Peraton President and CEO Stu Shea became Dr. Stu Shea on May 20 as he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from George Mason University in a commencement ceremony recognizing more than 9,700 graduates.
As the largest, most diverse and most innovative public research university in Virginia, GMU was also celebrating its 50th anniversary as an independent university.
“Think about how truly memorable and unique that number is — 50,” Shea said in an address to the class of 2022. “It’s a golden 50th anniversary. You are the only class that will ever graduate from Mason celebrating one of the signature colors of the university — Pantone No. 116 Gold . . . You’re the gold-medal class, and everyone will remember you and the impact you will make.”
A business leader, strategist and intelligence professional, Shea is well-known within the national security community. He is the founder of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation and has held leadership positions at a number of top contractors including Leidos, SAIC and Northrop Grumman. He has also received numerous recognitions, including being named among the 50 most influential Virginians.
But 50 years ago as GMU was just getting its start, Shea was a high school sophomore contemplating what to study in college.
“My major went from biology to chemistry to forestry and ultimately making a choice to pursue a career in medicine,” he said. “So, with complete clarity of purpose, I got my degree in geology.”
Shea elicited peels of laughter when he noted there was a worldwide oil crisis at the time with gas costing “a staggering 36 cents a gallon.”
Next, Shea took his love of maps to the University of Kansas where he studied cartography. He had hoped to get a doctorate and eventually teach, but computers were new and alluring, the internet was in its infancy, and Shea soon found his calling in tech as he began working in computer mapping.
“It was just too exciting to pass up,” he said.
The doctorate would have to wait as one life circumstance or choice after another presented a different direction — although he did enter GMU in the late ‘80s for extended studies in geographic information systems. Still, the doctorate was incomplete.
“I can assure you, however, that I have had no regrets in the path I followed on my journey because I alone made those choices,” he said. “Here we are 35 years later, and I am humbled to be asked to come back to George Mason and celebrate your special day. And in receiving an honorary doctorate, you have now completed my academic journey. Thank you.”
Shea encouraged the class of 2022 to take one small step in the right direction and to work with others to achieve goals. He counseled to treat others with courtesy, dignity and respect — even in the midst of passionate disagreement. And never burn down a relationship, he added, as the person you step over on your career journey may be your boss one day.
Achieving your goals could be hard, and somewhere along the way you may fail — but that failure, he said, “is just a dry run for future success.”
“Along the way, accept that your career will likely be a composite of hard work, luck and serendipity,” he said. “Sometimes, you will make the wrong choices. But don’t be discouraged and don’t give up. You will have plenty of time left in your life to make good choices — and ample opportunity to continue to screw up as well. Welcome to being real. Life isn’t always fair, and things won’t always go your way. It’s OK to be disappointed. But then pick yourself up and learn from the obstacles you’ve encountered.”
And he continued:
“With each roadblock, focus less on what happened and more on why it happened. Remember, life is filled with both questions and answers. The questions are far more important than the answers. Answers tend to stop a conversation . . . Questions by contrast express a powerful self-awareness of the limitations of your own skills necessary to overcome those obstacles.
“So, be vulnerable. Ask questions. Have a goal to learn something new every day.”