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Nacogdoches, TX – Congressman Pete Sessions addressed the graduating class of 2023 at Stephen F. Austin State University's 100th Anniversary Commencement Ceremony, held at the William R. Johnson Coliseum on December 15, 2023.

In his commencement speech at Stephen F. Austin University, Congressman Pete Sessions reflected on the institution's historical significance and its integration into the University of Texas system. He urged the graduates to shape their future by embodying American values of capitalism, patriotism, and innovation. Drawing on his varied experiences from AT&T and Bell Labs to a 25-year congressional career, Sessions highlighted the importance of determination, excellence, and the power of persistent effort and practice. He also delved into the university's rich heritage and the enduring legacy of Stephen F. Austin, emphasizing virtues such as courage, character, and performance. Concluding his address, Sessions conveyed his optimism for the graduates' future and the ongoing narrative of American Exceptionalism.

The full transcript of Congressman Sessions' speech is included below.

A Century of Excellence: Embracing the Legacy & Future of Stephen F. Austin State University

 "Good morning, Interim President Oglesbee, Provost Smith, distinguished current and former members of the Board of Regents, esteemed faculty and staff, proud alumni, devoted parents, and, most importantly, the Stephen F. Austin State University graduating class of 2023. It is a profound honor for me to stand here today, sharing words of encouragement on this momentous day in your lives.

Let's reflect on the significance of today's ceremony. This institution, a beacon of higher learning and a source of pride for the State of Texas, is celebrating a century of educational excellence. Today, you are not just receiving your degrees; you are part of a historic moment. This commencement marks the transition of Stephen F. Austin from a stand-alone institution to becoming an integral part of the University of Texas system. This change is a testament to the legacy and enduring values of this university, an institution from which you should be proud to graduate.

As we gather here, we're compelled to ask ourselves: What future roles will Stephen F. Austin State University and its graduates play? What remarkable achievements lie ahead for the next century? What works of art will you produce? What music will you write? How will you propel the fields of microbiology and science forward? What critical actions will you, graduates of Stephen F. Austin, take at key moments in history as we record the next century through 2123? These inquiries inspire us to gaze into the future with PRIDE, HOPE, AND DETERMINATION, setting ambitious objectives for America's destiny.

I come before you today, drawing from my years of experience in various roles, from my time at AT&T and Bell Labs to serving Texas for 25 years in the United States Congress. These experiences have taught me about the intertwining of CAPITALISM, PATRIOTISM, AND INNOVATION. They have shown me how individuals can make significant impacts, much like the many pioneers who have shaped our nation's history.

My personal journey has been marked by continual learning and adaptation, especially during my time as a Boy Scout working towards becoming an Eagle Scout. In those formative years, I mastered the art of map and compass navigation, acquiring skills that extended far beyond geographical orientation to guide me through life's myriad directions. Among the invaluable lessons learned was the concept of 'declination' – the difference between magnetic north and true north. This seemingly minor deviation, often just about four degrees, epitomizes a crucial life lesson: understanding exactly where you are is the first step to knowing where you're headed. As my father used to say, even a slight misalignment, like that four-degree difference, can be the deciding factor between achieving success and missing your mark entirely. This experience reinforced the significance of recognizing the subtle nuances and starting points that can ultimately define success or failure.

Another experience that profoundly influenced me was America's ambitious and successful endeavor to land the first man on the moon. In my lifetime, the nation's aspirations were encapsulated in a single, inspiring challenge: "Going to the Moon." This goal became the benchmark for every child, graduate, adventurer, and entrepreneur. This generational drive is captured vividly in the book "Rocket Boys," which tells the story of Homer Hickam, a young man from Coalwood, West Virginia. Hickam harbored a dream of space exploration, which he transformed into reality by mastering quantum physics and cultivating the necessary determination and grit to become a NASA rocket scientist. His story taught me the significance of determination and striving for excellence as the best benchmark of success. Although we have only ventured to the moon a little more than a handful of times, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, our new challenge takes us from here to "infinity and beyond."

Our nation's story is filled with countless other examples of extraordinary ambition and achievement. From early visionaries like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt to modern trailblazers like Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Gates, these figures embody the American Dream. But this dream isn't just about notable figures; those individuals built on the foundation provided by each of us. Standing on the shoulders, or tremendous efforts, of each of us cumulatively as a great nation– that is our mark on the world, our legacy.

So, what does all of this mean to you? Forty years ago, in a paper in American Scientist, Herbert Simon and William Chase drew on one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise: it takes a lot of practice to be good at complex tasks. This concept was later expanded by Malcolm Gladwell in his book "Outliers" as the “ten-thousand-hour rule,” highlighting that in cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals; talent must be complemented by extensive preparation to achieve high levels of success. Moreover, the psychologist John Hayes concluded that in almost every instance, an individual will produce their greatest works after at least ten years of experience, echoing this rule.

As graduates of Stephen F. Austin State University, each of you is already on your way to fulfilling these ten thousand hours. Your time here has been a monumental step in the journey of learning and growth that extends beyond the walls of this institution. You have demonstrated dedication and effort in laying a strong academic foundation, which is critical in propelling you toward becoming experts in your chosen fields and achieving high levels of success.

Remember, as Malcolm Gladwell emphasized, and as further elaborated by David Epstein in "The Sports Gene," this rule is an average, with variations among individuals. Some may reach proficiency quicker, but the key takeaway is the importance of persistent effort and the efficient use of practice time.

Your journey is emblematic of a grander story, one that embodies the essence of becoming a distinguished Texan and American, which is at the core of realizing the American Dream. This dream transcends mere success; it encompasses the odyssey toward it—the relentless effort, the unwavering commitment, and the resilience in the face of adversity. As you venture forth into a realm brimming with prospects and trials, bear in mind that your achievements will be forged not solely by your natural abilities but profoundly by your groundwork, your zeal for continual education, and your capacity to grasp opportunities for advancement. This lies at the very heart of the American Dream— a dream that is within your reach as you are poised to embrace it.

Before entering Congress, I spent sixteen years in the telecommunications industry. During the mid-1980s, I worked for three years at Bell Labs in New Jersey, then the premier privately held research and development center in the nation. It was home to the invention of many technologies, including the transistor, the basic building block of the microchip, upon which all our smartphones and PCs operate.

During my time, I witnessed my team dedicate themselves to their work and produce something new, a product called 'Integrated Digital Services Network' (ISDN), which is called Broadband, today. Looking back, our efforts at Labs built upon the successes of our predecessors, only after putting in their ten thousand hours.

This is a testament to the principle that excellence in any field is achieved through dedication and perseverance. The same principle applies to every one of us. The American Dream is not just about the end result; it is also about the hard work, the incremental advances, and the dedication to a craft that each person brings to their field. Just as the inventors and engineers at Bell Labs put in their ten thousand hours to revolutionize the telecommunications industry, each of you will put in your hours to innovate and lead in your respective fields. And in doing so, you will be living embodiments of that dream – the dream where hard work and perseverance not only lead to personal success but drive progress and innovation that benefit us all. Congratulations on reaching your graduation milestones, and may you continue to grow, learn, and excel in all your future endeavors.

As we look back at the history of this university, we see a rich tapestry of challenges and triumphs. This institution has withstood the tests of time, from economic hardships, like the Great Depression and Great Recession, to global conflicts, like World War II, The Cold War, and the War in Afghanistan, shaping resilient and innovative leaders. Each of you is a continuation of this legacy.

A sentiment that also embodies the legacy of Texas' founder, Stephen F. Austin. During your time here, you have gained firsthand knowledge and a profound connection to the Father of Texas. His visionary contribution lay in shaping Texas into what it is today, a state that stands proud and strong, a testament to the spirit of those who journeyed to America and established what we now cherish as our great state. Furthermore, I offer you another brief anecdote about courage, from one of my favorite books “Year of the Rat.”

            'On a wall in the basement of the United States Capitol in Washington, is a bas-relief depicting a Greek warrior engaged in mortal combat with a snake. The artist captures the moment when the man raises his sword to strike the death blow.  Across the tableau is one word: COURAGE. Artistically, physical courage is easy to depict.  Moral courage is another matter.  Moral courage requires taking a cold, hard look at the world and then acting, accepting the consequences, and knowing that the greatest good will ultimately be served.  Moral courage demands sacrifice—the subordination of self-interest to the interests of others.  To be morally or intellectually courageous requires a basic sense of honesty and integrity coupled with the will to act decisively on those principles.  Moral character is of great matter in a leader and will inevitably affect the substance of his performance.  Courage, character, and performance can NOT be separated.'

The stories of great leaders and the poignant imagery of the Greek warrior battling a snake remind us that true courage involves more than just bravado; it encompasses integrity, selflessness, and a steadfast commitment to doing what is right, regardless of the challenges. As graduates of Stephen F. Austin State University, you are embarking on a journey where your moral compass, shaped by the values of honesty and integrity, will guide you. Remember, the convergence of courage, character, and performance is not just idealistic but essential. It forms the bedrock of personal excellence and societal progress. Embrace this ethos, as it resonates with the very motto of SFA, and let it guide you in every endeavor, ensuring that your actions contribute positively to the world around you.

My optimism for your future is boundless, as is my confidence in the continued journey of American Exceptionalism. Each stride you take builds upon the legacy of greatness that defines our nation. As you embark on this next phase of your lives, remember that the hours of dedication you invest in your passions and professions will shape not only your own destiny but also the fabric of our society. Good luck, and may your endeavors reflect the enduring spirit of excellence and innovation."
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