Auburn alumna reminds latest graduates to consider the ‘little things’

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Auburn University alumna Melissa Brown Herkt admitted, as the keynote speaker for two graduation ceremonies Saturday, she wondered if she would have anything important to say.

The Gadsden, Alabama, native could have easily relied on stories of her own success, having spent 35 years in the construction and engineering industry – a field dominated by men – and blazing a trail for women. Her time at Exxon, for instance, included being the first female engineering posted overseas and the first female to serve as construction manager.

Instead, Herkt encouraged 1,549 graduates to consider that “it’s the little things that matter.”

“I can assure you, you will never go wrong valuing every person you encounter, treating them with respect and kindness,” she said. “It costs you nothing to show respect. It’ll make you feel good about yourself as you see how others respond to you.”

Herkt recalled the night she tried to inconspicuously hand a waiter a tip after serving her at an unusually busy restaurant in Houston. She said he was clearly exhausted and hurt that one table had jilted him on a tip. Her action was nothing out of the ordinary, but as the young man told her, “You made my day. You made all the difference.”

Herkt recalled a time in the late 1990s when she was asked to oversee a $600 million project. Under another person’s leadership, the project was two years behind schedule, $200 million over budget and only 50 percent complete in construction. She said she gathered the work force – over 2,000 people – and reminded them what they were working for.

She said the facility they were building would make a life-changing breast cancer drug scheduled to come to market in the coming months. Without each worker doing their part, the building would not be completed and the pharmaceutical company wouldn’t be able to produce enough of the drug to meet the demand.

“I asked the workers to think about their family and friends, speculating that most, if not all, would know someone touched by that disease,” Herkt said. “Getting them to buy into the mission, we saw a noticeable improvement and increased a sense of urgency on our site.”

Herkt said she places great value on education – her Auburn civil engineering degree served her well – but warned how it can be significantly diminished without integrity.
“Our reputation is something we spend a lifetime earning but it can be lost in an instant,” she said. “Once lost, it is very hard to retrieve. One of my early bosses used to say, ‘If you wouldn’t want your mother to read this on the front page of the New York Times, don’t do it.’”

If the class of 2015 is unable to remember anything she said, Herkt suggested following the words of the Auburn Creed.

“Try to live up the Auburn Creed every day of your life,” she said. “It’s not corny. In fact, it will serve you well in the topics I’ve mentioned today. If you strive to be the Auburn man or woman described in the creed, you don’t really have to remember anything I’ve said today. It’s all in there.”

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