Remarks by Leslie Kohman
Medical Director, Upstate Cancer Center, Syracuse
152nd Commencement, SUNY Oswego

Graduates, Provost Clemo, President Stanley, faculty and staff, family and friends, I am honored and delighted to be here celebrating this day with you, the passage from one phase of learning to another. Thank you to teachers, family, friends, mentors, encouragers and all who share the pride of accomplishment with today’s graduates and enabled them to achieve this portion of their life’s goals.

I never attended my own college graduation.  I had transferred into a large university as a junior, lived off campus, and never developed a connection to the university community.  I am greatly pleased that you all feel a strong connection to Oswego and the great part it has played in your life. I also share a sense of pride that you are graduating from the State University of New York.  I have been a learner in the SUNY system, and a faculty member at SUNY Upstate in Syracuse for almost 30 years.  I am proud that SUNY Oswego is perennially listed as a best value college and university.  It is also imbedded in the daily life of the people of CNY:  Oswego’s public radio station, WRVO, is the only station that plays at my house.

I came to SUNY Upstate by serendipity, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it.  Serendipity is one of my favorite words! I wanted an extra year of training that was hard to come by.  When I called Upstate, I was surprised to be invited on the spot for an interview.  Turns out that the program had just fired someone for poor performance, and had an unexpected opening. I was able to fill that position and it developed into my entire career with many more instances of serendipity.

Another favorite word is lagniappe. It took me a while to learn how to spell it!  L_A_G_N_I_A_P_P_E.  Lagniappe is an extra unexpected gift or benefit.  Despite my lack of connectedness to the university I graduated from, I made a wonderful friend there, and we are still friends after 43 years.  Treasure the friends you made here at Oswego.  They are lagniappe to your formal education. 

The start of a new phase in life is exciting and scary. Some of you know exactly where you are headed, maybe some of you have no idea, and most of you are somewhere in-between. I’m not talking just to the graduates but to everyone in the audience and on the podium.  We really don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives because so many circumstances are beyond our control.  We can’t control natural disasters, other people or the weather and we can’t anticipate upcoming dramatic advances in science and technology. So planning is important, but flexibility is even more important.  Blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape.

Oswego as a campus has learned this flexibility and the valuable lesson of taking advantage of its local environment.  Researchers here recently received a large grant to study the causes and attributes of lake effect snow: a serendipity of living on the shores of Lake Ontario.

College graduates today enter a different and challenging employment environment, but one that is full of coming opportunity.  You will have career and life paths of greater diversity and variety than those of past generations. Your skills will be developed through many types of experience. These include formal education such as you just accomplished; in addition work, hobbies, volunteer experience, community involvement and travel. You have the tools and the interests to go forward and make wonderful lives for yourselves. With courage and persistence you will develop a broad set of responses to the opportunities that present themselves, a chance to be flexible and subject to serendipity! We as humans have made enormous progress in recent decades. I have faith in your energy and your creativity to make our planet a better place.

Your work will be only one of many means to a satisfying life. The true keys to satisfaction are to find your passion, and to be useful. Your passion is the thing that absorbs your attention, that makes you forget the passage of time. This can be discovered in work, family, play, service or community.  You will also find a niche where you feel useful.  I have come to believe that this is one of the most basic of human needs.

Members of your generation will have an employment path that is not straight or predictable.  You get to take the scenic route!  You will have different jobs in numerous forms and diverse fields. Employment will be only part of your life’s enlarging portfolio of things that you care about, that make you feel useful and satisfy your passion. You can’t control the future, but you can determine to interpret your experiences as good luck.  There are many paths that are right for you, with serendipity and lagniappe around every corner.

As an example, my own professional life has been a series of unpredictable pathways.  I started college planning to major in English and become a poet.  In the 2nd semester of my sophomore year, I encountered a dynamic biology professor who changed my life when he crawled up on the lab bench at the front of the lecture hall to illustrate how a sea creature crawled up on dry land to become the first amphibian. I immediately changed my major from English to biology and never looked back.

As a senior, I was debating between teaching and studying paleontology.  Then I recalled an ambition I had expressed as a child, and realized that maybe I should be a doctor.  Suddenly, that seemed like the right choice.  I worked in a research lab while applying to medical school.  When my interviewers asked why I wanted to be a doctor, I said “because I will never be bored a day in my life.” That was a conviction that just seemed right to me and it has been entirely true.
When I entered medical school, my area of interest was family practice, then it became internal medicine, surgery, heart surgery, lung cancer and most recently palliative care.  Along the way I added surgical education and cancer research and finally management and leadership.  Meanwhile, outside of medicine, I indulged my passions of organic gardening, cooking and entertaining, travel, and community involvement.  My work now consists mainly of administration as the medical director of the Upstate Cancer Center, plus work in patient safety and surgical quality.  Never would I have predicted any of these things. Still, it is less colorful than my best friend in medical school, who worked as a go-go dancer and hairdresser before becoming a heart surgeon.  Now, after retirement, she sells clothes at Macy’s.  Meanwhile, she married her judo instructor and joined the Army!

You are at the beginning of a new chapter in your life: further education, some sort of known or unknown employment, public or military service, maybe some time out.  Future chapters will unfold from elements in your personality, your
education, your desires, skills and knowledge. You will experience constantly accelerating change.  That keeps life interesting!  Your life will have serendipity and lagniappe if you are open to recognizing them.

I feel my “choices” have all been for the best for me.  I believe that if I had made different choices, I would still think they were for the best. You can’t predict the course your life will take and there is no point in trying. Keep an open mind and a wide focus, and take advantage of the immense opportunities around you wherever you are.  Keep your eye on the big picture AND appreciate the small blessings of this wonderful life.

I know you feel honored and pleased to have had the opportunity to benefit from the State University of New York,  the process of higher education, and the specific strengths and attributes of the State University at Oswego.  As you go forward in life, carry with you the legacy of SUNY and Oswego, including the friends you have made here.  I wish you all: graduates, family, friends, faculty and staff an interesting and productive life ahead. Life is exciting! You need never be bored.

As I close, I want to share a piece of advice from Maya Angelou that I try to remember daily: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Make them feel useful and valued and you will be useful and valuable to yourself and the world. Thank you.

(Posted: May 17, 2013)

Tags: leslie kohman, commencement