Words of Wisdom for CSB 2017 Graduates From Denise Castillo-Rhodes

By Nelson Carvajal —-I had the privilege of attending and being part of the spring 2017 Cameron School of Business Honors Convocation and Graduation Celebration. After working for about five years in the Oil Refining Business as a Process Engineer, I noticed that I was lacking interpersonal and business skills; therefore, I decided to pursue an MBA at the University of St. Thomas as a way to enhance my professional career.

The ceremony was one of the many events hosted by the Cameron School of Business that has made me feel confident about the decision of choosing the MBA program at the University of St. Thomas. This ceremony awarded recipients for different exceptional reasons, so I was able  to receive recognition as a member of the Dean’s Student Council. However, what I found most impressive, motivating, and inspiring was the speech and insights from Denise Castillo-Rhodes.

Her professional background is extraordinary. Currently, she is the vice president and chief financial officer of the Texas Medical Center where she supervises accounting, finance, and tax compliance. I am thrilled to present of her insightful speech:

Good afternoon everyone! It is such an honor to be here to celebrate this spectacular occasion with all of you. I have to confess—I absolutely love graduation weekends. There are few settings that have the joy and sense of pride that surround college commencement weekends. My favorite college graduation ceremony ever was my son’s. For all of the parents out there who are celebrating this weekend with your children, you know that few things in life make you more proud than seeing your child graduate from college. I felt that same pride when my son graduated. But there was one part of my son’s graduation ceremony that I was not so pleased with. My son went to a small university up on the East Coast.

The graduation ceremony took place on a gorgeous New England spring day, and all of the flowers on campus were in full bloom. It was a picturesque setting. The Provost of the school took to the podium to begin the graduation ceremony. He was a very distinguished looking gentlemen, all decked out in his black robe adorned with colorful, ornate cords awarded to him over the years for all of his graduate and postgraduate degrees and academic honors. As he prepared to speak, he lowered his reading glasses, looked out over the hundreds of soon-to-be graduates, and in his deep baritone voice—complete with a thick upper-crust New England accent formed from a life of elite private-school education and privilege—he announced, “Welcome to the Educated Class.”

My husband and I looked at each other in shock, and he asked me in a low voice, “Did he just say ‘Welcome to the educated class?’” I confirmed that he had. We agreed that we had never before heard a more pompous remark in our lives. Yes, as new graduates, you have achieved a wonderful accomplishment. But having a college degree does not make you superior to those who don’t have one. No matter how many degrees someone has, they are not above anyone else. So I suppose one of my jobs as a speaker at this convocation is to offer some suggestions for how to live a fulfilling, happy, and successful life. I’ll start with my first tip—never look down on anyone. And never assume, based on someone’s job, what level of education they may have.

I’ll give you a great example of this: We had a plumber come to our house recently. My husband, who is a lawyer, asked him how much he charges. “$200 per hour” the plumber said. “$200 per hour!” my cheap husband replied in horror; “That’s more than a lot of lawyers make.” To which the plumber replied “I know. That’s why I quit the practice of law and became a plumber.” As all of you know, you are graduating from a spectacular school. I love this university. I love its current and its incoming presidents. I love the faculty. I love the Basilian Fathers. I love the campus. And of course, I love the students. But what I love most of all is the parking garage! You see, I have a secret to share with you: I can’t parallel park.

When I attended UST to get my Masters in Business Administration many years ago, that parking garage didn’t exist. So all of the students had to park on the streets surrounding the campus. It was a nightmare finding a parking spot. And because I can’t parallel park, I had to find a really big space to accommodate my poor parking skills. I would have to circle the campus three or four times and drive down every street in the neighborhood to find a spot I could park in that did not require me to parallel park! If there was one thing that almost prevented me from getting my MBA at this wonderful university, it wasn’t upper level finance, accounting, economics, and Stats courses—it was my poor parking skills. I’m certain I spent more time trying to park than I did studying.

So now it’s time for my second tip on how to live a happy and successful life: Learn how to parallel park.
Like you, I majored in Business when I was in college, getting my degree in Accounting. After working for the IRS and then a big 8 Accounting firm, I went into industry, beginning a 12-year career at Nabisco. I started at Nabisco as the General Accounting Supervisor and eventually rose to become the Chief Chocolate Chip Cookie Counter, also known as the Controller at the Houston plant. It was while I was at Nabisco that I attended the University of St. Thomas to get my MBA. Having a young son and a full-time job made getting my master’s degree very challenging. But I knew that if I wanted to advance my career I needed a better understanding of all facets of the business world.UST gave that to me. Not only did my MBA allow me eventually to become the Controller of the Houston Nabisco plant, it is what gave me the tools to become the Chief Financial Officer of the Texas Medical Center—a position I’ve now held for 13 years.

So what’s my message to you on this fantastic day when you are about to receive your degrees? You’re not done. Sorry about that. In life, you should always strive to keep learning. Your education doesn’t stop with tomorrow’s graduation. Getting your college degree is the first step in what should be a lifetime of learning. Your undergraduate degree is the foundation upon which to build that lifetime of learning. All of you in this room today chose very challenging majors.

Accounting, Finance, and all of the other degree programs in the College of Business are not easy majors. You will be rewarded for taking the difficult path when you could have chosen less rigorous degree programs. But along with the essential tools that your business courses provided you, it is the courses you took in the liberal arts fields that provided equally vital skills—most importantly, critical thinking skills and strong writing and communication skills. College is about more than learning a trade. College is about learning to think. You chose well when you chose to attend the University of St. Thomas. As a strong college in the liberal arts, you took courses in philosophy, literature, and social sciences that helped form you as a deep thinker and as a person. The skills you learned in those liberal arts courses will serve you very well in your business careers, whether you are working at a large Accounting firm, in a fancy Wall Street investment banking house, or at a glitzy advertising agency.

But there is something else that this wonderful university gave you that will serve you even better in your careers and in your lives—bedrock ethical principles and a finely calibrated moral compass. There are thousands of colleges in this country, all of which provide the skills needed to find a good job. But it is Catholic colleges like this one that seek to do more than teach their students work skills. They seek to mold the entire person. UST’s motto is “Educating leaders of faith and character.” At UST they do this by having all of their students take courses in religion and in ethics. And equally important, they do this by providing role models in the Faculty, Administration, and clergy who provide real-world examples of people who live with Christ, not the almighty dollar, as their guiding light in every decision they make.

All of you have learned not just from great professors but from great people. Think of them often for the rest of your lives, always asking yourselves, what would they do in every difficult situation that you will face in your careers. Your faculty and university leaders have helped instill in each of you a strong moral conscious. That conscious will speak to you every day during your career. Listen to it. Thanks to these wonderful faculty members and university leaders, you always will know in your heart which decision is the right one. You may be tempted at various points throughout your career to stray from what you know to be the ethical path. In those situations, ask yourselves: “Would Dr. Ivany be proud of this decision?  Would Father Mike congratulate me for making this choice? Would Dr. Beena George be proud to call me one of her former students if I go down this path?” If you answer those questions honestly, you will never stray from the ethical path.

With the foundational skills taught to you in your business courses, the critical thinking skills honed in your liberal arts courses, and the ethical foundation taught to you by these wonderful faculty members and university leaders, you have all of the tools to have successful careers that not only will be rewarding financially but that will make a difference in society and allow you to serve as role models for everyone around you. So with the wonderful life tools that UST has given you, how can you achieve goals greater than you ever imagined? First, take time to daydream and think. Put down your iPhones. Turn off the  television. Turn off the music. Turn off all of the outside distractions and simply contemplate life.

We find ourselves these days surrounded by a never-ending stream of electronic stimulation. The internet is a great thing, but it can block our ability to dream big ideas. I am convinced that had the internet and iPhones existed back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Albert Einstein never would have developed the theory of relativity and Thomas Edison never would have invented the lightbulb because they would have spent all day on Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. You don’t need to be in constant communication with the millions of people on the internet; you need to spend time in communication with yourself. Get to know yourself. Challenge yourself. Dream big ideas. And most importantly, take time to pray every day. All of this requires occasionally turning off all of the outside noise and focusing entirely inward. You will find that silence can be a beautiful thing.

In addition to suggesting that you take time to focus inward, I also suggest that you spend time focusing outward, by helping others. When considering the world’s population—the overwhelming majority of whom struggle just to have enough food to eat, clothes to wear, and a place to live—your situation in life makes all of you very unique. But it does not make you special. What makes all of you special is that you recognize how fortunate you are and, rather than feel entitled, you choose to share your good fortune with others.

Every one of you can make a difference in people’s lives. Every one of you has gifts that you can share. Consider traveling to far off places off the beaten path to visit those who do not have the comforts that we have here in America. When you do that, it will be humbling to experience firsthand the conditions that so many people throughout the world live in. You will be amazed at the wonderful outlook on life by those who have far less comfortable lives than all of us have here. They have none of the comforts that we take for granted here in America, but they don’t mind. They love life. They appreciate everything they have. They have strong families and communities that look out for each other. They are happy without having a single video game, iPhone, or cable TV. In fact, they seem happier because they have none of those things. It is spending time with people like that when you truly appreciate the most important things in life. Loving families, close friends, and a strong relationship with God are what make life wonderful, not any of the material things we often feel we must have to be happy. Life is about making memories and about using your unique gifts to help those less fortunate than you. Spend your life making great memories and positively impacting others. If you do that, you  will have lived up to the high standards of this great university.

I am deeply honored to be given the Cameron School of Business Distinguished Alumnus Award and to have been asked to speak to you here today. By allowing me to be a part of this wonderful celebration honoring your extraordinary achievements, you have given me a memory that I will cherish for a lifetime.

Now go show the business world what an amazing school the University of St. Thomas is and what amazing graduates they produce! I know you will make all of us here today very proud.

Congratulations, and may God bless each and every one of you!

Nelson Carvajal

UST – MBA candidate

Nelson Carvajal grew up in Venezuela. He holds a bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering.  After about five and a half years of work experience, he decided to pursue an MBA with a finance concentration in order to continue his professional development and to seek new opportunities in the job market. In his spare time, Nelson volunteers at the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans.

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