Commencement

Cynthia Prost, President of Arts and Education Council

 

Chancellor, members of the platform party, faculty members, graduates and guests, I am so happy to be here with you today. What a sincere honor it is to be at the University of Missouri St. Louis to offer a few thoughts as each of you begins to write this exciting new chapter in your lives. It truly is an exciting time!


As one who worked full-time to put myself through college, I understand a bit about the extraordinary commitment and support it takes to follow your dreams. I congratulate each of you and your families on your individual journeys.


I am grateful for this opportunity to look back at my own experience and suggest a couple of things that I have come to believe really matter.


I remember when I neared graduation - even when I was studying in the evenings - the notion of "success" weighed heavy on my mind.


We all have our own ideas of what "success" will mean and I would venture to say that all of us gathered together here today believe that earning a college degree is one key step to ensuring a "successful" life.


For some this might mean accumulating wealth to make sure we can lead secure, comfortable lives.


Others will strive to find deep meaning in their chosen professions, while others will work in service organizations.


Here is what I have learned and what I encourage you to consider today. It is what I call the "spirit of philanthropy." It is the idea of giving back in ways that I believe surpass professional titles, wealth, and volunteer hours. It is an uncalculated spirit that works outside of anticipated payback or rewards.
It is an opportunity to act - a call to action - to act simply because an opportunity has presented itself to do a bit of good. It is this philanthropic spirit that I believe is the true cornerstone of success.


Time and time again, in my career I have seen this spirit accomplish incredible good, even in seemingly dire and difficult circumstances.


I wish to share some stories and experiences with you, as I encourage you to set forth today to build your notions of success with an unfaltering belief in the spirit of philanthropy.


You are graduating at a unique and troubling moment in our country's history.
We have witnessed the worst economy in 30 years and a polarized political system that creates uncertainty and causes us to question the motives of corporate leadership and government.


We hear every day about gloomy employment prospects. You have worked hard to manage jobs, families and schoolwork to get to this graduation day. Finding a well paying job or advancing in your career are your urgent priorities, as they should be.


And though earning your way in the world is an essential part of being a member of society, I have learned that giving back to your community in some fashion is just as important.


And, I have learned that truly connecting yourself to your community through a spirit of philanthropy will ultimately unleash the passion that we all seek through our career choices.


Now, as a fundraiser for the arts, you might think I am referring to the idea of philanthropy as we traditionally think of philanthropic giving. We think of philanthropy in terms of wealth and our ability to write a check, provide financial support.


Indeed, in recent years, we have seen a celebrity trend and corporate marketing directing money toward favorite causes. In modern terms, philanthropy is a word used to mean private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life in the public and private sectors. And while all of this is essential and noble, it is not the idea of philanthropy that I wish to convey to you today.


The origin of the word philanthropy means "the love of humanity"-love in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, or enhancing; humanity in the sense of "what it is to be human," or "human potential." It is in this context that I frame my remarks.


As one who has worked in the arts and service organizations, I have seen that true philanthropic spirit isn't just about giving money; it is about recognizing a human need - regardless of how great or insignificant the need - and it is, quite simply, about taking the time, giving the time, and most important - caring about another human being.


I have seen this "human" philanthropy - a sense of human connection and personal responsibility for making a moment a bit better for another -- do more to contribute to an individual's happiness in their life work than any material wealth or position.


I am fortunate to work in a building filled with arts organizations and many of our city's most creative and talented artists. Many leaders of the organizations have worked hard and have attained acclaimed reputations in their chosen professions.
And though all of them are engaged in meaningful and challenging work, I am struck by work and every day acts of individuals who might be lesser known.
I think of Agnes Wilcox, the founder of Prison Performing Arts who I have come across in our building, rehearsing lines with a speech-impaired woman who will play the lead role in an upcoming play for the first, and perhaps, only time in her life. Because of Agnes's time and commitment, the woman and so many others will experience the joy of applause. They will know the satisfaction of a job well done.
And the magic of giving in this way - in a personal, selfless, humble way - is that always, always unleashes great passion.


I have spent most of my career advancing the arts through directly creating original arts programming to my current position where I raise private funds in support of nearly 70 arts and arts education organizations.


I discovered my passion for the arts later in life as I worked in the arts community and began to understand the profound impact that art has on our lives and in our communities.


Art celebrates our diversity as individuals and simultaneously links our common experience together, through plays, film, music, literature and the visual arts, we learn time and again what it means to be human, and how truly alike we all are.
I have had the good fortune to meet and work with talented artists like Gene Dobbs Bradford, the Executive Director of Jazz St. Louis.


Despite his creative genius and musical talent, Gene is known fondly in our building for his easygoing nature, his smiles, his gentle ability to stop and share a kind word, and for his bow ties.


Though he works to spread his passion for music and for jazz, I believe Gene's contribution extends much further 'as a model to other arts' leaders in our building and to the young men who I have seen show up for music rehearsals in bow ties.


What I have learned is that all individuals possess the ability to become forces for change and good, not because they have acquired a lofty title or wealth. ALL individuals, regardless of whether they are involved in the arts or service or for-profit ventures - have the potential to positively affect another life through an everyday spirit of philanthropy.


And when we unleash these "random acts of philanthropy," I have found that we can and we will receive the resources we need to continue to move forward. I recently found this to be true in a personal moment.
Just the other day, I attended a leadership luncheon, an event which required the guests to pay $5.00 cash for parking.


Two women were mildly panicked because they didn't have the cash for the machine. Without thinking, I handed each of the women the money they needed and went on my way. (As you know, my work involves asking individuals and organizations for major gifts to support the arts.)


Here, there was no "ask" - no case to be made. It was a moment of human need that I was able to address without thinking or hesitation. A few days later, I received a handwritten thank you note from one of the women.


She enclosed a gift card and her business card. To my surprise, the woman is a Vice-President of a major local bank that may have interest in funding the arts.
This simple exchange brought home to me the nature of simple acts of giving. Though I am surrounded by charitable acts and giving each day, and while I implore others to give to the arts, it is the stories of philanthropic spirit and acts that have given me unlimited joy.


It is these everyday acts of philanthropy that I believe define "success" and make our lives meaningful, regardless of a dire economy or our chosen profession.
Practice random acts of philanthropy, the love of humanity - at the grocery store, on the highway. Never miss an opportunity to share a compliment or a smile. Connect with people on a philanthropic level and you will be someone who will achieve success.


Don't wait for a cause to knock on your door. Identify what you care about, what excites you, what you want to preserve, and then write a check, volunteer, or both.


But it's not always the big gifts that tip the balance-its lots of small gifts, acts, and the gift of your time and expertise.
It seems fitting that you should go forth at the end of the year when our lives and attention are focused on holiday giving and the spirit of philanthropy of which I have spoken.


I hope you will, as they say, "pay it forward" - be aware and sensitive to human needs that may, or may not, present themselves outside of your careers - in an arts organization, in a parking lot, on the street walking to work.
The University of Missouri St. Louis has cultivated an alumni population that exerts a tremendous positive impact on the St. Louis area. 77% of University of Missouri St. Louis alumni live and work in St. Louis.


I hope you, as University of Missouri St. Louis graduates, will carry a spirit of philanthropy, a spirit of giving, with you in all your future pursuits. If you do, I feel confident that you will live passionate lives filled with success. Thank you and congratulations!