We are so lucky to have Rebecca Richards Kortum of Houston, TX as a part of our community! Not only is she a Salty Running patron and a dedicated runner, she is also an accomplished bioengineer and a professor with Rice University. As an alumna of The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, she gave the following address to graduating UNL students at their commencement on May 4th, 2019. If you prefer a video, you can watch the speech here on UNL’s website. Great job, Rebecca!
The Next Start Line
Greetings to Chancellor Green. Greeting to UNL regents, faculty, staff, and guests. And to each of the 3,540 graduates in the University of Nebraska class of 2019: Congratulations! You look amazing!
I’m so excited to be here today to celebrate this moment in your lives as you cross an important finish line! As an amateur marathon runner, I think a lot about starting lines and especially finish lines.
Thirty-four years ago, I was on the other side of this podium along with my fiancé, about to receive my BS degree. Despite the fancy stage and shiny medals and diplomas, we all know it’s a little bit terrifying to come to the finish line. Just when you figure out one course, you have to find your way to the next. How do you find the next start line that is right for you? How do you find the things you care so deeply about that you want to invest your whole self?
When I entered UNL as an undergraduate, I planned to major in Physics. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I finished. I thought I might teach high school. Sophomore year, my boyfriend – he’s now my husband – told me I should switch to mechanical engineering because I would make more money. I thought he might be right, so I made appointments to see the Chairman of the Physics department and the Associate Dean of Engineering.
When I told the Engineering Dean I was thinking of switching to Mechanical Engineering, he explained that engineering had very high standards. He had noticed that women often found the curriculum to be challenging. Not all women, of course, he reassured me. Some did very well.
My GPA was excellent, and I told him so. But his words made me question whether I belonged in engineering. Maybe it wasn’t a race I should enter.
Fortunately, the Physics Chair took a different approach. He asked me if I liked physics. And when I said I did, he told me not to switch majors. In fact, he said, I should come do research in his lab.
I worked for 2 years in Professor Dave Sellmeyer’s lab and it completely changed by life. I am a first generation college student, and as a sophomore, I truly had no idea that college professors did something called “research”. Once I discovered it, I found that I loved it. Eventually, I found my way to bioengineering and the work I do today. But I don’t think I would be here with you today if Dave Sellmeyer hadn’t taken 20 minutes to meet with me and say, “Come run this race with us. I think you might like it.”
I’ve thought a lot what I learned from that experience.
Lesson Number 1:
The world is full of people who will discourage you and tell you no without good reason – people who just want to keep you off their course. Instead of letting them shut you down, keep searching for the people who believe in you and let their voices fill your head. Graduates: don’t let narrow-minded, unimaginative people keep you out of your race.
Lesson Number 2:
Dave Sellmeyer has super-powers. His super-power is believing in people. Think about all the people who supported you and believed in you as you tried to find the right starting line here at UNL. You might not be here at today’s finish line without them. Believing in people is the most powerful fuel in the universe. And the great thing about this super-power is we all possess it. Dave Sellmeyer gave it to me and I’m giving it to you. Graduates: use your super-power to inspire the people around you to do their best.
Now, even when you find the right race, there are still times when running feels awful. Times when all you can think about is how much you hate running and how good it would feel to just stop. How do you keep believing in yourself to persist through those hard miles?
About a year and a half ago, I was coming up on what I thought was the finish line for the biggest race of my career. Together with a team of engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs I entered a contest called 100&Change. The rules were simple – each team had to describe how they would solve a critical problem of our time. One lucky winner would receive $100M from the MacArthur Foundation to implement their plan.
Our team pitched a plan to end preventable newborn death in Africa. At current rates of progress, it will be nearly 100 years before a baby born in Africa has the same chance of survival as one born in North America. Our team proposed to close that gap in a decade, by delivering affordable new technologies to hospitals throughout Africa.
The MacArthur Foundation received over 2,000 entries, but our team made it to the final four. We spent a year traveling across Africa to make our plan stronger. And 18 months ago, we found ourselves on a big stage in Chicago about to give our final presentation in a shark-tank style face off. We were up against three amazing, equally dedicated teams, including the Sesame Street Workshop.
I’ve never been more nervous for a presentation, but our team nailed the talk. When I walked off stage, I was so happy and relieved that I burst into tears.
After all the teams had presented, the judges said they would call in two days to let us know the winner. My cell phone felt positively radioactive as we waited for it to ring.
The call came as promised. But, sadly, it was not the news we hoped for. Big Bird had beat out the babies. But the news wasn’t entirely bad. The judges were so impressed with each of the three – well, let me just say it: losers – they decided to give us each a $15M consolation prize.
We were heartbroken. Absolutely crushed. I was so sad; I adopted a rescue dog to help me feel better. And, then, I adopted another dog. And, of course, I knew it was ridiculous to be sad about winning $15M. But we cared so deeply about helping newborns survive in Africa, and we knew it would take more than $15M to solve that problem. As a runner, it felt like we got to the finish line only to discover that the race had been extended by another 6 miles.
Everyone knows that the hardest part of a marathon is the last 6 miles. You hit the wall at mile 20 and want to give up.
The first two times I ran a marathon, I had to take walk breaks starting at Mile 20. On my third try at the Marine Corps Marathon, I was determined to break through the wall.
I decided to literally fill my head with voices of people who believed in me. I made a special play list, timed to play voices of encouragement when I would need them most. I asked my 13 yo daughter to make me mp3s that I could play every mile starting at mile 20 to motivate me. She wanted to know just one thing. “Am I allowed to swear?” she asked.
Here’s what I heard at Mile 21:
Victory is the only thing that can keep you alive. Believe in that voice that says you can run faster, you can go harder, you can go longer. So rise and shine because it’s time to win.
And the very next song I chose for my playlist was this: [“Hail, varsity!” plays, the UNL fight song]
Each mile, over the last six miles, I listened to Hail, Varsity. It is impossible to walk with tune blasting in your ears. I made my time goal.
I discovered that this great university has become part of my DNA – there to motivate me to a personal best whenever I need it most. And now, it is part of your DNA.
The weekend after we got the bad news about the $100M, I laced up my shoes and went for a long run. I listened to my daughter’s voice, and I listened to Hail, Varsity.
I remembered that I – and now you – we are people who graduated from the University of Nebraska.
I remembered that we are people who do hard things, even when people tell us no.
I remembered that we are part of a team that does not give up, even when the odds are against us
And so, we went back to work. We multiplied that $15M and, as of January, we’ve been hard at work implementing our plan. The first newborn technology is in place in 34 countries, already helping to make better care possible for millions of babies.
UNL class of 2019 – you’ve put in the training that allows you to cross today’s finish line with pride. I hope you can feel how proud we all are of your accomplishments!
As you move to your next starting line, I want you to remember to run with purpose.
In your time here, you’ve acquired the courage to tackle big problems, the knowledge to develop solutions, and the wisdom to implement solutions with decency and kindness. And the world has never needed you more.
Tomorrow, I’m gonna be out there on the Lincoln marathon course. When I cross the finish at the 50-yard line of Memorial Stadium I’ll be thinking about how I finished strong because I learned to listen to Hail, Varsity at just the right times. It is in your playlist, too, whenever you need it.
Thank you and congratulations!