Photo of Ron Khormaei giving his speech at the EECS graduation celebration.

Congratulations to all you graduates on achieving this hard-won achievement. It shows that you are strong in an area that I believe is most important to success. No, I don’t mean the skills of 25 different ways of cooking ramen noodles in two minutes, or methods for keeping left over pizza for a cold breakfast the next day. I am talking about perseverance and pushing one’s boundaries. This is key in growing as a person in any endeavor you choose. There IS a reason for the saying “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

I’m sure you can look back through your personal experience and find examples that appeared to be well beyond your reach. Please pause now and think back to that time that you saw the big roadblock ahead of you. You probably came up with multiple cases — some from your years studying here and some from before. The key is that after trying and succeeding in getting to the goal, then looking back, you now have well passed that big limit. How much we can achieve is like how much weight we can bench. You can and will increase that limit by pushing yourself to the limits and then a bit beyond.

As a youngster growing up in Iran, I could generously be categorized as only an average student, taking slow days throughout the year. Then seeing the 1979 revolution, gave me appreciation for how gray and relative life and standards are. It was mind boggling to one day have to reference to a historical king as the great one, and then literally the next day studying that he was the most vile person. There was a period of time that there were literally no rules or laws. This is the time that gives one appreciation for how large the range of human options there are. Then with the country in the middle of a mixture of wars and internal religious and ethnic conflicts, I approached my 16th birthday and decided to leave the country before I lost that option and was drafted.

Photo of students at the EECS graduation celebration. Pretty crazy choice for a kid that hadn’t ever traveled alone or even gotten on a plane. With all the blessing that nervous parents could provide, I flew out to Switzerland on my first trip by myself. It was that push and surviving travels among countries that finally landed me in Canada. It was a crazy period of my teenage life. It was a full jolt of reality being fully alone as I missed everything from family and friends to food or even a language I could speak. The simple task of getting to school on the first day took me half a day, walking, as I couldn’t yet understand the maps or what transportation existed.

I had the option of pushing hard and learning as much as I could or getting into the party scene or simply goofing off. Having taken so much risk and pain to get there, the choice was clear and I doubled down to learn as much as I could studying English and finishing my 11th grade. Just imagine a 16-year-old walking around downtown of a big city mesmerized by all the lights, drug dealers and all the other stuff in the streets. What can possibly go wrong?! Looking back, it was pushing my known limits that gave me the confidence and experience that became a foundation for the rest of my studies and career.

Then it was time for another change and move to Corvallis. I did my 12th grade and graduated from Crescent Valley High School. It’s interesting that as you push your limits, doors open up and people appear to help. Being a new arrival in the U.S. and a stranger, I still was bold enough that I took a couple of AP classes. Then one of my classmates, thought it was funny to give me a hard time about how difficult U.S. history would be for some foreigner like me. So, I took that as a challenge and ending up taking AP U.S. history test too without having taken the class in the year.

The interesting part was that she actually ended up helping me to prepare for this test. It’s amazing how people step up to help when they see you genuinely working hard in achieving a goal. I have seen this happen many times later — especially in times like starting new businesses when the high risks should scare people away. But these are times that a strong push pulls others in to help selflessly.

The confidence and momentum helped me to not be blocked by the self-imposed limits. I switched to electrical engineering from pre-med after my first term. It was a way of getting to graduation faster but then I found engineering to be an amazing field that gave me a way to solve an interesting and broad set of problems. My experience in the department reinforced earlier experience of how help appears when you are working hard towards a goal.

Pushing the limits, opening up doors, and learning to then repeat has been the hallmark of my career... Pushing your boundaries further out is the best investment you can make for your future.”

The department had, I believe it still has, the requirement of taking a 100 level engineering class before the 200 EE class I needed. As a new freshman with enough AP credits to become a sophomore, I put together a plan and pushed hard with then head of advising, the late Dr. Len Weber. He patiently pushed back but finally agreed to give me a chance of skipping the pre-requisite for the whole year only if I could get a B or better in his 200 class. You better believe that I studied hard for that class and ended up not only with an A but one of the top scores in his class. Dr. Weber ended up not only supporting my request for the exception but later gave me my first lab positions which led to an internship at Planar Systems and working with my major professor John Wager. That was truly eye opening. So, you too can take on a tough challenge, and then people come out of unexpected corners to actually help you achieve and even surpass those challenges. It’s amazing! It’s like compounding interest with a strong multiplying effect!

Pushing the limits, opening up doors, and learning to then repeat has been the hallmark of my career. These lessons became a foundation through my career from a research scientist role to VP of Engineering and CEO roles, through small companies going through mergers or large companies like HP. Pushing your boundaries further out is the best investment you can make for your future.

You are here today reaching this important achievement because you have already consciously or unconsciously, have pushed your limits, know the value, and have seen its multiplying benefits. Keep that momentum going through your life, hopefully with a bit more confidence that things will work out better than you might expect. You’ll be faced with nay-sayers, externally or self-talk. You will be in situations that seem impossible. You will be blocked from your goals with unsurpassable roadblocks. In those situations take that first step, put in that extra hour, and make that extra contact. You will find doors opening that you didn’t even know existed and friends appearing where you thought you didn’t know anyone. You will be stronger person for it. As you continue to grow through the years, you will then accommodate learning and more importantly all the gifts that others have given you. You will be in a continually better position to give back and jump in to help others where once you stood scared. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Thank you again for this humbling opportunity to talk at this special event. To you graduates, welcome to the family of OSU engineering alumni … and congratulations!