Below is my address in its entirety. The title of my speech “Inspirational Wisdom for the New Graduate” was written to inspire my fellow alumni with references from my experience, humorous anecdotes, and spiritual pearls.
I hope that at least the essence of my thoughts helps those who seek challenge, intellectual adventure and are able to overcome emotional and physical hardship.
Leslie H. Sultan, BS 1980, DDS 1985
To all the distinguished faculty, staff, friends, family, and graduates in attendance:
Thank you very much for allowing me the honor and privilege of speaking to you today, the graduating class of 2014 at the University at Albany.
I am here today, having joined a select group of giants in industry, billionaire entrepreneurs, Nobel laureates, and famous celebrities in hopes of inspiring you, the new graduate.
Although I am certainly none of the above, I am here to tell you a story, actually my own story, with my own pearls of wisdom thrown in.
Pearl #1: Try to gleam at least one pearl from today and incorporate it into your daily life.
The last time I took to the stage here at SUNY, as we were once called, was to emcee the Albany Student Telethon back in 1980. Unfortunately, I am told this tradition is no more. The annual student telethon took place every March and raised money for a local children’s school. Months of preparation culminated in a 24-hour show of shows. A major production, really. Even after giving many presentations over the years, I will always remember my first… given in the Campus Center.
Yesterday I took a walking tour around campus, awakening many old memories I thought I had forgotten. There are so many stories to tell, although some not in public. As we passed through each building, I began remembering names and faces, along with my personal anecdotes. It’s unfortunate that many of you could not have experienced many of the fine professors I had the privilege of knowing. But suffice it to say that the University at Albany has grown to a major institution of higher learning that I am extremely proud to have been a part of.
So let me suggest that our lives are productions, much like movies. And as a rocker from the ’70s once sang, dream that you are in a Hollywood movie, and you are the star of that movie. You are not only the star but the producer and director as well. The screenplay has been written, different subplots have been developed, and possible endings are in place. Our lives have been cast, and it’s up to us as to how we play the parts of our Hollywood hit.
The chapter of my screenplay regarding my Albany experience was instrumental in molding me, my personality, and my vision.
I began as a shy insecure freshman from a middle-class family in Brooklyn. I came to college with the goal of being a “doctor”. What the word doctor meant I had absolutely no idea. I began as a premed student, starting off my academic curriculum with biology, chemistry, calculus, and physics.
I was first housed on Indian Quad, and then migrated to Dutch, and finally off-campus. I have great memories of campus life, whether it was in the library, on and off the tennis court, and of course, podiating. This time-honored tradition, I am proud to say, began during my undergrad years in Albany. The term has even made it into the Urban Dictionary. To podiate, as it is defined, is to: “sit on the academic podium at SUNY Albany relaxing or chilling when you are supposed to be in class, or whenever”. Fountain Day and National Podiate Day eventually developed. I understand it is also called H.A.P. Day, for Happy Apathetic People Day.
We all looked forward to the throw of the first Frisbee, the turning on of the fountains. People we had not seen all winter, hiding in the wind tunnels, finally came out to play. It brought us all a little bit closer. Sadly, I struggled academically through my freshman year, my confidence waned, and I became frustrated. I dropped calculus and was failing physics. I worried; would I make it through the next 4 years? It was then I met and befriended my first educational mentor, who was there to listen, inspire, and guide me. So…
Pearl #2: Choose a mentor, even though you may not think you need one.
I chose chemistry as a major after my first semester of organic with Dr. Shelton Bank. The subject matter, although immensely confusing at first, seemed to just make sense.
I’m glad to see that Dr. Bank has been honored for all the education and guidance he has given to so many chemistry students. There is a story about Dr. Bank that I must share. Every year, he and his family invited his undergrad and grad students to a picnic at his home. It was about a week prior to finals. I was worried enough about the organic chem final exam, let alone trying to rub shoulders with the professor. During the student-faculty volleyball game, as luck would have it, I fractured my tibia going for a spike. There goes my final exam, there goes my grade! Dr. Bank, being the gentleman that he was, gave me a two-week period of healing and offered me a take-home final. Fortunately, I passed his course and I hope earned his respect. I will never forget his graciousness and professionalism for what he did.
Back in the ’70s at SUNY, slide rules were slowly being replaced with handheld calculators. Windows 8 and Mac operating systems were not around. BASIC, FORTRAN, and punch cards were. I spent many a night handwriting those weekly 20-page P-chem lab reports. But I was proud to sport my “Honk if you passed P-chem, honk twice if you got an A” bumper sticker. Yes, I was a chemistry nerd.
Disco and Saturday Night Fever hit the airwaves. Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead now competed with Donna Summer and the Bee Gees on the campus radio station WCDB. Even a former student government president became famous as the doorman at Studio 54, true story, eloquently characterized in the cartoon strip Doonesbury. We had the first toga parties reminiscent of Animal House.
I volunteered as a research assistant under the tutelage of Dr. Henry Kuivila, and eventually had my name added to my first paper in the Journal of Organic Chemistry. I began to train my mind to think like a computer utilizing algorithms to guide my thoughts.
Vast memorization of organic molecules helped train my mind to think three-dimensionally. Little did I realize, but some of my undergraduate research, utilizing mass spectrometry, and then nuclear magnetic resonance, would become the precursor of magnetic resonance imaging, a modality that I presently utilize frequently with my patients. I am proud to say that I took part, even though immensely small, in the development of that groundbreaking technology.
Let’s skip a few pages of script.
I eventually graduated with honors in chemistry and chose to pursue a PhD in organometallic chemistry at another institution.
I decided to take not the MCAT or the DAT but the GRE. At first, I thought of studying biopharmacology, but Dr. Kuivila advised, emphatically, no, you must study pure chemistry. I then chose to become a PhD in organometallics, as he had done. A different type of doctor, to my parents’ chagrin. They just didn’t understand. Just what did a chemistry doctor do, they asked. Unfortunately, it was difficult to explain to them. As the only member of my family to make it past high school, their preconceived notions played into my decisions.
Maybe it was fear of the unknown, comfort in what I already knew, or lack of confidence in making my own choices, I chose this path.
Pearl #3: Set your own goals, not someone else’s. Be focused and never stop, whether things are good or bad.
It’s not that I regret making the choices I did. That subplot in my life had already been written in stone.
After one year, my interest in pure research and playing with organic solvents waned. Truthfully, I had more fun at the football games of this Big 8 school than in the research lab!
I really didn’t know what I wanted out of life. I was following an undetermined path with no direction.
For a short while, I worked part-time for a pharmaceutical research lab synthesizing the precursors of the skincare product Retin-A. A girlfriend with self-admitted psychic powers told me at the time, “Les, you will definitely reach your goals, but it will not come easy.” Well, she was correct. I quit my job soon after and gave notice of giving up a full scholarship and teaching assistantship at Penn State.
It was then I met another mentor who guided me towards another path in healthcare. And fast forward a few more years, I chose to attend and graduate from dental school at the University of Maryland, by the way, the oldest dental school in the world, eventually specializing in oral and maxillofacial surgery.
I have since expanded the envelope of my training and experience to utilize computer guidance and virtual planning for surgery in reconstruction of the face, mouth, and jaws. My ability to visualize objects in 3 dimensions, taking them apart and then rebuilding them all began from my roots of playing with my framework molecular models, the chemist’s pick-up sticks of its day. Very similar to the German chemist Kekule as he dreamt of the structure of the benzene ring (most likely during a mind-altering experience), I attempt to develop ways, for example, of rebuilding a face fractured into many segments. I now live in Fort Lauderdale, FL, far from the snow squalls of the Albany winters. I am in private practice but also teach residents and peers in surgical technique. After all, the true meaning of the word doctor is “to educate.”
I now realize I have come full circle from my rudimentary beginnings in organic chemistry.
So now comes my time to reflect on my story and extract those pearls that I feel would be most helpful for a new graduate.
I can honestly say that I truly love what I do. I have had many choices in life, and feel I have chosen wisely in my career path.
Pearl #5: Love what you do, and just as important, who you are with. Once again, another classic rocker to inspire us all.
Surround yourself with people and things that inspire you to be a better person. And if you have not found your chosen path or companion, never give up searching, and don’t settle.
Pearl #6: Understand the difference between idealism and realism. Be the best you can be; it may not be the same as being the best there is.
Learn your strengths as well as weaknesses; test your limitations and gradually push the envelope.
Challenge makes you grow, habituation is stagnation.
There are so many pearls, so little time. So I will paraphrase from a few of my life mentors:
Let the insight of Dale Carnegie guide you to win friends and influence people…
Let the tenacity of Donald Trump empower you to dream big, plan bigger and kick you know what…
Knowledge is power!! Exclamation point!
Be passionate in achieving your goals. Set your goals and constantly re-evaluate them.
From a personal note… never let stress overtake your goals in life.
Life must hold a spiritual balance.
A balance between our health; our relationships and our financial stability.
I learned this all too well in recent past.
I was originally scheduled to give this address last year. However, I was delayed, as I was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer a little over 13 months ago. I truly believe that stress played a major role in my disease process.
Life hit me like a brick and I was not prepared for what was to come.
My diagnosis was devastating, my treatment was long and fraught with complications. My recovery was slow and painful. I lost my confidence, my mojo.
I didn’t follow my own pearls.
Looking back on the last year, fortunately now being healthy, cancer-free and enjoying a new lease on life, I have had time to reflect on my life and project where I will be for my next 50+ years. I now understand the implications of stress on my health. I don’t sweat the small stuff. I don’t worry about criticism. It is truly a compliment in disguise. I think before I speak, meaning I try not to react. I take joy in doing a great job and am passionate in my work. I surround myself with positive people and truly enjoy them. I focus on solutions, not problems. I don’t dwell on negative thoughts. I stay happy… and stay foolish. I am mentally tough and don’t give up.
Lastly, life is full of challenges. Go out of your comfort zone and take chances in life.
Trust your gut.
Remember Tom Cruise in “Risky Business”… you should never have to say “what if”. Say “why not”…
This positive attitude will help you grow physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
These pearls are the best of all, as they will assure you a balance in your life.
And as this commencement is a new beginning, I hope that my pearls help guide you along your new path.
I wish all of you the best that life has to offer.