EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is an excerpt of the address given last week at UND’s commencement.
By Heather Wilson
To the 2019 Fighting Hawks, wherever you go from here, I hope you make three choices about your lives.
First, as leaders, I hope you develop the good judgement and confidence on when to say: “That’s not good enough.”
As you take on new roles, your character will help you face your fears when you are called upon for a decision. Take the plunge, and speak up.
President Teddy Roosevelt would say, “In a moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing is the wrong thing and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Maybe some of you have read about Navy and Air Force pilots losing oxygen while flying. The Air Force calls these “unexplained physiological events.” And a year and a half ago, after about 2 million safe flying hours, we had a series of events in our fleet of training aircraft.
We had a problem and we had to ground our training aircraft. The team discovered that a few parts were failing at higher-than-expected rates, and we replaced those parts in the whole fleet. The team had concluded that it was these parts that were the problem based on the first few aircraft checked out from a fleet of almost 500 aircraft.
But one key person, who had just joined the Air Force, spoke up, in the face of all the generals and the pressure to get back to flight.
“The initial sample size was not statistically significant,” he said. “We may not be right about the root cause.”
Imagine what that’s like, for a second. You are new on the job and you are telling the CEO and the members of a large engineering team, including people a lot older than you, “This isn’t good enough.”
But he was right.
Develop the judgment to be able to say, “That’s not good enough.”
The second choice I hope you make about your lives is to serve others. You have gifts. All of you have an obligation to use your gifts to build a better world. Choose in some way to serve others.
I want to tell you about a North Dakotan named Agnes Shurr, or “Aunt Aggie,” as she was known. Born on a small farm north of Minot in 1915, she went to nursing school and then enlisted in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps in 1938.
Nurses in the service often led dangerous lives. Agnes was asleep on one of two hospital ships when bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor. There were only 13 nurses on board, and they were quickly overwhelmed with broken and burned bodies.
That experience armored her to care for the sick and wounded for the remainder of World War II.
She retired as a commander in the Navy in 1958, and started a nurse anesthetist’s school at St. Michael’s Hospital here in Grand Forks. But Agnes wasn’t done.
She joined the World Health Organization and went to Afghanistan for two years in the early 1960s to train nurses. When she returned, she enrolled at Columbia University, at the age of 50, to earn a master’s degree in nursing. Then she came home to Grand Forks and became a professor in the Nursing Department at UND.
After she retired for the second time, in 1977, she volunteered in the surgery center at Altru Hospital until she couldn’t. She passed four years ago at the age of 99.
Aunt Aggie was a bright light of deep compassion who never stopped learning, never stopped teaching and never stopped giving.
Live a life that is bigger than your own by choosing to serve others.
The third choice I hope you make is to develop relationships of trust.
The work that you will do, the problems that you will solve matter, but let me tell you something that you might not believe yet: People matter more.
When I look back on all of the things I have done in life, what I remember -- what endures -- is the relationships. Relationships of trust are more valuable than gold, and they last a lifetime. Keep building relationships of trust, and you will weave a rich tapestry of a life well lived.
So I hope you choose to develop the ability to say, “That’s not good enough,” choose to use your gifts to serve others and choose to build relationships of trust.
You are well-educated, hard-working leaders, and you live in a free and self-governing country. You are coming of age at a time of innovation and discovery unparalleled in human history. The truth is, we’re all a little envious of you and the lives on which you are about to embark.
Congratulations to each of you.
May God bless you all.
Heather Wilson is secretary of the United States Air Force.