2024 Graduate Ceremony Processional

Keynote speaker Stephen S. Tang ’85G ’88 Ph.D. ’22P, right, walks alongside Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble '82 as they proceed into Goodman Stadium Saturday morning for the 2024 Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony.

Stephen S. Tang ’85G ’88 Ph.D. ’22P Tells Lehigh Graduate Students Unconventional Path Can Lead to Success

Tang delivers the keynote address at the 2024 Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on Saturday.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Prior to studying chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh, Stephen S. Tang ’85G ’88 Ph.D. ’22P said he had plans to become a Catholic priest.

And, after becoming the first Lehigh student to submit a Ph.D. dissertation produced on a Macintosh computer, Tang aspired to be a research manager.

That never happened either.

“Instead, my journey mirrored Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,” said Tang, as he delivered Saturday morning's keynote at the 2024 Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony. “I dived into the rabbit hole of innovation and entrepreneurship, exploring the inner workings of for-profit, non-profit, government and academic sectors. They taught me a great deal about making big decisions. I got to make a few, and they impacted many people.”

His career didn’t unfold as originally planned, but it has been immensely successful, guiding organizations for over 30 years as chairman of the board or chief executive officer.

Stephen Tang

Keynote speaker Stephen S. Tang ’85G ’88 Ph.D. ’22P

“I navigated the world of top leadership and corporate governance as fascinating as Wonderland with its Mad Hatter Tea Parties, Cheshire Cats and Queens of Hearts,” Tang, principal at Tangent2Cogent, board chairman of NowDiagnostics Inc., and former chairman, president and CEO of Orasure Technologies, said.

He told graduates his career was “like a game of leapfrog governed by quantum physics.” While things may seem crazy and unpredictable at times, his career wouldn’t have ended up the way it did without its unconventional pivots, he said.

“One or both of the frogs can appear anytime, anywhere, in different places,” Tang said. “This is how your career can be—full of surprises and exciting challenges, which only make sense to you.”

He told graduates their path very likely won’t be a straight line, like his college roommate, who just retired after 42 years at AT&T, but it will be just fine to have a career journey like his.

Tang’s address, as rain fell at Goodman Stadium, opened Lehigh’s 156th Commencement Weekend. The university conferred 548 master’s degrees and 123 doctoral degrees for the Class of 2024 prior to Saturday evening’s Baccalaureate and Sunday morning’s undergraduate Commencement. Those totals include the first cohort of master’s graduates from Lehigh’s College of Health.

As Tang began speaking to graduates, he highlighted three types of graduation speakers: superstars, pioneers and everyday humans.

CJ McCollum, Lehigh’s undergraduate Commencement speaker last year, he said, was an example of a superstar. Scott Willoughby ’89, Sunday morning’s undergraduate Commencement speaker, is a pioneer. The everyday human? Tang said that’s him—“the sojourning graduate whose life resembles Forrest Gump’s incredulous path from football star to war hero to shrimp boat owner.”

In using another children’s story to help convey his remarks—Goldilocks and the Three Bears—Tang said those everyday humans are just like Baby Bear’s porridge.

“We're the ‘just right’ choice for oddly relatable postcards from the edge and maybe nothing more,” he said.

Despite coming from a privileged background—his grandfather and father both had Ph.D.s and his father and uncle both were awarded NASA Lifetime Achievement Awards—he said his Lehigh grad school journey was “extremely challenging.”

He saluted those who were first in their family to earn an advanced degree, especially those who are international students or a child of immigrants.

Tang said he was confident the graduates could do great things, as long as their degrees inspired them to learn more, they continued to invest their hard work in curiosity to change the world, and remained humble, because luck is key to success. He also shared what he called crucial insight that he learned during his career.

“Life is more than numbers,” Tang said. “It’s more than the number of working years, the amount of wealth, the accolades of career accomplishments,” Tang said. “It’s about leaving a legacy of kindness, compassion, empathy and service to higher causes. For you graduates, I hope you’ll find big ways and small ways to save the world and to savor the world.”

Tang also instructed graduates to embrace valuable lessons the COVID-19 pandemic era taught everyone. One of his key takeaways was “harnessing geometric growth to our advantage to ensure we are better prepared for challenges and opportunities.”

He said geometric growth can be hard to grasp, since humans are used to slow, steady growth and struggle to envision massive changes. But as COVID-19 rapidly spread, scientists used geometric growth to develop vaccines and tests. Orasure Technologies, Inc., where Tang was president & CEO from 2018-2022, played a crucial role.

“My company learned and thrived in this chaos in quite unexpected ways, because we cared deeply for each other,” Tang said.

Tang said artificial intelligence is beginning to follow a similar path. As it rapidly develops, it is posing potential challenges, but also could offer solutions to global issues that include climate change, disease and poverty.

“As we navigate our own Wonderland, we must recognize the potential of geometric growth to create and solve significant challenges,” Tang said. “And just as Alice learns to adapt to her ever-changing size, we, too, must adapt to harness this powerful force for good. So make sure your quantum leapfrogging harnesses this geometric energy. And remember, the greatest geometric energy is love.”

Tang said he was thankful to have his 88-year-old mother, Helen, in attendance, and his Ph.D. advisor and former Lehigh Provost Arthur Humphrey, who is 96, watching on livestream from Maine. His wife, Jill, daughter, Helana ’22, and son, Beau, were also in the audience as his other immediate family members watched online.

Student speaker Ugochinyere Nancy Oloyede ’24G

Student speaker Ugochinyere Nancy Oloyede ’24G

Student speaker Ugochinyere Nancy Oloyede ’24G addressed her fellow graduates prior to Tang taking the stage, asking them one simple question: “Was graduate school worth it?”

She said it’s been a question she has been asked by undergraduate students and graduate students alike.

Her answer? “Absolutely.”

She said some used graduate school as a stepping stone to the next stage in their career, others used it to figure out what they wanted to do in life or to break barriers of generational norms. She joked part of the reason she came to grad school all the way from Nigeria was to avoid doing the dishes at home.

Regardless of their reasoning, she said, they all questioned their every decision that led them to graduate school some days, while feeling like a superhero other days.

Graduate school, she said, was not just about the stress and rigorous workload, it was about the shared experiences and the lasting impact they made within the Lehigh community. Everything they learned and experienced, from the cultural exposure to the growth and camaraderie, she said, will stay with them the rest of their lives.

“It has been a journey of self-discovery,” Oloyede said. “We have been able to make meaningful, lifelong connections and lots of gray hair—I certainly stopped counting mine. We have been able to push the boundaries of knowledge as we knew it, making huge strides in our respective fields. We should all be proud of that.”

She left her fellow graduates with a proverb from the Igbo tribe, which is from her native Eastern Nigeria.

“Ugo chara acha ana he echu echu,” she said, “which translates as ‘A mature eagle feather will forever remain pure.’ This means someone who is well trained, who always stands the test of time. I believe that we are well-trained. We are well-rounded in our various areas of expertise, including professionally and even our personal lives. And because of this, I'm confident that we will stand the test of time. ”

Lehigh President Joseph J. Helble ’82 was the ceremony’s final speaker, following the conferring of degrees and doctoral hooding.

Helble highlighted the fact that while all the graduate students in attendance, hailing from five continents, had their differences, they were also united, assembled Saturday together and connected by one university.

Graduates earned their degrees in a range of fields, he said, and 105 of them call 23 countries other than the United States their home. But they were all now Lehigh.

“This is an extraordinary and beautiful reminder that in a world too often marked by division, a university truly brings us together,” Helble said. “To see one another. To hear one another. To listen to one another. For some of you, sometimes to run with one another. And, I hope, to learn from one another.”

Graduates standing in front of stage at Goodman Stadium

Graduates stand in front of the stage during Saturday's Graduate Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony at Goodman Stadium.

In quoting New York Times columnist David Brooks, who recently spoke on campus, Helble asked graduates to take a few moments to look around at each person sitting by them. He said whether they knew those people or not, they shared a story—their time spent on Lehigh’s campus. And if they were to start a conversation with them, they would begin with what they have in common, that shared story.

Helble said he asked them to complete this task now, at the Commencement ceremony, because it was easy to do there. Once they leave campus, it might not be.

“But trust me, the world is small,” Helble said. “There are commonalities that connect us all in ways that will surprise you and astound you and inspire you throughout your lives. . It just takes a little effort to find them. So I will ask each of you, as you leave here today, to not be lazy. To do what you have done here. To do the hard work. To be curious. To seek commonality with every person you meet. To resist the temptation to label, to define someone as ‘other,’ to think of them as somehow lesser, because they are superficially different from you.”

He asked the graduates to remember what they have learned from each other at Lehigh.

“You are unique,” Helble said. “But you are connected. And let that connection be a broader reminder of how connected each and every one of us, wherever we find ourselves in life, truly is.”

The Allentown Band, under the direction of conductor Ronald H. Demkee, opened the ceremony with a musical prelude and the processional and concluded the festivities with the recessional. Anna Grace Zink ’23 ’24G sang the national anthem and Lehigh’s Alma Mater. University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies, offered both the invocation and the benediction.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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