Date: May 25, 2008
Department: News & Public Information
College commencements are also great at illustrating the great genius of a country of second and third chances... many of you sitting here didn't know what you wanted to do at the beginning of high school... many of you, at some point in your schooling, were not sure you would even go to college... many of you didn't finish in five years, or go right onto college from high school, or left and came back. But all those different life stories, all those different tributaries come together at a commencement to form a river of black gowns that flows right past this podium. So no matter where you started, you ended up here today. Oh yeah, and another thing: you students who knew exactly what you wanted to do from the very beginning and just went ahead and did it right on time, we love you too. A lot.
Let me also take a second to speak directly to the graduates who began their lives somewhere else in the world, or were brought here as kids by parents from somewhere else in the world: By coming here to an academically demanding school, and by finishing what you started, sometimes against tremendous odds, you have vindicated the faith that you had in this country when you came here, or fulfilled the dreams your families had for you when they brought you here. Every writer, speaker, politician who questions whether America can still afford to be the ingatherer of nations, whether or not the country is enriched by bringing in new people from everywhere across the globe... well they should come and stand where I'm standing right now and have a look... and then tell me you aren't very good for America.
At the same time, I am here to congratulate you on completing your work at a complicated time in the life of the country. A tough time. In the late 1990s, when I first started getting invitations to speak to graduates, people with new brand new degrees were fighting off recruiters, businesses were hiring, people with hard-to-find skills were even getting signing bonuses... and there was this general feeling that the sky was the limit, and that a diploma was a license to make money.
You already know without needing me to tell you: those times are over, at least for now. Instead you've got to face continued Wars. Maybe a recession. These are challenging times for making a living and hanging on to a home. These coming years are going to be difficult years to repeat the trick America has pulled off for so many, for so long, to make it possible for you not only to live well, but to live better than your parents.
If you had to pick a time to graduate, I don't think you would choose to get the next phase of your life going at a time when more Americans say the country's on the wrong track than ever before in our history. But nobody gets to choose their times... the assignment for you now is to choose to make your times different, armed with that precious degree.
That's what you can resolve to do today. To choose optimism today is not just sentimental, or starry-eyed. Idealism doesn't make you soft in the head. I think it's possible to be very clear about today's reality, and very excited about what's ahead, all at the same time. You have every reason to be more optimistic about your future because you chose to come here, and chose to finish.
Wonder why I keep mentioning finishing? Because only a minority of Americans who begin four-year degrees finish them. In education terms, the largest single group among American adults is defined by the census bureau, as "some college." Not in a celebratory way, as in "Some college!," but as in some college, and not enough college. So yeah, finishing is a big deal.
Even now, after a couple of generations of college as a mass experience among young Americans, only about 30 percent of all people over 25 have a four-year degree. You've done it... you've finished.... but why did you do it? Why the all-nighters, the deadline pressure, the painstaking construction of a course of study, the careful completion of that major? Why the debt, the summer jobs, the work-study, the stress... why?
There's been so much emphasis on school and earning a living, college as a means to a better paycheck, or a better paying set of opportunities... it's almost as if there's no other reason to be educated than to make money. Money's important, but I hope that's not why you did this. Or at least not the only reason why. I hope you get your diploma tonight with a satisfaction that comes from something more than just anticipated money.
The curriculum here... the critical thinking skills, the new things you took on board, the ways you had to challenge yourself... those things weren't JUST about making you more employable. The rewards of this education should never stop... If the University was doing its job as an institution, and you were doing your jobs as students, your years of school have taught you how to learn.
You have been taught about some of the finest thinking that's gone on in this world for thousands of years. That was supposed to make the world a more interesting place to be in. That was nourishment, food for your head, and that was food for your soul. And for the rest of your life, having a good, intact and fully-operational soul is going to get you through times of no money, much better than money can ever get you through times of no soul.
It would be great if you could value the wonderful piece of paper with the fancy seal for more than its paycheck value, please. After all, you've just taken a major step in making sure that life happens with you, not to you... that you are open, engaged, involved, immersed up to your eye teeth in the business of being alive. You now have a rudder on your boat. You are not helpless. The world will make a little more sense, and what happens in the world will make a little more sense, and life won't be a series of nasty surprises from forces into which you think you have no input.
An education goes a long way toward putting you at the controls of your life... an actor, rather than acted upon... I know it might be hard for you to believe all of that because you really don't feel like you control much of anything at this point in your life. So you'll just have to trust me on that.
And make me a promise today, or better yet, make yourself a promise: Promise yourself that you're not going to be bored. The world is way too exciting, challenging, fascinating, puzzling, yes, infuriating... to ever be bored. And you know, if you keep yourself interested, and aren't bored... guess what? You won't be boring, either. Continue to learn, and teach others. Resolve to be a student for life... and be a teacher for life to everyone around you. Light up every room you're in from now on.
Today should be the start of you thinking of yourself in a different way. This country needs your energy and your curiosity, and your soul. The caps and gowns attach you to a long, long, line of students going back to the Middle Ages. You have been given the fleeting privilege of wearing it as a reward that stamps you has a member of that international brotherhood and sisterhood of scholars. And everybody looks good in it. You are different as of today. Enjoy it!
Congratulations to you... and to everyone who had a hand in getting you across the finish line, by encouraging you, believing in you, writing checks, lighting a fire under you when you needed it, or just loving you as they always have. They are big shareholders in today's enterprise too.
I know who spoke at my graduation but I can't recall a word she said. So let me reinforce in 15 seconds. Remember: realistic about tough time, but still excited about the challenges at hand... Proud of yourself but keeping in mind you didn't get here by yourself... Not bored, and not boring!
Thanks for bringing me to Massachusetts and letting me share this day with you.