. It was filled with excerpts from the graduation speeches of Bono, Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Steven Colbert.
And you get me…not Tim Tebow, Erin Andrews, Abby Wambach, Caeleb Dressel, some guy named Steve Spurrier, Chris Collinsworth (my favorite NFL announcer!), or the other UF greats.
Man, did I feel inadequate. Nevertheless, the extra year gave me some time to think about what I feel is important to share with a group of individuals as accomplished as you.
I have attended countless professional development workshops, seminars, lectures, etc. All have tried to teach and inspire excellence, “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good”. Our university strives for it. Excellence is preached from the mountaintops. It is the goal of many.
While “excellence” worked for me for a while, I began to feel that it was not enough. I began to think about another personal characteristic that became much more appealing to me as I considered it further.
That characteristic is exceptionalism, or “the tendency to deviate from the norm, extraordinary, rare, superior”.
Let me share some life experiences to help you understand this concept.
I have a recurring dream. In that dream, I am back in high school, usually involved in some sort of sport. I dream about not trying very hard in that sport, realizing that my time in school is near completion, and having no opportunity to do better. I wake up a bit ashamed that I did not try harder when I had the chance.
I do not usually put much stock into dreams, but I do know why I have this dream. I played football my senior year in high school. In practice, we had a drill in which our coach ranked us from fastest on the team to slowest on the team. He then divided us into groups of three and made us race one another the entire length of the 100-yard field. If the designated fastest person in the group did not win, and the second-fastest come in second, etc., he made us all run the drill again.
Unfortunately, rather than pushing us to run faster, my teammates and I ensured we finished in the order in which we were expected to finish so that we would not have to run the drill again. As you might guess, our team was not very good.
Exceptional individuals do not cut corners. They embrace opportunities for self-improvement.
My wife and I have four children. Unfortunately for them, I am always trying to get right with them what I got wrong with myself.
My oldest two children played in a local basketball league earlier this year. At one practice, the coach taught them a new drill designed to teach passing skills. Like the drill I discussed for football, the basketball drill had a fundamental flaw because it offered an obvious shortcut that the kids on the team were quick to expose. When given the choice during the drill, most kids rushed to a position on the court that offered them the easiest way forward.
That evening, I pulled my kids aside after practice and shared that you will never get better if you take the easier path in a course designed to grow you as an individual. I challenged my kids to choose only the positions on the court that required them to work harder than the other kids. Doing so, they would have the greatest opportunity to grow.
The next practice, my daughter was on her way to the most difficult position for this drill, mind you - after recovering from appendicitis surgery, when the coach tried to get her to go to the spot most kids would rush to stand. She said she would rather go to the position she selected as it provided her the greatest opportunity for growth. I think quite a few people learned a lesson that day.
Exceptionalism is giving your best effort in everything you do.
I have tried to teach exceptionalism to the members of my team over my 15 years of being a faculty member at UF. It is somewhat difficult because we, by nature, are usually satisfied just to get the job done (I’m looking at you freshman chemistry), not necessarily get the job done well.
I was on the pre-med track as an undergraduate before I decided to pursue a PhD. Most of my friends and roommates did go on to medical school. At that time, there were a couple of sayings that floated around our circle. One, in particular, impacted me: What do you call someone who graduates medical school with all C’s? “Doctor.”
Looking back, I certainly appreciate the humor. However, I challenge the fundamental notion being taught in the statements. Merely passing a course when you can do much better is not a quality of exceptionalism.
Be exceptional in all you do, when you make your bed, when you serve a client, when you teach a student, when you raise your children, when you serve your country, when you care for the sick, when you defend someone in court, when you invest in your own mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Be exceptional.
Exceptionalism is being a person of integrity.
Almost all exceptional individuals are people of integrity. A good practical definition of integrity is who you are when people are not looking. It is rooted in honesty and a strong moral grounding.
Integrity is not something you can learn in the hallowed halls of a university. You cannot find it atop the Ivory Tower. It is not buried in an English composition book. It is not a play called from the sideline by Dan Mullen. It is something to which you must subscribe.
I love my wife Amanda and, being born and raised in the south, tend to use many of the southern customs to honor her in our relationship. I hold the door open for her, let her go into a room first, etc. These are all easy to do because she is there watching when it happens. However, what she does not see is that I also set her place at the table first, even when no one is in the room. I fold her clothes first on the (admittedly uncommon) occasions I do the laundry. These and other habits like them are important to me because she is important to me. She does not always see what I do to honor her, or vice versa; but, if it is important at all, it is always important. Being a person of integrity, believing in something and following through with it – even when folks are not watching, is key to being exceptional.
Exceptionalism thrives where purpose and community intersect.
The President mentioned in his introduction of me that I study honey bees. I have been a beekeeper since I was 12. I developed a love for science in my teenage years and simply decided to put those two interests together when pursuing a career. Honey bees can teach you a lot about life. They are remarkable organisms, if I do say so myself.
Honey bee colonies are composed of three types of bees: a queen, workers (also female) and drones (the males). All three bees have different tasks, different purposes. Queens lay the eggs. Drones mate with the queen. Workers, well, work.
There can be as many as 50,000 or so individual bees in the colony, each working with purpose.
In entomology, we refer to colonies of some social insects as “superorganisms”. The prefix “super” in this case means “above”. So, it implies a level of organization above that of the individual bee. We often think about colonies as collections of individual bees. However, the colony is a superorganism that, itself, functions like an organism. It collects food, mounts immune responses, reproduces, etc.
If you put two honey bees together, you have two honey bees. If you put 100 honey bees together, you have 100 honey bees. If you put 1,000 honey bees together, you have a colony. You see, colony-level properties, properties otherwise absent in the individual – but made possible by the individual, begin to manifest as the individuals come together. In other words, the bees become something greater communally than they are individually.
For example, a single honey bee can forage a 5 mile radius around a colony. Yet, when multiple bees come together as a colony, they can forage an area of 80 m2.
A single honey bee is cold-blooded, but multiple worker honey bees warm the colony in winter and cool it in summer making the colony warm-blooded. Ultimately, a honey bee colony is more than a simple sum of its parts. This is made possible by the bees’ common purpose and community.
This is something our forefathers envisioned when they adopted the motto “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one. They envisioned a country that supports, encourages, fosters, and promotes exceptionalism that leads to unity and common purpose. We advance as a nation when our citizens, and when our leaders, demonstrate exceptionalism.
Finally, and pay close attention to this one graduates, exceptionalism is no accident. Exceptionalism manifests itself when sheer will, preparedness, and opportunity meet.
The current Olympic Games in Tokyo illustrate this perfectly. The last two weeks, we have witnessed athletic exceptionalism on an international scale. The athletes have put in years of preparation, physically and mentally, all because they have the unwavering focus to be exceptional. Now, they are taking advantage of the opportunity given them to personify exceptionalism in the Olympic Games.
Like Olympic athletes, you become exceptional only when by fanatical determination, you prepare yourself exhaustively, and rise to the occasion when the opportunity manifests.
Graduates, it is immeasurably important to me that you, each and every one of you, know you have what it takes to be exceptional. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. The greatest poverty to me is not that of financial poverty, but rather poverty of mind, as this always seems to be accompanied by an inability to believe that you are capable of being exceptional. You are capable of exceptionalism, and you need to believe you are.
Class of 2021, you have found purpose at UF. You have been a part of community at UF. You are the Gator Nation. Yet, you have herculean tasks before you: an international pandemic, social injustices, environmental crises, food unavailability, overwhelmed health care systems, and political impotency. These and other unavoidable issues cannot be addressed halfheartedly. They cannot be addressed when motivated by self-interest. They cannot be addressed by people who lack vision and courage. They can only be addressed by the equipped, the willing, the exceptional. Graduates…are you ready to exceptional?
On behalf of the faculty, staff, and administration of the University of Florida: I would like to congratulate you, class of 2021. Be exceptional. Change the world.