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Shedd Aquarium President and CEO Bridget Coughlin gives the Commencement address at the 174th Commencement Ceremony.

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Commencement Address by Bridget Coughlin '94

"Congratulations on your degrees in Habitual Curious Learning."

Shedd Aquarium President and CEO Bridget Coughlin gives the Commencement address at the 174th Commencement Ceremony.

Good morning!

Thank you for that very warm introduction. I am absolutely overcome with gratitude and joy. Those are my two overwhelming emotions right now, and it started last night. Because while you were all watching fireworks, I was watching you. You were holding hands and taking pictures and anticipating this moment right now. Okay, not this moment—my speech—but this moment, graduation, and getting your diplomas. Thank you, President Amott, Professor Welch, trustees of Knox College, faculty, staff—it is a true honor to be here.

I think about the symbolism, by the way, of those fireworks. You know, fireworks are just little bundles of potassium nitrate and some other things and a fuse, and you infuse energy and heat and POW! They make the world brighter and better, not unlike these fuse-like tassels you have on your head.

Last night, my fellow honorary degree recipients and I had dinner together, and I had the privilege of hearing Matt Wilson create blasphemy by playing drums in Seymour Library. And Matt ended his piece with this incredible drum de-crescendo, and it sounded like the drums were getting quieter because they were getting absorbed into our soul. I have never heard a drum whisperer like Matt Wilson, and now, I get to be affiliated with you. And that is, indeed, the honor.

Gloria Ladson-Billings was at my table. She was brilliant, she has a very sharp wit, and, Gloria, I hope that was just one of many times that we get to break bread together.

This honorary degree is both very special—to be recognized by people and an institution that you hold in such high esteem is truly remarkable. It is also profoundly confusing, because my last degree at Knox College took four years, countless hours studying at Seymour Library, I had to put up with an absolutely insufferable pre-med lab partner, and pay over a hundred thousand dollars in tuition, scholarships, and student loans—and then this degree cost me a tank of gas and a three-hour drive from Chicago. So had I known, President Amott, that there was this alternative degree path in Knox College, I may have chosen differently.

I want to thank Professor Welch. You know, he was my freshman adviser in Post 4 when I came. He taught me chemistry and unleashed my love of the topic, and has so graciously welcomed me back. So thank you, Professor Welch.

And a particular thank you to my new friend, President Amott. She’s a very strategic leader. You see, first they gave me an alumni award, to make sure I did indeed turn out okay and to make sure I could make a halfway decent acceptance speech. Then, they fed me dinner and poured me a nice tall glass of white wine. And President Amott said, “So what are you doing, I don’t know, say, Sunday, June 2, around 10 a.m.?” And hoping that she was fishing for a Commencement speaker and not asking me out for a movie matinee, I enthusiastically said yes. Because I, in that invitation to be your Commenceent speaker, get to be part of your day. Or, as my mom Mary Helen would say, a “big deal day.”

We cannot go any further on this big deal day without a hearty, loud congratulations to the Knox College 2019 graduating class. You all look great! Each and every one of the three hundred and one of you. And families and friends who are literally surrounding you—let’s give it up for the family and friends who supported you along the way. You look good, too!

Today, I suspect, will make one of the top—hallmark—impactful days of your life.

As President Amott said, I am a proud graduate of Knox College, former resident of Post 4, and, for a time, record holder for the most grilled cheese eaten at the Gizmo. 

I learned a lot here at Knox, like I'm sure you did. It's where where I switched my  major … from theatre to biochemistry. I scored some very good grades … and some okay grades…I still contest that I do not remembering registering for Spanish 301.

Here, I did a senior thesis project that stretched me to the point of being extremely uncomfortable … and yet I still hold as one of the most gratifying, satisfying projects in my career.

Here, I grew socially, had my first—legal—drink at Cherry Street, and I gained the work stamina, but more importantly, the moxie to, as a 19-year-old to walk into an esteemed professor's office for office hours without particularly understanding that I had to have the agenda ready and something to do. And, here, I learned how to prepare for an interview, after a colossal failure at an interview to be one of the student dorm leaders. One of many jobs I did not get. 

Here, I played soccer with students from Ghana and India … countries to which I have not yet been even deep into my 40s but still plan to.

Here, I discovered my competitive DNA during Flunk Day and Frisbee Golf.

Riddle me this: If ping-pong and being pulled by a horse around a frozen lake can become Olympic sports, why can't Frisbee Golf?

And I continue to lobby  the IOC to get it into the fold, much like I did when at Knox College .

To be serious for a moment…I want to put something out there. It's for the graduates as well as anyone here. The cost of all these experiences, academic and otherwise, has gone up considerably. Tuition at colleges during your lifetime has gone up over 500 percent—all colleges. To put that in context, the United States stock market went up less than half that, only around 200 percent.

And I am speaking, by the way, of the cost of liberal arts colleges with some degree of familiarity. You see, my older brother went to Grinnell College in Iowa, and my sister went to Carleton College in Minnesota, and we all grew up in Colorado.

And yet my parents just boldly smiled and said they kept sending their children—and their retirement savings, disguised as tuition—to the Midwest for a great liberal arts education.

It takes an entire, robust financial ecosystem to get here—scholarships, work-study, student loans, tuition. And, indeed the cost of education has gone up, rapidly and perhaps exponentially, and yet I would argue, to my very fiber, that as the cost has gone up, so too has the value of the degree you're about to receive. And it is not—and I even think the faculty would agree with this—it is not the value of your newly acquired knowledge, the fact that you know some quotes from Voltaire. The value is in two totally unrelated things. One, not what you have learned, but with whom you have learned it. And, two, that you now have a habit, a habit of being habitually curious. I certainly found that to be true as I embarked on my time at Shedd Aquarium. 

First let's explore the with-whom you have learned during your Knox College journey.

It was during my liberal arts college days that I made some deeply connected connections. So, soon-to-be-graduates, just indulge me for a minute, even though it is very warm in here. Look to your left, look to your right, you have permission to crane your neck—look for your friends behind you and in front of you. Find the person with whom you were quarantined during the polar vortex. Oh, there's quite a lot of laughter. Not sure what happened on campus during those days. These friendships, these with whom you are sitting today, sweating together in your dark Darth Vader-like robes—have meant a lot to you. They will be by your side long after you leave campus regardless of what your journey is. Now, not everyone will become a lifelong friend; some may simply pop up on your social media feed now and again to be the 1,000th like of an amusing picture you post or a very clever meme. But others with you today will be with you through future impactful hallmark days beyond this one: A marriage to a best friend, the birth or adoption of your children, your first big career promotion—heck, your first job, you know who you are—the publication of your first novel, your first home purchase. The people with you are going to help you move into your 15th apartment. And at that point, you will need to pay them more than beer and pizza. They will be with you when you shave your ridiculous-looking beard or when you grow a new one. They will be by your side when you feel discouraged, lose loved ones, and when you find new loved ones in life's journey.

When I landed the job at Shedd Aquarium and was named their leader in both title and in expectation—a $62 million operating budget, 600 employees, staff in the Bahamas, Canada, Alaska, and Chicago, I called my husband first, my mom second, and my freshman roommate, Gabi, third. I would have necessarily predicted that my friendship would have persisted or endured past my graduation day, but indeed, quality connections persist, and from what I saw when you chuckled about the polar vortex comment, you have made some pretty amazing quality connections.

Another with-whom—we cannot forget the faculty, coaches and student advisors. That professor—who was the professor, don't point, just look—whose office hours you always meant to take advantage of, and who is the professor who you enjoyed so much you took every single one of their classes, regardless of the topic or if it was at 9 a.m. on a Monday? Who was the coach who made you feel like you were Olympic-bound, even though, let’s be honest, in your heart of hearts you know you were more like Adam Sandler in Waterboy? And who in turn did you do this for?

The people here at Knox College thrived on your intellectual curiosity. They relished your discoveries and they supported you so you could flourish in your OWN. They had your back. And, sometimes, you might have not even known that they had your back, because … they’re in the back! And they wanted you to keep looking forward. I hope you are so lucky as to have future bosses, mentors and colleagues who do the same. Seek them out, but more importantly, be one of them in turn.

PARENTS AND FRIENDS … I cannot forget about you.

The reason I said you looked great is from what I can see, no one here looks too green in the gills from the emotional roller coaster that comes with graduation. Today is a nexus in your child’s life. The next step from childhood to fully launched adulthood. It seems like only yesterday you were both simultaneously confusing them by simultaneously handing them their first smart phone and then lecturing them about appropriate amounts of screen time. Just a little while ago you were giving them a curfew. And now, when they move back in with you tomorrow, this is all renegotiated. And winning arguments with them is now a lot harder. After all, they have a degree from a place where there was a Lincoln Douglas debate. And they all aced their essays in Professor Lane Sunderland’s course in writing persuasive arguments. Parents, you do not stand a chance.

So, you soon Knox College alumni, your fellow graduates, professors, mentors, coaches, all are part of the with-whom you have had your educational journey. Here’s the bleeding obvious annoying advice from your Commencement speaker.

As you leave campus, surround yourself with good people and remember with whom you will choose to explore is as, if not more. We are in the age where the with-whom matters. Some Commencement speakers talk about the job market, or dreaming big, but I am talking to you about how you are leaving a group of three hundred and one people for a bigger world and an age of with-whom. If you look at the front page of the Chicago Tribune, the news is all about the with-whom. With-whom we will trade or decide to have tariffs, with-whom we will let into this country to participate with us in the American Dream—with the exception of last Friday, when the story was about the approval of the recreational use of marijuana. But otherwise, you’re stepping into a with-whom environment, so please be intentional about it, because we need you to be intentional about it.

Here’s the humbling thing: In nature, fish have already figured out this with-whom matter. There’s this mighty pilchard fish, which is a four-inch silver beauty, and on its own, it’s incredibly strong, yet the ocean is vast and complex. So the pilchard fish makes its collective success by focusing on each other. First, they swim, constantly, and never stop moving, BUT they also do something that’s called emergence, this amazing biological geometry, that while they swim, they can go from a shoal—an unorganized group of fish—to a school, by paying attention and never getting too close or too far from the next pilchard fish. And by doing this, they are arranged in a mighty swarm that can evade a shark or an even larger predator. By choosing with whom they swim they feel and literally ARE bigger than they are as individuals.

It’s a good life lesson: Keep moving, stick together, and you will be bigger. You will be more.

What’s interesting is that in that school, no fish is the leader. The followers are following the follower, and to be biblical, the servants are serving the server.

At Knox your group of fish, or your shoal, has been curated for you, slightly, partly by your circumstances, your choices, but also by a group of admission tests, application essays, and Knox College enrollment officers. Now, after graduation, you get to pick with whom you will school, who you will pick socially, professionally. Again, you are leaving a campus of 301 now, and we welcome you into a world of 7.7 billion people.

Let’s talk about one of the most healthy habits that I believe you uniquely acquire at a liberal arts college. The value of your degree is because of your habit of being curious. All the learning I experienced in college … curricular, with my genetics project, and extracurricular with frisbee golf, didn’t matter. It was the "intracurricular" that trained me. It trained me in a degree that I believe you have. You are all incredibly diverse. You come from 31 nations. You have enrolled in 70 different majors. And I counted that Knox College has over 100 sanctioned clubs. I am not sure, parents, how much studying actually got done.

But whether you were in the TriTones or the Nerf Club, every single one of you that is about to commence, to walk across this stage, are not only getting a degree but in many ways the SAME degree: a degree in what I call "Habitual Curious Learning." Not your B.A., and there is no B.S., but rather your HCL!

This type of curious learning is the healthy habit of keeping an open mind, of continually asking annoying questions like a 2-year-old: Why? Why not? What if? And it is through iterating these questions that you will help us solve some of our biggest challenges on this blue planet. I have dedicated my passion and my career to conservation of this blue marble we call home. In fact, if you think about it, if humans would have named this planet by looking back it from space, we would have named it Water, not Earth. It is 70 percent aquatic and only 2.5 percent of that is fresh water. Our fresh, salt, and estuarial waterways are precious, connected, and in peril.

So how will you Habitual Curious Learners help protect them?

Think about the coral reefs. We've lost 20 percent of our coral reefs, which, by the way, are responsible, with the phytoplankton that they keep alive, for half the air you breathe. If you do not want to save the coral reef, just breathe half as often and you’ll be fine. Well, sort of.

Curious minds, the ones that I have the privilege of working with, are asking, "WHY do some coral die and others persist despite warming and more acidic waters?"

"How is the surviving corals’ DNA different?"

Curious minds ask, "WHY NOT change international laws to secure new funding for coral restoration?"

And they ask, "WHAT IF we work to repopulate the aquatic coral animals much as we have done in the forest after a natural disaster?"

Curious minds—your minds—will save and restore our oceans, our lakes—and our planet.

And these are enormous challenges, yet Curious Learners who care about the with whom they work, iterate solutions, and so real solutions that seems so absolutely overwhelming are absolutely possible.

We humans with liberal arts degrees aren’t the only who are curious seekers, and by now, there are lots of examples in nature, and you’ve kind of figured out that I’m stuck on marine life.

In unknown and familiar environments, the octopus continues to explore. They continuously taste and sample their environment. They are never, ever satisfied with the familiar. They are constantly seeking out and exploring new ways to interpret their environment.

Knox College for you has become the familiar. It is time to be like the octopus and seek a new environment. Now, just because you are leaving today and will no longer have to work with that insufferable pre-med lab partner, don’t leave behind your new habit of curious learning.

Some of my favorite memories at Knox are ones that I didn’t know I had at the time but in retrospect remember warmly. Long trips on a white van from soccer field to soccer field. Students who have recently discovered me—it is amazing how many alumni reach out to you after you become Commencement speaker. These long trips to soccer fields as well as requests on LinkedIn have reminded me what I hope you may put in your heart and remember: Don’t lose this—all of this, including the polar vortex memories—when you leave it. This is a singular moment in your life. It is the nexus to the next great thing. And it doesn't matter if you don't know what it is. And if you do know what it is, it’s probably wrong, and not exactly what you'll do, because on my graduation day, I had no inkling to become CEO of an aquarium, but I loved nature and getting my fingernails dirty, and I picked the right shoal of people to school with. And I kept asking what if and why not.

So the world is ready for you and needs you, and I think it's about 20 degrees cooler outside of this gym—but there’s gnats. So, in closing, with your Knox College degree in hand, with love from your friends and family in your heart, and with an open and curious mind, remember this moment. Go out and help the blue planet. And congratulations to the 2019 class on your degrees in Habitual Curious Learning. Well done.

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Printed on Monday, September 23, 2019