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UND President Mark Kennedy: For UND grads, a 'Star Wars' guide to life

UND President Mark Kennedy gives his first commencement speech at 2016 winter ceremonies at the Chester Fritz Auditorium Friday afternoon.

Editor's note: At UND's Winter Commencement ceremony on Friday (Dec. 16), Mark Kennedy delivered his first commencement address as president of the university. The following is a transcript of his remarks.

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Today is a very special day. It has been long anticipated.

Finally, "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" hits a movie theater near you.

I am honored to be with you here at today's other special event—your commencement. But I can't wait to join my family to watch the latest Star Wars movie on Saturday.

In many ways, the Star Wars story provides wonderful insights that you would do well to heed as you chart your own course in life.

In the original Star Wars, Luke Skywalker left his home planet of Tatooine to lead the Rebel Alliance to defeat the Galactic Empire, but only after being tutored by Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, meeting lifelong friends—Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C3PO and of course R2D2. It was only after the empire destroyed Alderaan and the Alliance was forced to evacuate its base that Luke was able to lead the Alliance to destroy the Death Star.

I will leave it to you to decide which of your professors is most like Yoda and which of the friends you have made here at UND are most like Chewbacca or R2D2. Our hope for you is that your education here has prepared you for the journey upon which you now commence.

Let me highlight seven steps essential to the success of both Luke Skywalker and UND's most famous alums that should guide your path.

▇ First, those from the far reaches of the galaxy can change the world.

Luke Skywalker came from Tatooine, a harsh and desolate place in the galaxy's outer rim.

UND Alum John Disher grew up in Olmstead, N.D., a place so small that it is not a town, only a "cultural feature." Karen Nyberg came from a much bigger place, Vining, Minn., population 78—not 7,800, 78. Olmstead and Vining would make Tatooine seem like a metropolis.

Skywalker went on to explore different planets and change the galaxy. So did Disher and Nyberg. Disher, as a NASA manager, helped lead the exploration of space from the original Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions right through to the Space Lab. Nyberg, as an astronaut, spent 180 days in space.

The space program they were a part of spurred development of countless technology spinoffs that have truly changed our world today.

No matter where you hail from, you too can change the world.

▇ Second, you need a broad base of skills to succeed.

Han Solo quipped to Luke, "Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, farm boy." Crop dusting is important, but Skywalker needed a wide range of skills that would allow him to succeed in many different roles. So do you.

Carl Ben Eielson ran a retail store in North Dakota, served as a police officer in Washington and was a secondary school teacher in Alaska before being the first to fly over the North and South Poles. Today, Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska is named in his honor.

Your liberal arts foundation gained here at UND will help you succeed in not just your first job, but whatever hyperspace lies in your future.

▇ Third, effectively engaging a wide range of different people is essential to success.

Think of all the amalgamation of characters that made up Luke's friends—a monk-like Jedi Master, a smuggler, a Wookiee, a protocol droid and a princess.

At UND, Phil Jackson distilled insights from Zen and American Indian religious practices that enabled him to motivate players with radically different backgrounds than his own. By getting Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman at the Chicago Bulls and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant at the Lakers to play well together as a team, Jackson won more NBA championships than anyone else in history.

Embracing diversity is not just about making others feel welcome, it will be essential for your own success.

▇ Fourth, no risks, no rewards.

Skywalker's path to defeating the Death Star involved taking non-stop risks—leaving his home planet in the hands of a smuggler, confronting the Imperial Storm Troopers and TIE fighters, going toe-to-toe with the Death Star in an X-Wing.

UND Alum Chester Fritz accepted a post selling flour in Hong Kong at age 23. Fritz went on to be one of the earliest and most active traders in China. He took even greater risk to continue his activities in Shanghai as Japan invaded China and World War II raged off its shores.

Chester Fritz was generous enough to contribute part of the payoffs from that risk-taking to fund the building in which we sit and our library.

You will achieve little of note in life if you are unwilling to take risks.

▇ Fifth, when some of those risks don't pay off, you must bounce back from adversity.

After the Empire destroyed Alderaan and forced the Alliance to evacuate its base, Skywalker, undeterred, led the Alliance to destroy the Death Star.

In August 1942, the Japanese were in control of Shanghai and put Chester Fritz and 1,500 Westerners in an internment camp for 14 months until the International Red Cross brokered an exchange for their release. Fritz bounced back, switched his trading to Hong Kong, India and South America before becoming the philanthropist we know today.

When you stumble, you must dust yourself off, and get back on your feet.

▇ Sixth, devote yourself to being a part of something bigger than yourself.

Luke achieved little in his own name. But others were inspired by him and followed him because he was passionately devoted to something bigger: restoring freedom.

UND Alum Ron Davies exemplified this focus on the welfare of others when as a judge, he issued the landmark decision to desegregate the Little Rock Public Schools.

You will find that you are most effective and most satisfied with your work when it is directed towards a greater good.

▇ Seventh, never give up or lose hope.

My favorite scene in Star Wars is when in response to Luke saying, "All right, I'll give it a try," Yoda replies, "No! Try not! Do or do not. There is no try."

To accomplish great deeds, you must never give up, never lose hope.

The family of Era Bell Thompson was the only black family in Driscoll, N.D. After tying two national records in track and field during her freshman year, an extended bout of pleurisy left her too debilitated to run and forced her to leave school.

Moving to Chicago, she worked in a variety of short-lived clerical jobs before landing one at a magazine paying only ten dollars a week. After only three months, her father's illness forced her to return to North Dakota, where she worked on a farm doing chores in exchange for financial support for her and her family.

Era Bell Thompson never gave up and eventually became editor of "Ebony" magazine for four decades, where she shone a steady light of understanding on how to achieve harmonious racial and gender relations.

The lesson from Star Wars and UND Alums is this — never lose hope in your ability to change the world for the better. We have done our best to impart the educational foundation and appreciation of diversity you need to succeed. It is left to you to take risks, bounce back when you stumble, devote yourself to a bigger cause, and never, ever, ever give up until you achieve your destiny.

UND Class of 2016 — May the force be with you.

Kennedy is president of UND.

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