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Alumnus encourages new graduates to maintain ties to UW-Eau Claire

RELEASED: May 20, 2011

Editor's note: This news release is embargoed until after 9 a.m. May 21, 2011.

Casey Sylla
Casey Sylla

EAU CLAIRE — A successful businessman urged the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's newest graduates to use the connections they have made as students to better their lives and the lives of the students who will follow them.

"Bridge building is a task in which you, the university and your faculty have been engaged in while you were here," Casey Sylla, a 1966 education graduate and current president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation board of directors, said in his "Charge to the Class" during Saturday's spring commencement ceremonies. "The school and its faculty have worked to help you to build a bridge to your lives henceforth. I am confident they have succeeded and that you have crossed that bridge, and perhaps will build some of your own bridges for others to cross.

"As you step across this stage and receive your diploma, then pack your personal belongings and head off to your respective homes, graduate schools or new jobs, I would ask you to maintain the bridge that you have just completed. Please do not replicate the mistake I made following my graduation. I did not return to this campus physically or emotionally for almost 40 years and I am not proud of that fact.

"Keep your bridge intact so that others are permitted an easier road to follow. Stay involved in your alumni association. Get involved with the foundation. Stay in touch with the faculty who has given you their time and support."

As students, the graduates have done much to change the face of the university, Sylla told the more than 1,350 graduates. Student support has resulted in important changes in curriculum development, enhanced international study opportunities, funding for new buildings such as the new student center, and new scholarships, he said.

"This support should not end with your leaving this campus," said Sylla, retired chairman and president of Allstate Financial Group in Northbrook, Ill. "You can continue to make a difference in the future. Your ideas will provide an environment and the opportunity for others to pursue their dreams. While those dreamers once came primarily from Whitehall, Chippewa Falls and Wausau, they now come from all parts of this state, this country and from around the world. These students, faculty and future alumni will be the individuals who enhance and strengthen the brand of your diploma. It is fortunate for me that this university reached out to me 10 years ago and helped me to reestablish my own bridge, which had been left unattended."

Sylla also told the graduates that when he arrived on campus as a student nearly 50 years ago he was more concerned with excelling on the basketball court than in the classroom. His basketball coach, Bill Zorn, after whom Zorn Arena is named, encouraged him to reprioritize his goals.

"Simple advice at the time ... but in hindsight how instructive," Sylla said of Zorn's message to him. "The following year I began to build that bridge that he spoke about."

As was the case of many UW-Eau Claire graduates in the 1960s, Sylla became a teacher after earning his bachelor's degree. After several years of teaching, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of Missouri and soon began pursuing a business career.

"In looking back, it is interesting to note that no matter where I was or what I did throughout that career, I never stopped teaching," Sylla said of the value of his UW-Eau Claire education degree. "To me, teaching was always the process of transmitting information with the objective of influencing those who are willing to listen and learn. Whether it was students in the early years and then later employees, regulators, rating agencies, suppliers or customers, the process of transferring knowledge and influencing behavior never really stopped for me."

While visiting campus this spring, Sylla heard Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich say that UW-Eau Claire is in the business of "educating and preparing students."

"Those are simple words," Sylla said of the chancellor's message. "However, it dawned on me that while so much has changed on this campus in the last half century; its goodness is still the same. This business, this university, does not make widgets. It educates and prepares students. It's really in the knowledge transfer business and the preparation business. And who makes this happen? The faculty and the students make it happen every single day."

UW-Eau Claire has been fortunate throughout the decades to attract great students and outstanding faculty and administrators, Sylla said.

"This confluence of students and faculty has generated — as we would say in the business world — an outstanding 'value added product,'" Sylla said. "The students who cross this bridge are well prepared to head out into the world to make a difference. Through my work in recent years with the Foundation, I am struck by the sheer numbers and the outstanding quality of the students who have passed through this university and who have made a mark on their communities and on the lives of others."

The high quality of its graduates enhances what a degree from this university means to all of UW-Eau Claire's current and future alumni, Sylla said, noting that in the business world the university's reputation for excellence might be described as the "enhancement of the brand."

"You will all cross this stage today and receive a piece of paper ... a diploma," Sylla said. "I hope you take better care of your diploma than I did over the years. I physically received my diploma in Schofield Auditorium, put it somewhere in a drawer and never looked at it again. Little did I know at the time how much that piece of paper would have its value enhanced in subsequent years.

"Those of us who have come through this university have seen the 'value of the brand' enhanced immeasurably over time. This can only be attributed to the quality of the education produced by faculty, students and administration. In an era of conspicuous consumption and witnessing diminished values of many items in our disposable culture, it is most rewarding as alumni to enjoy the continuing improvement in the outside world's perception of the education we all have received over the years.

"In closing, I would leave each of you with the hope that as you make your own choices over time, you will choose in such a way that allows your drive for achievement to be balanced by equal commitment to love, to play, to family, to friends and community. I would hope that someday when you look back a half century as I have here today that you can say that your goal in life was not the perfection of work alone, but the perfection of a life."

-30-

JB/DW

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