Convocation 2012 Keynote Address - Win Smith

On Friday, August 24, Champlain College President David Finney welcomed the College community to the 134th Opening Convocation. He spoke to 607 incoming first-year students in the Class of 2016, advising them to "be the change," or at least begin the process of deciding what type of change appeals to them. This decision would determine the path they will take in their journey at Champlain.

The academic welcome at Convocation included Mr. Winthrop Smith, Champlain's 2012 Distinguished Citizen honoree, Assistant Professor David Mona, the 2003-05 Edward Phelps Lyman Professorship recipient for great teaching, and student welcome from Adam Rowe '14, President of the Student Government Association.

President Finney introduced Winthrop Smith, owner and president of Sugarbush Resort in Warren, VT, as the 51st recipient of the Distinguished Citizen Award, an honor for a leader in the greater-Burlington community who through their actions, educational background and accomplishments serves as both inspiration and as an aspiration to Champlain students. With this award, Smith addressed the students of the Class of 2016:President Finney, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and administration and members of the Class of 2016:

Keynote Address

This is a most gratifying honor and I am humbled by this recognition, knowing how many deserving citizens there are in our great state. I feel very fortunate to have had a life that allows me now to give something in return to the communities of Vermont.

Distinguished members of the Class of 2016:

When I sat in your seat forty-five years ago and attended a similar ceremony, I felt a bit nervous but confident and eager to begin my college years and start my pre-med studies. Then Bill Wilson, the Dean of Admission, strode to the platform. "Men of the Class of 1971 (we were all men in those days)," he said, "I congratulate you on being here. Your average SAT scores were in the 96th percentile and your average class rank was in the 95th percentile. You are class presidents, athletic captains, leaders. You have always been at the top of what you have chosen to do. You are an elite group of young men. Now, I want each of you to look around the room for a few seconds.... One-half of you will be in the bottom half of your class." We all chuckled nervously, but as I looked around I wondered who those unlucky 50% were going to be. For the first time in our lives, Dean Wilson was telling us that half of us would be failures.

I have thought about that moment often over the past forty-five years; and while intended in good humor, it was really an awful message.

As I look at you today I see something very different. I see 628 young men and women from thirty-six of these United States and from other nations who all have the ability to be exceptional citizens of this world. Yes, statistically, one-half of you will have lower grades than the other half. And each of you should strive to do as well as you possibly can academically. But I would encourage you to look at your time at Champlain -- and life itself -- a bit differently.

I am being recognized here today partly for what I did in the wake of Hurricane Irene last August. However, there were thousands of "distinguished citizens" throughout Vermont who immediately rallied to help fellow citizens whose lives had been turned upside down by the flood. It was quite remarkable to see how Vermonters reacted to adversity, and I would submit that the actions I saw in the weeks and months following Irene are lessons for us all.

Over the years I have observed that those who succeed and are comfortable with their lives learned their ABC's early in life and live by them. The ABC's I am speaking about are reflected in three words: Attitude, Belief, and Commitment.

A former mentor of mine at Merrill Lynch often reminded us that he had never met a "wealthy pessimist." Indeed, those who wake up each morning with an attitude that it is going to be a great day fare far better than those who think the opposite.

Bad stuff happens. Life is not fair. We all have our share of back luck. But those who dwell on the negatives never see the possibilities. Those who wait for the lottery to hit will watch life pass them by. Out of adversity opportunity can arise if your see the glass half full instead of half empty. In my own case, I received a 17-out-of-100 on my first chemistry test (after getting a B+ in chemistry in high school). Clearly, I was not going to be pre-med, which was my dream coming into college. And after twenty-eight years at Merrill Lynch, rising to become one of four Executive Vice Presidents vying for the top job, I lost out and left the firm that my own father had helped found and that I had dreamt of leading. Today, I am married to a beautiful woman whom I knew as a child and met again here in Vermont, and I am able to ski over 100 days a year and live and work at a new career in the fabulous environment of the Mad River Valley.

There are many events that can give us the excuse to feel sorry for ourselves and blame others for our misfortune. But those people who are optimists find ways of getting past adversity. They find ways of getting excited about life and the next challenge. Life always throws curve balls. You can get frustrated and blame the umpire as he calls a strike or you can learn to hit it out of the park. Vermonters who lost their homes and businesses last August could have moped and sat waiting for FEMA money to arrive. They could have hoped for charity. They didn't. Their attitude was to take charge of their lives, to begin rebuilding immediately, to look to the future. That attitude led to the words you see on our license plates today -- Vermont Strong.

As you begin your years at Champlain, I encourage you to go about it with that same attitude. Don't wait for things to come to you. Take advantage of this great college and get passionate about something. Wake up each day with the attitude that life is good and make that day happen. Whether you see the glass half full or half empty is totally in your control.

But attitude alone is not enough. Believing in yourself is essential. Your parents believed in you, and now it is time to believe in yourself because if you don't, no one else will.

You each have talents and skills and part of what your years at Champlain can help you with is learning what your best talents are. I would have made a lousy doctor, a terrible lawyer, but I was fortunate enough to have some mentors who helped me recognize my given talents and allowed me to gain the self-confidence to believe in myself and have a great life. Last fall Vermonters believed that they could get their businesses reopened, their roads repaired, their life restored. They believed and it happened.

No one in this audience needs to be below average. Life can be tough and there will be days when you get down and you have doubts about yourself. Those are the times when you have to look in the mirror and remind yourself that you are special and can achieve your passion.

And yet, A's and B's alone are not sufficient. Mike Phelps has a terrific attitude and he certainly believes in his abilities, but he also has made the personal commitment that enabled him to become the all-time medal winner in Olympic history. Had he spent four hours instead of eight hours a day in the pool, had he taken a few months off each year, would he have won twenty-two medals? I doubt it. Once you find your passion and you believe you have the ability to succeed, then you have to apply the effort to excel. There are very few shortcuts in life. Those who put-in the extra effort win.

Over the years, when I have interviewed people, I really don't care about where they went to school or what grades they received. Those are only interesting data points. But I do spend time discovering what type of attitude they possess, finding out if they are self-confident, and determining if they have demonstrated that they are willing to work hard. Those are the people I want on my team at Sugarbush, and I am fortunate to have many of them.

So as I look out at all of you this afternoon, I don't see anyone who needs to be below average. I see 628 young men and women who all have the opportunity to find your passion, to excel at it, and to live life fully and successfully. A positive attitude, a belief in yourself, and a commitment to hard work will improve your odds greatly. The opportunity that you have before you at Champlain College is yours for the taking.

While I am the one being honored as Champlain College's fifty-first Distinguished Citizen, it is really all of you who have the potential to be future distinguished citizens and make a difference in the world.

Thank you for allowing me to be part of your special day and for this recognition.

I wish you the best as you begin your Champlain experience. And I also hope to see you on the slopes of Sugarbush this winter.


Founded in 1878, Champlain College is a small, not-for-profit, private college in Burlington, Vermont, with additional campuses in Montreal, Canada, and Dublin, Ireland. Champlain offers a traditional undergraduate experience from its beautiful campus overlooking Lake Champlain and over 90 residential undergraduate and online undergraduate and graduate degree programs and certificates. Champlain's distinctive career-driven approach to higher education embodies the notion that true learning occurs when information and experience come together to create knowledge. Champlain College is included in the Princeton Review's The Best 384 Colleges: 2019 Edition. For the fourth year in a row, Champlain was named a "Most Innovative School" in the North by U.S. News & World Report's 2019 "America's Best Colleges,” and a “Best Value School” and is ranked in the top 100 “Regional Universities of the North” and in the top 25 for “Best Undergraduate Teaching.” Champlain is also featured in the Fiske Guide to Colleges for 2019 as one of the "best and most interesting schools" in the United States, Canada and Great Britain and is a 2019 College of Distinction. For more information, visit champlain.edu.