| 03.17.2018

Army general”s commencement speech aims to challenge graduates

When Brig. Gen. Erik Peterson was a student at the University of Idaho, he found himself in the office of Bruce Pitman, then the Dean of Students.

Although the violations were minor, Peterson said the encounter served as a turning point for him and the beginning of a mentorship from Pitman.  

“We hit it off pretty well,” Peterson said. “I consider Bruce Pitman one of my close mentors and friends.”

Peterson, who will give this year”s commencement speech, said after that encounter he joined UI”s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program and received his Army commission in 1986.

“In addition to my academic pursuits and ROTC, I was pretty heavily involved with Student Involvement in my last few years,” Peterson said.

He also became a Resident Assistant and eventually a supervisor.

“In addition to good solid academic foundation, I felt like I was given opportunity to grow as a leader, good problem solving skills, communications skills, the ability to resolve conflict, interact with people,” Peterson said. “I had some very, very good mentors and examples I was exposed to.”

He graduated from UI with a bachelor”s degree in geography and cartography. He also has a master”s degree Business administration from Touro College and a master”s degree national security and strategic studies from the National War College.

After that, he completed helicopter flight school and served with the 271st Combat Aviation Company in the Republic of Korea and served one of four tours with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

He served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, among many other assignments.

Most recently, he served as Deputy Commanding General for the U.S. Army Cadet before taking charge of the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command in June of 2014.

UI President Chuck Staben, who ultimately selects the commencement speaker, said he interacted with Peterson at commencement last year.

“I was very impressed by him personally,” Staben said.

Peterson said he has been involved with ROTC events in years past.

“He is a highly decorated officer, a general, and a UI graduate,” Staben said.  “I felt having him speak represented well the strong tradition of military training at UI, a specific part of our land grant mission.  I felt it likely he would be an inspiring speaker for students, speaking to issues of personal mission and motivation.”

As a high-ranking military officer, Peterson said giving speeches to large crowds is not out of his wheelhouse.

“I speak publically fairly often, so it”s not unusual,” he said. “The size of the crowd will probably be a little bit larger than normal.”

While he said he doesn”t want to reveal too many details about his speech, he said he would keep it brief.

“I looked back at my own experience 30 years ago and I”m very embarrassed to admit I remember nothing about my commencement speaker or remarks,” Peterson said. “I”ll endeavor to hold their attention for a few moments and then get on with the celebration.”

Peterson said he would address gradating students with a goal in mind.

“Essentially, I hope to provide them with a couple of challenges,” Peterson said. “The goal is to put in perspective where they stand.”

For Peterson, he said his mentors at UI – including Pitman and former dean of the College of Science Maynard Miller, who he spent time with researching ice fields in Alaska – played a role in his success.

“I”m absolutely profoundly humbled by the opportunity to do this,” Peterson said. “It”s a unique opportunity and I feel very strongly about my ties to the university.”

Ceremony recognition

John Grossenbacher, retired vice admiral for the U.S. Navy and former director of the Idaho National Laboratory, will receive an honorary degree.

Sharon and Rich Allen, alumni and co-chairs of UI”s Inspiring Futures campaign cabinet will receive the President”s Medallion.

Sharon is currently the chair of the national YMCA board and was included on Forbes” “100 most powerful women in the world” list four times.

Ford Elsaesser, UI alumnus from 1977, Mark Hedges, UI alumnus from 1985, and Brian Oswald, UI alumnus from 1992, will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Elsaesser co-founded Elsaesser Jarzabek Anderson Elliot & Macdonald law firm in Sandpoint and has taught bankruptcy law at UI”s law school for over 10 years. Hedge co-founded Lochsa Engineering, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015. Oswald holds the Joe C. Denman Distinguished Professorship in fire ecology, silviculture and range management at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.

The College of Law commencement ceremony will take place at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Kibbie Dome. The commencement speaker is Michael Mosman, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. He was born and raised in Lewiston.

By the numbers


Degrees applied for


Baccalaureate degrees


Law degrees


Doctoral degrees


Specialist degrees


Masters degrees


Graduates from UI total


Degrees from UI total

More info: Commencement begins with a procession down University Avenue to the Kibbie Dome at 9 a.m. Saturday. The ceremony begins at 9:30 a.m. General admission is free. The ceremony can be streamed at www.uidaho.edu/news/ui-live

Katelyn Hilsenbeck can be reached at arg-news@uidaho.edu or on Twitter @Katelyn_mh

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