A Timeless and Solitary Page


The following address, delivered by Dr. Azzeddine Azzam, professor of agricultural economics, at UNL’s May 2008 doctoral commencement & hooding ceremony, speaks to the important relationship betwen a student and her or his mentor.

"Chancellor Perlman, Dean Weissinger, university administration and esteemed faculty, guests and doctoral candidates.

"It is an honor and a privilege to have been invited to participate in this year’s doctoral commencement ceremony. I accepted the invitation, in part, because I rarely get the opportunity to address a group of doctoral students without being questioned about realism of my assumptions, correctness of my premises, and validity of my underlying theories and statistical inferences. Not to mention being kept after class to answer questions until I am politely asked to leave by a professor impatiently waiting to use the classroom. More importantly, I find felicity in knowing that after this address, I will not be chased back to my office to continue answering more questions. Any questions?

"In all seriousness, I want to sincerely congratulate all of today’s doctoral candidates. The road to a doctoral degree, as you know, is a long and often arduous one. But, thankfully, it’s a road not traveled alone.

"Along the way are families providing moral and, often, financial support; student colleagues providing social and intellectual support; and faculty who help turn fledgling dissertation ideas into ideas developed enough to earn a seat at today’s ceremony.

"In preparing for my address today, I browsed through UNL dissertations – now available online – starting with a plant pathology dissertation written in 1902 by Haven Metcalf under the direction of Professor Charles Bessey, and finishing with a chemistry dissertation written this year by Wei An under the direction of Professor Xiao Cheng Zeng.

"During the 96 years spanning between these two dissertations, we observe an ever-rising tide of knowledge flowing from UNL. We also observe  continuous technological change in how students recorded and transmitted this knowledge (now that you have plenty of spare time, go online and compare the antiquated look of the 1902 dissertation typed on a manual typewriter to the eye-pleasing PDF look of the 2008 dissertation processed on a computer).

"In the midst of all of these changes, one section of the dissertation has remained the same: the acknowledgements page. On this timeless and solitary page, doctoral students have, through the years, documented and thanked those who have made it possible for them to be among a privileged few.

"Invariably, topping this timeless and solitary page are the mentors whose job is in many ways like the job of a sculptor, but with a twist. A mentor,
like a sculptor, starts with a raw stone, but, unlike a sculptor, soon realizes that the stone takes on a life of its own and starts chiseling the mentor. So  when you see mentors and students together on the stage today, only they know who chiseled whom the most, and who should really be hooding
whom! I am sure that all faculty here today can think of students who have helped challenge and shape their thinking in a positive way.

"This brings me to the message I want to leave with the doctoral candidates today. It is not a message to guilt you about your belonging to a privileged
few – you have gotten here the old fashioned way and you’ve earned it. It is not a message about the ethical practice of your craft – I am sure you  have been hammered with this awareness through your programs. It is not a message about how to save the world from its current and impending troubles – I wouldn’t know where to start; and it is not a message about being tolerant towards others – that would presume that you may not be, and you doubtless all are.

"The message I want to leave you with today is about making a positive, tangible and almost immediate difference in your own lives and the lives
of others through mentoring. The mentoring I have in mind is not simply giving advice about technical and stylistic matters, but taking personal interest in seeing that a student or a younger faculty colleague does well, if you are heading for a university job; a fellow employee if you are with any other
organization, public or private; or a young person in your community.

"In doing so, you generate – as we economists call it – a triple dividend: The first dividend is your own personal growth from assuming some  responsibility for the development of others and getting the satisfaction of seeing them do well; the second dividend is the success and growth of your
organization, and the third, and perhaps most important dividend, is betterment of your communities, societies and – as a result –the world at large.

"Congratulations. May you prosper and, in the process, help others do the same, just as your mentors have done for you. Let’s give a round of applause to all the doctoral candidates, their mentors, and all those they have acknowledged on that timeless and solitary page in their dissertations."