Dana D. York gives TTU summer graduates advice for building their career and life ladders

“Keep your attitude positive, cherish excellence, stay sharp and surround yourself with good people, and there will be no limit to how far life will take you.”

That’s the message Dana D. York presented to nearly 470 Tennessee Tech University graduates and their families and friends at this summer’s commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 2, in the Hooper Eblen Center.

York, associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is the agency’s highest-ranking female leader and first female associate chief, providing guidance for a $3.4 billion budget. She is an agriculture graduate of TTU.

Using the perspective of her own leadership role, she provided advice on how TTU’s current graduates can build their own career and life ladders.

“Some people think of it as ‘climbing the career ladder,’ but most of this advice pertains to ‘climbing your life ladder’ too,” York said. “My wish for all of you is that you find work you’re passionate about, but there’s more to life than just what we get paid to do.”

The surest way to become a leader — both in career and in life — is to “build the ladder that suits your aspirations,” she told graduates.

“As the saying goes, ‘The ladder of success must be set on something solid before you start to climb.’ In that respect, you are off to a great start,” York said. “Your education here at TTU, your parents’ guidance, and your dreams provide that foundation.”

Attitude is the first rung of the ladder built on that foundation, she continued.

“Don’t underestimate the power of attitude,” she said. “It’s your most powerful tool for generating positive action, and along with your reputation, it’s one of your most priceless possessions.”

The second rung of the ladder leading to life and career success is a willingness to do and be the best. “Know how to do your job better than anyone else does,” York said.

Keeping skills current and intellect sharp is the third rung of the ladder. “To stay the best, commit yourself to continuous, lifelong learning.”

The fourth rung — surround yourself with good people — is one that York says she puts a lot of weight on in her current position with the NRCS, which works directly with landowners to help protect the nation’s soil and water resources on private land in a voluntary, science-based approach. It also works in partnership with a broad array of state and local groups to sustain and enhance environmental quality.

“Just as your parents wanted you to have good friends as you grew up, it’s key to surround yourself with good colleagues as you move up,” she said.

“Leaders don’t really accomplish anything much on their own, so as you make your way up to the top, be sure to remember all the hands and hearts and minds that helped you get there,” York said. “Reach back as often as you reach forward, because humility is another rung that isn’t added to our life ladders nearly often enough.”

In 2007, York received the President’s Distinguished Rank Award, the highest award given to a career employee for leadership. This year, TTU honored her as the Outstanding Alumnus of the College of Agricultural and Human Sciences.

Following summer commencement, TTU has granted more than 63,000 degrees, nearly 35,000 of them since 1986.

Students graduating from TTU this semester hail from 35 states including Tennessee, 62 Tennessee counties and 38 foreign countries. They represent 31 undergraduate fields of study and 19 graduate fields.

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