Be a beacon

Rear Admiral June Ryan address BGSU's Arts and Sciences graduates

By Bonnie Blankinship

Having spent much of her life on or near the water — and in some ways making waves — U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral June Ryan offered a special perspective to degree candidates in the College of Arts and Sciences at commencement May 6.

Ryan received her degree in marine biology from BGSU in 1984 and went on to make history in the military. In 2012 she completed the Coast Guard’s frocking ceremony to become the first woman in its 200-plus year history to rise through the ranks, going from seaman recruit to rear admiral. She was the third woman to serve as the military aide to a U.S. president (Bill Clinton), and later served as military adviser to Janet Napolitano, former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. 

As a child in Bettendorf, Iowa, Ryan spent a lot of time with her family on the Mississippi River, where she enjoyed sailboat racing. Four years after she graduated from BGSU, she was accepted into the U.S. Coast Guard Officer Candidate School, and four years later, took command of her first ship, in Portland, Maine. She did not realize at the time how unusual it was for a woman to be captain. 

At commencement, she began by quoting from Leonardo da Vinci’s advice to his students more than 500 years ago. She told graduates to step back and regard their work from some distance, because more of it can be seen that way and a greater sense of its place in the larger world can be gained.

For some of the graduates, coming to Bowling Green was itself a big step away from their familiar territory, she said. “This is exactly what the University experience is all about: going ‘some distance away’ to see things from a wider view.” The perspective gained over our years in college makes us aware of the world beyond our vision, that there are “ships underway on their voyages,” she said.

Ryan used the Marblehead Lighthouse, just 59 miles from Bowling Green, as a metaphor for what is important to remember in life, and for four lessons that have helped her along the way, tying them to the letters of BGSU.

Those ships she referred to are “using the lighthouse for a reference point to land, for an aid to navigation to fix a position, and as a warning, to steer the them clear of the hazardous shoals.”

“Be a beacon,” she told students. “Be a light for others. Be that shining example that shows others the way.”  While for some, heading to BGSU was an easy decision, for many other graduates “even the idea of a post high school education is a foreign as walking on the moon – and perhaps seemingly as difficult to achieve. But each of you have reached this safe harbor today. Some will remain here, and take up roots, while others will only pause, like I did, and set out on yet another adventure. 

“Regardless of where the winds send you — if you want to be successful in life — shine in good weather and in bad – show the way for others. Use what you have learned to guide others behind you. Help them to find safe harbor, and keep them off the rocky shores that some of you may have neared along the way.”

“Next, be grateful,” she said. “Or more accurately, embrace the ‘Attitude of Gratitude.’ Just like no beacon shines on its own, no graduate present today, or in any commencement in the past, got here on their own. Many of you had the strong, foundational assistance and encouragement of family, friends and co-workers.” But in addition to thanking those individuals, she also encouraged the graduates to thank those who sometimes go unnoticed but who form the foundation of the University.

“The Marblehead Lighthouse at its foundation is 5 feet thick,” she said. “The foundation carries a heavy load. So too are hundreds of individuals on this campus. I am speaking about the individuals who normally are not the recipients of a tremendous amount of thanks and praise, the landscapers who keep the grounds neatly manicured in the summer and snow shoveled in the winter, those who worked in the library, in the bookstore, in food services, the ID office, admissions office, bursar, those who work financial aid, in the dorms, and so on.

“I say, if you want to live a ‘purposed-filled life,’ live a ‘service-filled life.’ There is no better model of a service-filled life than the examples of the old lighthouse keepers. Day or night — raging storm or peaceful calm — the keeper kept the light rotating the illuminating strong. For service to a ship captain that they may never meet, and sometime for ships in the distance that they may never even see. If you want to succeed in life, volunteer somewhere, anywhere, but live a “service-filled life.”  

Last, Ryan said, “Since the beginning of time, in the whole world and cosmos, there has never been another you. And in all the world, and in all the Universe, there will never be another you. In fact, the word ‘universe’ means: one (uni) and ‘versus’ meaning literally ‘to turn, to turn back, to be turned; convert, transform.’ Translation: to be changed. You have been placed on this earth, showered with special, unique talents, to change the world in your own special way. Just as the lighthouse beacon alters the course of ships, you are placed on this earth to positively and productively alter the course of your universe, wherever that might be.

“Not only must you shine like a beacon, but today, as a graduate of BGSU, today’s degree serves to amplify your talents. Like the large, 600-pound hand-cut Fresnel lenses that intensify, magnify and focus the beacon of a lighthouse, so, too, does your BGSU degree today serve to amplify and focus your talents that will have far-reaching impact past the horizon. 

“As you come to junctures on your voyage, and execute the course changes that are sure to come with life, I hope you will always remember the four lessons of the Marblehead Lighthouse near BGSU.”