“Success is not a destination, it is a journey.”
Those were among the last words Chobani founder Hamdi Ulukaya told the University at Albany’s 2,116 undergraduate students at their commencement ceremony.
When Ulukaya first stepped on UAlbany’s campus 15 years ago, he barely spoke English. On Sunday he returned to share his story of purchasing an abandoned Kraft plant and turning it into the country’s No. 1 Greek yogurt maker.
“I realized in order to get best out of yourself you have to feel home,” Ulukaya said, speaking English quite well with a Turkish accent. “The nature, the people, the culture around this region really made me comfortable.”
And the students made him feel very comfortable. During his speech, one graduate screamed, “We love your yogurt!” Ulukaya laughed and responded, “What is your favorite flavor?”
Thousands of students started screaming from their seats. Beach balls bounced from graduate to graduate as their voices filled the large open space on the Entry Plaza lawn in front of Collins Circle.
“I am so excited, these were a quick four years,” said Phil Terra, 23. “I will miss everyone here because I had such an interesting and fun experience.”
Terra received his bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice. He is preparing to leave Albany and return to his home on Staten Island, where he is stepping into a job as a counselor.
“Today I am not going to be sad about saying goodbye. I am just going to sit here with my friends in the sun and hear this guy talk about yogurt,” Terra said before he took his seat for the ceremony.
During the ceremony, some graduates, alumni and professors whipped out their cellphones and took to Twitter to capture the moment:
“On to the next adventure #ualbany2014 #graduation day” –Janae Vanderpoel, @janaenae_93
“Inspiring words from Chobani CEO and brand new Dr, @hamdiulukaya at #UAlbany2014 commencement. This alum was moved!” –Courtney Brunelle, @CB1231
“#Congratulations Class of 2014! #UAlbany2014 #UAlbany incredibly proud of my students graduating today!” –Miss Malik, @mackthechark
Upon receiving an honorary degree from UAlbany President Robert Jones during the ceremony, Ulukaya joked, “You’re playing a game on me” and added, “I wish my mother could see this.”
“I was here to learn English. Now if I’m not speaking well it’s not my fault,” he said, followed by laughs and cheers from the crowd. “But I get by. I thought one of the best things I can do is tell my own story, and I think a lot of you guys could relate to it and maybe — just maybe — it can give you a little bit of inspiration what this life is all about.”
Pointing out to the graduates seated in front of him, Ulukaya admitted that he was scared and lonely at times after graduation. But he assured them that they “will make wonders in the world.”
UAlbany’s Class of 2014 includes students from 19 states and 23 countries. They received degrees in 56 different majors, and range in age from 18 to 53 years old.
“I remember the days I was ending campus,” Ulukaya said. “I said — holy sh … COW! But I wake up every morning thinking — this is the day I am going to be awesome. And I go back every night saying — I did best I could, tomorrow is another day. I can tell you one thing: Life is awesome.”