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Lessons from the Palo Verde Tree

This spring we start a new tradition. Attached to the gowns and hoods of our graduates are small branches of palo verde. One of the most common trees in the Sonoran Desert, the palo verde is also the state tree of Arizona. What astonishes most visitors when they see palo verde trees is the green bark and branches. We locals know that this allows the trees, which often shed their small leaves during hot and dry periods, to continue photosynthesizing – to convert the sun’s rays into useful chemical energy. If there is sufficient rainfall, in the late spring, they produce bright yellow flowers that nourish pollinators and produce seed pods, a source of food for birds, rodents, and, particularly in the past, for people.

These beautiful trees have adapted to the difficult conditions of the desert. Mature specimens can live for hundreds of years. They are a reminder that even in harsh environmental conditions–with little and unpredictable rainfall, seething heat and freezing temperatures–life can adapt and thrive and bring beauty and sustenance.

As you graduate and go out into the world, at some point you will likely encounter your own difficult environments. You may have co-workers who doubt your novel ideas. You may work for bosses who are perfectly satisfied with the status quo and won’t budge. Banks and investors may be skeptical of your innovative business plans. Decision makers may dismiss your forward thinking interventions. Community members may not initially welcome you.

But when these challenges arise, think of the palo verde. Your good ideas, your energy and passion for creating a better, sustainable future need to see the light of day. Don’t let difficult environments discourage you. Use the problem-solving skills and the positive, solutions perspectives you learned in the School to overcome the doubters, the naysayers, and the short-sighted. I am confident in your resilience, knowing you have the skills and drive to grow and thrive in the face of difficult and entrenched challenges.

Most importantly, remember that you are not in this alone. You are joining more than a thousand SOS alumni who are ready and willing to support you–to help you launch your careers, listen to your challenges, find solutions, and realize your dreams–just as other alumni did for them. And remember that you are a part of the School of Sustainability family forever. You will always have a place here in this beautiful desert we call home.  

Congratulations to the Class of 2017!