Undergraduate Convocation Remarks by Alicia Boler-Davis

Dean Ottino, distinguished faculty and administration, honored guests, parents and family, and most importantly, members of the class of 2014!

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. It’s always a pleasure to be back on campus, and I am honored and truly humbled to be part of today’s commencement ceremony. This is truly one of the most remarkable things to happen to me.

As I thought about what I wanted to say today, I thought back to when I was a student here myself. It seems like a long time ago. Twenty-three years is, after all, nearly a quarter of a century.

And speaking of “a long time ago”… it was 180 years ago today when Cyrus McCormick – great uncle to Robert McCormick, for whom the McCormick School is named – was granted a patent for his horse-drawn mechanical reaper.

Things were obviously different back then.

In 1834, it took about three weeks to travel from Chicago to New York… if it didn’t rain, or snow, and your mule didn’t die.

Today, we send messages around the world faster than Cyrus McCormick could hitch up his reaper. In fact, humans now tweet more than 7 billion words a day… about one word for every man, woman, and child on the planet.

Of course, not everything has changed since 1834.

Many of the fundamental habits for success remain the same: hard work, innovation, and perseverance.

Beyond these, the skills you have learned here – technical excellence, analytical thinking, “problem framing,” collaboration, whole-brain engineering – have prepared you well for the careers you will pursue.

But as I’m sure you know, these habits and skills are just the start of what you’ll need in today’s challenging world. They are the price of admission to today’s rapidly changing, increasingly global economy.

To stand out… to really make a difference… you will also need to demonstrate qualities that most of us learn from experience. Allow me to offer you several lessons that I have learned since my graduation… lessons that have been important to me… and hopefully will be to you.

One, follow and show your passion! 

By graduating from one of the finest engineering schools in the world, you have shown that you have great abilities. You should be very proud. But let me tell you – ability alone is not enough. 

In my experience – in business and in life – there are lots of really smart people out there. And one of the things that distinguishes those who really make a difference is enthusiasm. That enthusiasm comes more easily if you are doing what you really love. 

It’s what you do with your knowledge that really matters. It’s the passion and energy you bring to any endeavor that most often determines how far you will go.

And in the category of brutal facts, let me offer this: despite what the commercials tell us, you actually can’t have it all. However, you can make a difference.

In my experience, the people who make that difference are those who establish clear priorities, and who throw themselves into their work with all the passion and enthusiasm they can muster.

Two, try new things – take risks.

Let me tell you what happened to me.

In 1991, I graduated from Northwestern with a degree in chemical engineering and went to work for Upjohn Pharmaceuticals, and then Frito Lay. Then I heard about a job with General Motors in manufacturing engineering. The job was really more about mechanical engineering, in which I had no experience… but I thought mechanical and chemical – what’s the big difference? And who doesn’t grow up in Michigan without dreaming of the auto industry?

So I took the job with GM… and I loved it.

A few years later, I requested a transfer to a supervisor job in an assembly plant. I was discouraged from doing this – some thought I was crazy. I had never worked in an assembly plant or supervised people (many, by the way, who were old enough to be my parents). It was a very tough environment and there was nothing glamorous about it. But I wanted to learn how to build cars and trucks, so I took that job, too. And I liked it so much, I decided to stick with manufacturing, with the goal of becoming a plant manager before I retired. You see, at that time, very few women were doing that.

All along the way, I was asked and encouraged to try new things. Things I hadn’t done before. Things I never thought I’d do. Sometimes, very challenging things I didn’t particularly want to do. But I did them, and eventually I did become a plant manager, and much sooner than I expected. But I was well prepared because I was pushed outside of my comfort zone and learned as much as I could.

My last plant manager job – building the Chevy Sonic at our assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan – was one I really wasn’t sure about.

I had started my previous position just two-and-a-half months earlier, and it was a great role in the company. I’d moved our family from Dallas to Lansing for it. Everything was terrific.

But the Orion job would be something different – the chance to build a sub-compact car in America, which no other car company was doing.

Plus, in addition to managing the plant, I’d also get to work as an engineer again… as the Vehicle Chief Engineer and Vehicle Line Director. This meant I oversaw the engineering, the manufacturing, and the entire business case of the car – something that had never been done before at GM.

Well, again I said yes. I took the job even when it would have been much easier to say no. And again, it was the right decision.

The Sonic is now one of GM’s best-selling cars. I learned a ton about myself and the business, which allowed me to continue advancing within GM. And it was at Orion that I had the chance to host President Obama and the president of South Korea… then be invited to the White House… and then sit with the First Lady during the State of the Union address.

None of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken a risk.

Today, I’m leading a new discipline for GM called Customer Experience, along with Global Quality. Our goal is to make GM nothing less than the industry leader in overall customer experience. By the way, customer experience is not a typical path for an engineer! 

Is this a challenging assignment?


But you cannot allow the fear of failure to prevent you from occasionally swinging for the fences. Play it safe all the time, and you will never fully challenge yourself to reach for something better. Understand that failure can and will lead you to greater success, and all of it is important for making you who you are.

I truly believe that each of you has what it takes to change the world. I believe you can make the impossible happen… if you are willing to be bold and take some risks.

Will you make mistakes? Yes. But you’ll also learn, you’ll live more fully, and in the end you’ll make a bigger contribution.

In the words of legendary racecar driver Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

Three, establish a strong moral compass.

I’m reminded of the four M.E. students who took a road trip the weekend before a Thermodynamics exam.

They had a great time visiting friends on Friday night… and all day Saturday… and half of Sunday. By the time they got back to their own campus, it was midnight, and none of them had studied.

Next morning, they explained to their professor that they had visited a sick friend, and on the drive home they had a flat tire. They didn’t have a spare, they were stranded for hours, and by the time they got back to campus it was too late to prepare properly.

The professor said, “Meet me here at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, and you can take a make-up exam then.”

The students were ecstatic. They went back to the dorm, studied well into the night, and returned the next morning. The professor handed each of them a test booklet, placed them in four separate rooms, and told them to begin.

Inside their test books was a single question: “Which tire?”

Remember that how you get things done is just as important as getting them done.

In every aspect of your life, do what you know is right – for your clients, your employees, your family, your friends, and yourself. And sometimes this means challenging the status quo and conventional thinking.

This is a lesson that Northwestern has taught for 163 years. It is one we do well to remember every day.

Finally, give something back.

As tomorrow’s leaders, you have a great opportunity to build fulfilling lives for yourselves. Engineers are good at building. But do more than build your own life. Help build and improve the lives of others, as well.

Anyone seen the new “Spiderman” movie?

“With great power comes great responsibility.” 

Never underestimate the effect that you can have on others… in actions large and small.

In my experience, being involved in mentoring and in helping at-risk children has been tremendously rewarding… and shows me that we can all make a difference.

I hope that you will each find something that you feel strongly about… and you will make it an important part of your lives.

So, a lot has changed since Cyrus McCormick patented his mechanical reaper. And a lot has stayed the same.

It may feel like your life is mapped out for you today, but I can assure you – things will happen that you simply cannot imagine. Like my being here speaking to you today.

Embrace the change! Each new experience will broaden your skills and perspectives. They are the milestones that will define your lives.

Let me point out that a few hours ago, the sun reached its northernmost point in the sky and spring turned to summer. 

In a few minutes, you will undergo a similar transformation. As you cross this stage and receive your diploma, you – like the earth we share – will advance to the next season in your lives.

Make it a season to remember!

Again, my sincere thanks for the opportunity to speak to you today. 

Congratulations to each and every one of you.

And wherever you go… Go Wildcats!