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Mark Kennedy: From Jedi to Leaders in Action

By Mark Kennedy

EDITOR'S NOTE: Following is the speech UND President Mark Kennedy delivered to graduates at the university's winter commencement.

Today is a very special day. It has been long anticipated. Finally, the next chapter in the "Star Wars" saga hits the theaters. I can't wait.

For two years in a row, UND's winter commencement and a "Star Wars" release date have come into perfect alignment. Is this a sign, a sign that UND is the hidden place on the fringe of the galaxy where the Resistance educates its future Jedi to save the world?

On the seal of the University of the North Dakota embossed on the diploma that I will soon hand each of you is the motto of Lux et Lex, light and law. Is that Jedi code for using light sabers to defend the rule of law against the dark side?

And those laser light shows at the hockey games. Are those cover for the Jedi apprentices practicing with their light sabers?

Whether or not UND is secretly the galaxy's premier Jedi academy, we the faculty, staff and administration at UND hope that we have instilled in you the powers of the Force that will allow you to navigate today's high-tech, fast changing world.

Having heard of the movie's title, "The Last Jedi," if we at UND have succeeded in cultivating your curiosity, you should be wondering what comes after the Jedi. Your critical thinking should deduce that if they have already announced another sequel, Disney must plan for the Jedi to reemerge or evolve. What traits would a new, improved Jedi embrace? What will they be called? Let me suggest that they should be called Leaders in Action.

What attributes should you embrace to be a force for good as a Leader in Action? These traits begin with gratitude to those who have contributed so much to your success.

Let us show our appreciation for your parents, siblings, other family members, mentors, and friends who supported you along your journey.

Let us acknowledge the faculty, staff and administrators who have devoted their lives to nurture you as Leaders in Action.

I will leave it to you to decide which of us is channeling Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, or Qui-Gon Jinn.

After all, like them, we are all wearing robes.

Community

Not everyone the Resistance trains on Tatooine and Dagobah is from those planets. Yet, they all are instilled with a sense of community from their time together in those harsh terrains. The same is true at UND. A strong sense of comradery is a natural result of surviving a winter together in Grand Forks.

This is important because the spirit of the Jedi and Leaders in Action alike are anchored in a commitment to community, to the common good of all, to serving a cause bigger than oneself, not just One UND and One North Dakota, but indeed One Planet. One Galaxy. One Universe.

Think of the collection of characters in the original "Star Wars" — a farm hand, a monk-like Jedi Master, a smuggler, a Wookiee, a protocol droid and a princess. The new series adds a scavenger and a refugee stormtrooper. How boring these movies would be if everyone looked the same.

You have undoubtedly met fellow students from radically different backgrounds during your time here at UND. Did you include them in your community? The movie of your life will be far less interesting if all your friends look just like you.

UND alum Ronald Davies, as a federal judge, incurred the wrath of a whole region of our country by ordering the desegregation of the previously all-white Little Rock (Ark.) Central High. Have you stuck up for someone different from yourself who you saw not getting a fair shake like Judge Davies did? Doing so is the essence of being a Jedi.

UND alum Era Bell Thompson, as editor of Ebony magazine for four decades, dedicated herself to the goal of achieving greater understanding and more harmonious racial and gender relations.

Are you devoted to truly understanding the perspectives of others and constantly searching for ways to bridge the divides that fracture our society?

Luke was willing to go right into the heart of the death star to confront tyranny. Fritz Pollard, a star UND running back, followed suit. Pollard rejected Adolf Hitler's declaration that African Americans should be excluded from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and won the bronze medal in the hurdles in Hitler's capital.

Do you believe your country has a role in confronting tyranny? Do you believe you have a role? Are you a Leader in Action truly committed to the common good of the global community, seeking to bridge, not divide?

Ready

The Jedi and the Resistance were only able to prevail against the Empire by matching their technological advances step for step. Digital power is advancing and the world is getting smaller at hyper speed. Many of you will work at jobs that will no longer exist by the time you retire. Half of you will work in jobs that have not yet been invented.

You wisely chose UND, where we endeavor not just to impart to you a skill for your first job, but the ability to adapt quickly to new roles by thinking critically and working as a team, skills nurtured by your liberal arts foundation and involvement in campus activities.

Here you not only learned the theory as to how things should work, but you tried your hand at making things work — in a real, simulated or 3D cockpit, classroom, courtroom, drill site, laboratory, operating room, recital hall or on a stage.

Yet, though you may be cutting edge today, the fast pace of the world demands that you keep up with the pace of change. Ideally, you should set the pace of change for others to follow.

UND alum John Disher helped lead the original Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions right through to the Space Lab. Astronaut Karen Nyberg continued UND's heritage of exploration by spending 180 days in space.

Other UND alums today work at NASA, Blue Origin and SpaceX seeking to pierce the mystery of space more completely.

Have you directed your studies at UND to graduate ready to hit the ground running in your field of interest?

Are you committed to staying at the cutting edge, or better yet defining that edge?

An accelerating pace of change will increasingly challenge us to adapt in the years ahead. Are you a Leader in Action ready to help not just yourself, but others ride the wave of change?

Doers who seek to make an impact

Luke Skywalker, Princess Leah and Rey are people of action. Like UND alums, they lead by doing. The efforts of the "Star Wars" heroes and heroines profoundly impacted the fate of the galaxy — they defeated clone armies and destroyed death stars.

As I talk to alums all over the country, indeed the world, I hear them share with pride that what distinguishes UND alums is that they are doers, they dig in and work hard. UND's Leaders in Action are also committed to making an impact.

UND alum John Odegard was a doer. With foresight and determination, he built the world's premier aerospace college. His impact is evident on our campus and in this room, as many Odegard graduates are soon to cross this stage. We currently face a severe shortage of civilian and military pilots. Just imagine how much worse it would be if John Odegard was not a doer focused on making an impact.

In a world filled with challenges to confront, opportunities to unlock, are you a doer?

Are you a Leader in Action focused on having an impact, leaving the world a little better off, just as your fellow UND alums before have done over the generations?

Answering the call to be a Leader in Action will not be easy. Just as you have experienced here on campus, just as the Jedi faced in fulfilling their missions, you will face many headwinds hindering achievement of your goals. Yet, just like the eternal flame embodied in our logo, no matter how cold or strong the winds may blow, you may bend to the gusts, but must never surrender to them. And I can be fairly confident in saying that your experience of Grand Forks winters has helped you build such a tolerance.

University of North Dakota, class of 2017, may the Force be with you in your quest to become the Leaders in Action you are destined to be.

Mark Kennedy is the 12th president of the University of North Dakota.

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