UAFS commencement speakers urge graduates to learn from challenges, learn from others

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Dr. Benny Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools

Editor’s note: Story info contributed by the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
Dr. Benny Gooden and Sam Sicard spoke to graduates at the University of Arkansas of Fort Smith’s commencement ceremonies on Saturday (May 14). Gooden’s advice focused on the challenges graduates would face after graduation, while Sicard gave graduates advice on how to successfully face those challenges.

Gooden, superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools, spoke at the 10 a.m. ceremony. He recited the famous opening lines of Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities” and how, similar to 18th-century France, 21st-century America was also facing “the best of times” and “the worst of times.” He pointed to income inequality in the United States, where the top 20% of households possess more than 80% of the wealth, contrasted with the high standard of living in the U.S. and the advances in healthcare, technology, and transportation.

“Truly, there are contrasts which challenge people of all ages, but for those of us who choose to look at the proverbial glass as half full, we might say it is ‘the best of times,’” Gooden said.

Gooden also urged graduates to do four things after graduation: grow in their careers, be aware of their civic responsibility, help those around them and be a role model to others.

“So, is it the best of times, or the worst of times? You have the ability to define this for yourselves,” Gooden said. “How you approach challenges which certainly will come, how you face disappointments which we will all face, and how you resolve each day to be a blessing to others will help you and those [around you] to experience the best of times as a reflection of you.”

Sam Sicard, president and CEO, First National Bank of Fort Smith
Sam Sicard, president and CEO, First National Bank of Fort Smith

Speaking at the 2 p.m. ceremony, Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, urged graduates to be grateful for what they have as they advance in their careers.

“When we reflect on how much we have to be grateful for … It allows us to be open-minded, and willing to learn from others, instead of always having to protect our point of view,” Sicard said. “It allows us seek enlightenment and allows us to enjoy the moment instead of always trying to be perfect. It builds and improves relationships, reduces anxiety, helps us to stay grounded, improves our judgment, and builds trust and admiration.”

Sicard concluded his remarks by pointing to a common characteristic he saw in leaders: “Their fear of failure was far surpassed by their fear of not trying.”

“It’s often said that experience is the best teacher, but I’d argue that only closely-examined experience is our best teacher,” Sicard said. “In making a commitment to yourself to learning something new every day, you will not only enjoy what you will discover, but you will be able to apply your knowledge and become a teacher for future generations.”

UAFS Chancellor Dr. Paul Beran introduced both speakers and also addressed graduates on the need to adapt to change throughout their careers.

“Talk to anyone in business, industry or education, and they will tell you that change is happening all around us at breakneck speed,” Beran said. “Your education has provided you many of the tools you need to keep up with the speed of change. But if you want real success – no matter how you define that term for yourself – the reality is you have to move faster than the change.”

The day was bittersweet for the more than 650 graduates receiving bachelor’s or associate degrees or technical certificates after completing graduation requirements during the fall semester and second summer term.

“To walk across that stage was a surreal experience, not only because it marked the culmination of my time at UAFS, but because it is celebrating the journey it took to get here,” said student Tony Jones of Fort Smith. “I know that the lessons I have learned will carry me into the next phase of my life.”