What is success? Advice for today’s graduates


Editor’s note: The Rev. Elizabeth Coffman of Urbana received an honorary doctorate in Community Leadership during Franklin University’s Jan. 29 virtual commencement ceremony for Fall 2020 graduates. She also presented the following commencement address titled “What Is Success?”

It is such privilege and honor to be with you today, to receive an honorary degree from Franklin University, and to speak at your 166th Commencement. I want to thank especially Franklin’s president, Dr. David Decker, and the Franklin University board of trustees, as well as the faculty and administration.

But more importantly, I extend my congratulations to you, the graduating class of the Fall of 2020. As we enter this new year, I’m suspecting that most of you would welcome a less eventful next 12 months! As a community and as a nation, we’ve certainly been through the fire in the past year, with a contentious election and a pandemic raging on. And yet, in the midst of what could be understated as a “significant distraction,” you did whatever it took to be here on this special day. Some of you may have been personally affected by events in the past year that made completing your studies a serious challenge. And so, I think each of you in this particular class deserves an extra round of praise for your success in overcoming whatever obstacles stood in your path.

As you think back, I encourage you to reflect on what – and “who” – has helped you “stay on course” at those points when your road to success became rough. For me, it is often the lives and experiences of others, who have overcome adversity and emerged as stronger and better human beings on the other side, that inspire me to keep going in hard times. One of my personal favorites, because of the overwhelming odds she faced and overcame, is Helen Keller. Do you know who she was? At one time she was a well-known figure in American life and even around the world. Let me tell you about her.

Helen Keller was born in 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She was born a healthy baby, but at the age of 19 months, she came down with an unknown illness, perhaps meningitis or scarlet fever, resulting in her becoming both deaf and blind. In those days of the late 19th century, people really had no idea about what to do with the blind or deaf – let alone blind AND deaf children. Most just lingered at home with no hope of a future beyond family care.

And yet, over the course of her lifetime, Helen Keller overcame the extreme challenges of her disability to become a well-known author, political activist, lecturer – and the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. How did this happen?

Well, one major factor, was her mother, who never gave up on her and constantly tried to find solutions that would better Helen’s condition. In this pursuit, she hired a teacher, Anne Sullivan, whose work with young Helen began a profound and lasting change in the course of her life. Annie became a lifelong companion to Helen, and her amazing, groundbreaking success in working with Helen remains an extraordinary and remarkable story and is best known to people through the movie “The Miracle Worker.” If you have not seen it, I encourage you to look it up and watch it. It’s a vintage movie that is truly inspiring, even more so because it is factual. It really happened!

After completing college as a young woman, Keller used her education well – primarily in the arena of public service. She became a well-known writer and lecturer, travelling in the U.S. and around the world, sharing her personal experiences with public audiences. She worked tirelessly on behalf of others living with disabilities and encouraged society to see them as having the potential to be productive, contributing members. Her work and advocacy led to many real improvements, particularly for those with visual impairments, such as better job training, more braille books, books on tape, and better educational opportunities. Through her life and even to this day, Helen’s story has brought inspiration to many, as a powerful example of overcoming almost unimaginable obstacles, through determination, hard work and perseverance – and through her example of personal “character” – by which she sought to “give back” to others, in gratitude, for all who gave her a helping hand along the way. I guess you could say her life was a success!

Finding success

And all of you who are graduating today can claim success as well. You have navigated the long and difficult road to earning your degree. I’m sure you have faced your own challenges and obstacles along the way. You may have had times of discouragement and self-questioning about whether you would succeed. But now you have succeeded – and you are to be heartily congratulated! You’ve jumped the hurdles and you’ve done it!

So, what now? Is this it? Will you now rest on your laurels – or do you have more goals, more dreams to fulfill, more possibilities at which you would like to succeed? As with Helen Keller, this is likely just a brief pause as you go forward into new areas of experience and growth.

Whatever you do, it will likely be determined by your own personal idea of “success” – and how you define success may well determine how satisfied and fulfilled you will be, not only in your career, but in all aspects of your life. The Oxford dictionary defines success as, “the fact that you have achieved something that you want and have been trying to do or get; the fact of becoming rich or famous or of getting a high social position.” Is that what you aspire to when you think of success?

Maybe for some of you, that’s it – that’s enough. Yet, I encourage you to consider, that enlarging your concept of “success” beyond the dictionary version can add a greater, more meaningful dimension to your life. I believe that each of us sees success through the lens of our most basic ideas about the purpose and meaning of life – our underlying view of “what it’s all about.” Our worldview, then, affects and informs our beliefs and values, which in turn will be reflected in everything we do, in the goals we choose to pursue and the tasks we undertake. For that reason, reflecting and being clear on what we hold to be our personal guiding principles will help us determine what we truly want – the paths we choose – and what will make our lives successful and satisfying to us. For in the end, it is we who determine what constitutes personal success and satisfaction. As Helen Keller contended, “Your success and happiness lie in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”

Here are some other thoughts on life and purpose from a few wise and well-known people that you may want to consider:

• Rick Warren, author of the popular book “A Purpose-Driven Life,” says, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.”

• From writer and author Joy Goliver: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

• Well-known American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has this to say, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

• The late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, believed and lived this philosophy: ”If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself. Something to repair tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is – living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”

‘Three C’s to Success’

Graduates – only you can decide if you will embrace such an enlarged view of what success means, one that looks beyond yourself. But whatever your underlying values and views are, consider developing these three components to achieve success in your careers and in your lives. You might call them the “Three C’s to Success.”

1. Develop Competency in whatever you pursue. Competency consists of knowledge, skill development and life-long learning. Whatever career you choose, be sure you have a good knowledge base – don’t skimp on this. But don’t stop there, don’t stop learning. Keep on learning – branch out. You can never know too much! Yet even that isn’t enough to be totally competent. Develop the skills that can help you succeed. Have you ever had an instructor that clearly knew the subject material– but just couldn’t successfully convey it to the class? That’s knowledge without skill, if you’re a teacher. You need both! Both knowledge and skills are developed through time and experience and there is no substitute for that. And both should be part of one’s life-long learning goals for success.

2. Develop Connections, both personal and professional: Connections are about relationships. Networking is about making connections, knowing people – but it’s the quality of how we interact with others that makes the difference. Success in this area consists of the ability to develop and maintain positive, respectful and open relationships with a wide variety of people – openness to different cultures, values, and the willingness to let them change our viewpoints and ourselves. We do this by listening, observing and taking the best of what we learn and using it in cooperative, collaborative ways.

Connections also remind us that none of us got to where we are today by ourselves. Think about who inspired you – who helped you along the way – who recognized your talents and abilities – who helped you believe you could succeed? As you go forward, recognize and honor those persons who were there for you. And don’t forget to be that person for others as well – to give others a “leg up” and help them to believe in themselves and be successful. There’s great satisfaction in that. As Helen Keller wisely said, “Alone, we can do so little; together we can do so much.” When we make connections, when we join with others, we can always accomplish much more than we could do alone.

3. Develop Character – To me, this is the most important component of success because the quality of our character will be infused in all we do – and will have everything to do with how others see and respond to us. Honesty, integrity, respect, humility, compassion, an attitude of service – these are all examples of a high quality of character. One way to evaluate our own character is to ask, “Is it all about me? Am I here only to satisfy myself – or do I believe in service to others as well?” Service to others and our community is a key to satisfaction in life. In fact, well-known theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin believed that “The most satisfying thing in life is to have been able to give a large part of one’s self to others.”And Dag Hammarskjold, the late great statesman, wrote, “Goodness is something so simple: always to live for others, never to seek one’s own advantage.” Can you see yourself here?

Looking beyond oneself

We each have our choices to make in terms of who we wish to be and how we wish to “show up” in the world. If you choose the enlarged view of success that I have illustrated, one that sees your life as having an importance beyond yourself, then whatever you have to offer matters. You must “Never think that what (you) have to offer is insignificant. There will always be someone out there who needs what you have to give.” (unknown)

Helen Keller, deaf and blind as she was, has inspired many with these simple words, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And (just) because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

I firmly believe that every moment of our lives, like a pebble thrown into a pond, has effects that go on forever – that every action we take, has a ripple effect – and when that action comes from a compassionate heart with a desire for service, then we have added our little bit to the goodness in the world. This is what character is all about – and when your life is infused with character, you will be a success, no matter where your life path takes you. And so, to each of you graduates, I say, “Life is a GIFT to you. The way you live your life is your gift to those who come after.” Make yours a life worth living!

The Rev. Elizabeth Coffman

Editor’s note: The following biography of The Rev. Elizabeth Coffman appears on the Franklin University website.

The Rev. Elizabeth Coffman is a clinical social worker at Positive Perspectives Counseling Center in Springfield, Ohio. Her career spans 46 years as a clinical social worker in both mental health and substance abuse treatment, advancing to supervisory and administrative levels before entering private practice.

Concurrently, she served for 22 years as the pastor of the Urbana Swedenborgian Church. Betsy is the current president of the Johnny Appleseed Foundation, which supports the most extensive collection of artifacts and archival material related to John Chapman.

Betsy received an associate, as well as a bachelor’s degree from Urbana University. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from The Ohio State University and is a licensed independent social worker and a member of the National Association of Social Workers. She studied at the Swedenborg School of Religion, receiving a Lay Leader Certificate and full ordination into the ministry. She is a member of the denomination’s executive council and is the vice president of the Champaign County Ministerial Association.

Betsy served on the Urbana University Board of Trustees for 22 years and continued in leadership roles at Urbana after the university was acquired by Franklin. She developed and led the Urbana University chaplaincy program and volunteer chaplaincy team, providing programs and spiritual support for the university community. Betsy was instrumental in founding the Alicia Titus Memorial Peace Fund in 2002, and in organizing its programs and activities on campus and in the surrounding community.

Betsy lives in Urbana with her husband, Bill. Together they have four children, five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.


By The Rev. Betsy Coffman

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