CJ McCollum at graduation

CJ McCollum ’13, point guard for the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Pelicans, entrepreneur and philanthropist, delivered the keynote address at Lehigh’s undergraduate Commencement for the Class of 2023.

CJ McCollum ’13 to Lehigh’s Class of 2023: 'Your March to an Independent Future Begins Today’

The National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Pelicans point guard, entrepreneur and philanthropist delivered keynote remarks at Lehigh's 155th Commencement.

Photography by

Christa Neu

CJ McCollum ’13, point guard for the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Pelicans, entrepreneur and philanthropist, delivered the keynote address at Lehigh’s undergraduate Commencement Sunday, May 21, for the Class of 2023, sharing lessons learned on and off the basketball court in the decade since he graduated from Lehigh.

The undergraduate Commencement followed Saturday’s graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.

McCollum opened by reminiscing on his own Commencement a decade ago: “The last time I was in this stadium was 2013. Like you, my now-wife, Elise, and I paraded in our caps and gowns, our hopes and dreams stuffed in our sleeves.”

When speaking of the potential future career paths of the graduating seniors, McCollum referenced the changing landscape of the workforce as artificial intelligence (AI) becomes more robust and commonplace, and noted that a Lehigh education leaves graduates prepared to distinguish themselves beyond a degree.

“...Recruits need to differentiate themselves by more than a degree,” McCollum said. “Beyond your majors, Lehigh equipped you with increasingly valuable soft skills like critical thinking, ethics, empathy, resilience, flexibility and when needed, the ability to pivot.”

McCollum shared two personal examples of triumphing over adversity through dedication and hard work. The first time he overcame a devastating setback was during his sophomore year of high school, when, despite being promised a shooting guard position on the basketball team, the role went to a transfer student. Disappointed and coping with rejection, McCollum underperformed that year. The following summer, he resolved to become a stronger athlete; nearly every day, he woke at 5:30 a.m. for rigorous workouts, practiced throughout the day (shooting more than 1,000 shots daily), and rebounded with his father in the evening.

He then detailed what unfolded when he began his junior year, after a summer dedicated to improving his performance on the court.

“Game one of the season was my first career start. I went on to break the school record for points in a game and for three-pointers, shattering my career high of 18 points...three days later, I received a letter from Lehigh University,” McCollum said. “...By season end, I broke every school scoring record and averaged 25 points per game...and I was very excited about the work I put in to accomplish those goals. Without that big game, Lehigh may never have happened for me. But without the adversity and self-doubt, I wouldn’t have dug deep enough, or intentionally put in the work needed to succeed.”

The second story McCollum shared was from his sophomore year at Lehigh, when he was invited to compete for a spot on the Olympic basketball team. In his mind, he had secured the position, but was cut from the team after tryouts.

“I’ve never told this story, but at tryouts, each of us was given awesome gear, including [American flag] compression shorts with the team’s logo on it. After being cut...those shorts motivated me,” McCollum said. “It’s how we respond to and push through adversity that makes us the individuals we ultimately become. Most people walk away from their dreams just before they break through to success.”

McCollum continued, “It didn’t seem like it back then, but being cut from [USA basketball team] became my crucible. It made me hungry…and determined beyond reason. By the postseason, [Lehigh was] in the NCAA tournament facing Duke [University]. Then... on March 16, 2012 in the Greensboro Coliseum, Lehigh pulled off one of the greatest upsets in March Madness history! ...With that single game, I cemented my future as a lottery pick and changed the trajectory of my life.”

Sharing that these were just two instances in which he could have given up on his dreams, he said that graduates should seize all available opportunities and persevere. He noted that successful individuals are intentional in their actions, and encouraged graduates to take five steps on the path to success.

“One: Evaluate your goal. Is it powerful enough to propel you forward?
Two: Tune out the noise and get rid of distractions...
Three: Be patient because success rarely happens overnight.
Four: Be willing to take risks commensurate with the reward.
And finally, five: Even if you falter, don’t stop until you’ve climbed the mountain top.”

He also encouraged graduates to be humble and express gratitude toward those who have helped them on their educational journey and those who may help forge their future path.

... don’t limit how you measure success to titles, salaries or advanced degrees. Factor in your personal growth and happiness as you overcome the inevitable challenges ahead. Calculate the impact you make on others and positive changes you personally bring to the world

CJ McCollum ’13

“As newly minted graduates, the world will give you a moment to revel in being a star,” McCollum said. “Savor the moment, then realize that your family, friends, enemies, professors, librarians, coaches, chefs from campus dining—those who surrounded, nourished, lifted you up and pushed you forward—made today possible.”

He stressed that the viewpoint with which graduates approach this pivotal moment could shape the course of their lives, and therefore, graduates should embrace opportunities fully and without hesitation.

“Your march to an independent future begins today,” McCollum said. “Ask yourself: What can you accomplish if you don’t get in your own way? Without focusing on what can’t you do—what will you do? Hopes planted here will help bury fears of the future ahead.”

McCollum concluded by reminding the Class of 2023 that success does not have a single definition. He reiterated to look beyond degrees and titles and remember that there are other key factors in determining success.

“You’ll find in the next exciting chapter of your life, what gets measured, matters. But don’t limit how you measure success to titles, salaries, or advanced degrees. Factor in your personal growth and happiness as you overcome the inevitable challenges ahead. Calculate the impact you make on others and positive changes you personally bring to the world,” McCollum said.

Finding Comfort in Growth

President Joseph J. Helble ’82 opened the ceremony and introduced Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Nathan N. Urban, who greeted the graduates and guests.

Urban introduced Bonor M. Ayambem ’23, a computer engineering major, creative writing minor and Martindale scholar, who delivered the undergraduate student remarks. Ayambem reflected on her experience at Lehigh, and described the transformation she underwent in that time.

“When I arrived at Lehigh University four years ago, I was a scared and uncomfortable young woman,” Ayambem said. “I had left my home country of Nigeria for the first time ever only days prior, and I was thrust into an environment of people who didn’t have the same story as me or the same history as I did.

“My comfort came when I realized that even those of us who might come from the same place or have similar identities are all so different. Each of us has a unique path and a unique story that makes us who we are. But in the years that we have been here together, with all that uniqueness and difference, what has bound us together has been our growth.”

Ayambem closed with the following sentiment: “Acknowledge everything that you and we have all been through and wear it like armor, because it is. Don’t let success mean just one thing. Let's define it for ourselves, based on how hard we tried and how much we persevered.”

‘Your Determined, Grounded, and Pragmatically
Optimistic View of the World is Infectious’

Helble returned to the podium to deliver remarks, opening by exploring the journey of Lehigh’s Class of 2023. He described the first year, which ended abruptly due to the spring 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, and the final year, marked by the emergence of new technology such as generative AI, noting “those are just the bookends of your college experience.”

“There is a whole world of challenges awaiting your collective talents and intellect to help us address," Helble said. "And yet I stand here today feeling truly optimistic, because of what I see at this moment before me, and that, truly, is you. Not for what you have accomplished—although there is plenty that is noteworthy there. But for who you are. I have come to know many of you the past two years, and I say with absolute certainty that you are grounded. You are pragmatic. You are undaunted.”

Helble said that the students are “in this together, part of a community where you know that each and every one of you matters.” He described how he has seen it firsthand in small groups, from the field hockey team who won the Patriot League championship and invited Helble, an avid runner, to run with them and the fraternity brothers who spent an evening discussing what quality teaching means to them, to the Student Senate members who approach their role with seriousness--and many more examples of community.

"Your determined, grounded, and pragmatically optimistic view of the world is infectious," he said.

Sharing an excerpt from a speech that former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt gave in Paris in 1910 titled “Citizenship in a Republic,” Helble selected a passage that spoke to the “challenges and responsibilities of participatory democracy.” It is a speech that celebrates active participation and discourages critique from the sidelines.

“‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds.’”

“You, Lehigh graduates, are that person,” Helble said. “You are in the arena. You do not, ever, sit idly by on the sidelines. You jump in and roll up your sleeves to meet whatever challenges are thrown your way."

Helble concluded with words that he said were not of guidance, but “simply a request.”

“Remain true to who you are. Keep that grounded, pragmatic, open, optimistic, roll-up-your-sleeves, let’s-get-it-done spirit that is so characteristic of this university. Be that person in the arena. The world will be better because of it.”

There were 1,940 undergraduates in the Class of 2023…132 graduates received interdisciplinary bachelor’s degrees…They hailed from 41 states and 54 countries outside of the U.S.… Undergraduates majored in 82 different disciplines … The ceremony began with an invocation from Rabbi Steven P. Nathan, Endowed Director of Jewish Student Life & Associate Chaplain, and was followed by the national anthem, led by Michael T. Fitzgerald ’23… Bonor M. Ayambem ’23 delivered the undergraduate remarks …. The ceremony officially concluded with the ringing of the bell by representatives of the classes of 1973 and 2023 ... The benediction was offered by Rabbi Nathan … The alma mater was led by Madison T. Kershner ’23…. The Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, delivered its 40th consecutive performance at Lehigh’s Commencement ceremony. It is America's oldest civilian concert band, with its first documented performance on July 4, 1828.

Watch CJ McCollum's Commencement address.

Photography by

Christa Neu

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