Dr. Henry Parker
Special Guest Speaker
Thank you, President Collins and the leadership of this remarkable university for the opportunity and honor to address the Class of 2021. And special thanks to the parents, family members, friends, and other supporters who have made this day possible for today’s graduates.
Congratulations, graduates! I’ve had the privilege of participating in several classes at NVU and have enjoyed meeting and working with several of you. Today is a special day, the culmination of a lot of hard work, a few ups and downs, maybe even a bit of luck here and there. You’ve come from many different starting points and your pathways have been varied, but you’ve arrived together at the end of one of the most important legs of your life’s journey.
We all ask ourselves that question at graduation. When I finished college back at the dawn of time, I didn’t have a clue. But I did have dreams. I ended up doing a lot of different things including naval officer, seaweed farmer, scientist, college professor, treasure hunter, government executive, homeland security specialist, and writer. Somehow it all came together. I’ll share some of those experiences here. They may be instructive; perhaps, even, inspirational.
As a college freshman, I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. The Navy was paying my tuition; in return I had to give them at least four years of service. I was required to take—and pass—calculus and physics. Those were also prerequisites for a science major. In my freshman year I got a D- in physics and failed calculus. On the brink of flunking out, I retook the courses and made it through—by the skin of my teeth. My math professor said, “Please don’t major in math.” I shelved the marine biology career and switched my major to English, because another dream was to become a writer.
Two years into Navy active duty, a friend encouraged me to apply to the Navy’s deep sea diving school. We’d learn about underwater salvage, he said. After the Navy we’d buy a sailboat and find underwater treasure around the world. I was a terrible swimmer. I’d grown up on the Maine coast, where the water is so cold that no one voluntarily swims after the age of twelve. But it sounded like a great adventure, so I went to diving and salvage school and learned the tools of the trade. Then, a month after leaving Navy active duty, I married my wife, Sue—we recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. I said goodbye to a vagabond marine salvage career, even as my friend pursued the dream.
Instead, I applied for jobs in Maine—but got an offer to develop and manage seaweed farms in the Philippines, with tenuous lines of support from the Maine-based company. Sue and I had been married for less than a year. The guy who previously held the job had fled back to the United States. But it was an enticing challenge that brought me back to my marine biology dream. Sue said go for it—she would accompany me and play a key role in the project.
We spent the next two years on remote islands in the southern Philippines. My work attire was a bathing suit and swim mask. The objective was to produce a whole lot of a certain type of seaweed. Did you know that seaweed from the Philippines is an important substance in commercial items from ice cream to biomedical products? It might even be in your toothpaste as a stabilizing ingredient. Don’t worry; keep brushing. It’s safe and you won’t even taste it.
The Philippines job involved things like tying bits of seaweed to nets and battling sea urchins that ravaged our crop. We faced some hurdles, including pirates who roamed the nearby waters, and a war that broke out in our area. But we learned from and were supported by the local residents. That experience reignited my marine biology dream and laid the foundation for everything else in my life afterwards. In that sense, it was the best job I ever had.
To realize the marine biology dream I began taking freshman science courses at the age of 29. After addressing the gaps and transgressions from my earlier academic career, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in biological oceanography. That led to a new career as a marine scientist and professor.
In turn, that opened opportunities to manage research programs and help advance marine resources policy—something else I’d long wanted to do. Things were going well. Then my old diving friend called, out of the blue. He was planning a project to find and recover a 17th Century Spanish galleon in Saipan, in the Northern Marianas Islands of the western Pacific Ocean. He wanted me to join him as the co-director. Another early dream, back in the picture again. But I’d just received tenure at my university. Sue and I had two young sons, aged five and seven. The proposed project was a risky long shot, with an uncertain outcome. “Treasure hunter” isn’t an occupation that fits neatly into a professional resume. But it would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure with a chance to dive on a galleon in tropical seas, practice hands-on marine biology, and write about the project. Three dreams, combined. I signed up. Sue took a position with the project as well, and our sons enrolled in the local school.
We worked from a 150-foot ship over a two-year period, with an amazing team of 30 men and women from seven countries. The most inspiring person on the project was a selfless, cheerful, and team-oriented Iban tribesman from Borneo; he’d never before been on the ocean. We found and recovered a trove of galleon remains, including priceless gold jewelry and gems, and documented our work in a comprehensive archaeological report. National Geographic published a cover story about the project. Our sons had a culturally-rich international experience that advanced their education far beyond where it would otherwise have gone.
Fortunately, the university welcomed me back after the project ended. That had never been a guarantee. Then the federal government offered me a position running aquaculture programs. Aquaculture is, basically, farming the sea—cultivating everything from seaweed to catfish and salmon. The Washington, DC-based job would mean giving up a secure university position for another uncertain future. But it was a great opportunity to help shape national marine policy.
Fourteen years later, after a federal career that evolved into leading government efforts to protect U.S. food and agriculture from bioterrorism—another unexpected career twist—I retired from the government. Colleagues and friends advised against this, but it was time to resurrect that long-held dream: writing. After enrolling in multiple writing courses in the local community college, joining writers’ groups, and writing and writing—and revising and revising—I published my first novel in 2017, a bioterror thriller. A follow-up novel is in its final stages. I’m now helping young writers realize their writing dreams; in a partnership between NVU and the League of Vermont Writers we are establishing a writing contest for Vermont High School students; it will kick off in September.
At first glance my career and life might seem like a hodgepodge of disconnected occupations and events. But each new endeavor flowed from and built on the previous ones. My liberal arts-based education is responsible for much of this, as it provided the critical thinking, communications, and problem-solving skills that enabled me to recognize and capitalize on opportunities that matched my dreams. It also helped me to be flexible and adaptable.
It’s likely that your careers and lives will also be unpredictable. Even those of you who have a clear idea of your future direction will encounter unexpected twists and turns. And that’s fine. You’ll adjust. You’ll grow. You’ll even thrive. Regardless of your field of concentration, the liberal arts-based education you’ve received at this university has given you the tools to adapt to changing circumstances.
I’ll conclude with some thoughts that have become abundantly clear over time.
Pursue your dreams, even if they have to be postponed.
Approach each job as an adventure and an opportunity, and treat it as if it’s the most important thing that you’ve ever done.
Don’t be afraid to take risks—calculated, of course. Sticking with what’s comfortable seldom leads to growth.
Keep learning, and be open to new experiences and opportunities, even when the rewards aren’t readily apparent. Sometimes the most fulfilling outcomes come when least expected.
Make an effort to meet people. You’ll find that many, including within your own communities, have led interesting, sometimes unconventional, thoroughly fulfilling lives. You’ll learn a lot from them.
Recognize and appreciate your support network, including your family, teachers, friends, and even strangers who come into your life.
Finally, have faith that things will work out, even when the deck seems stacked against you. You’ll have setbacks; everyone does. But avoid the temptation to look back or second guess yourself. Focus on the present and the future.
Again, congratulations to all of you. Embrace those dreams. You have a great future ahead of you—whether or not you majored in math.
Thank you. It has been an honor to address you today.