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Commencement Address

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Augsburg College
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Saturday, May 1, 2004


Good afternoon. I, first, would like to greet and congratulate the graduates and their families. This is your day.

Graduates, it is an honor to share this wonderful occasion with you. For today is the culmination, and the recognition, of your hard work, perseverance, and commitment to your studies. It is a day to savor — and, to celebrate. And, to the families and loved ones of the graduates, I know the pride and the joy which you feel today, as you watch your children and grandchildren, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and friends, receive their degrees.

Today, as you reflect upon your accomplishments, you also look ahead to the next steps on your life journeys. For some of you, this means further study in graduate programs throughout the country and around the world, while others embark directly on exciting careers, or take on new challenges in your present careers. Whatever your next steps, treasure the fine education you have received, and the many friendships you have made, at this distinguished institution.

Diversity lends strength to an institution, and, with the Augsburg commitment to "intentional diversity," this strength is woven into the fabric of your College. You reflect this commitment. You are women and men from 45 states and territories, 24 tribal nations/reservations, and from 29 countries. You are European-American, African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American. You are full-time undergraduates in your early 20s, graduate students adding to your credentials and academic preparation, and returning and adult students who studied while holding down full-time jobs — a formidable accomplishment.

For some of you, the pursuit of higher education has not been easy. There are so many forces in our culture to distract us from serious study. In some cases, work and family compete with academics for time, attention, and energy. Not to mention that the cost of education often can be burdensome. But, as the saying goes: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." You, and your families, have made a significant investment in your futures. You have chosen the path of education, and, although there may have been obstacles and detours along the way, I want you to know, you chose the right path. The late Vice President and Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey believed that: "The road to freedom — here and everywhere on earth — begins in the classroom." This has been true for me, for countless students I have encountered over the years, and, it is no less true for you.

So, I applaud you for your perseverance, your faith in yourselves, and in the people of Augsburg College, and your belief in the power of education.

Along with diversity, an auspicious Augsburg goal is a commitment to making education in science and mathematics more accessible to students traditionally underrepresented in these fields. For example, the Augsburg sponsorship of the charter school for health-care sciences, which will open in September, is a significant step toward this goal, as it will put high school students on track for further study in their chosen fields. As the president of a technological university, broader-based science education is a goal which is important to me. More important, it is important to the country.

These two initiatives — diversity and science education — are crucial to the future of American competitiveness and prosperity. There is much discussion, currently, about the outsourcing of American jobs to other countries. Businesses are driven to this not only because of the availability of a less-expensive labor pool elsewhere, but also because of the growing number of highly educated workers in developing countries, among them India and China.

This has put our nation in an education race. To remain competitive, we must educate of all of our young people, and those who come to this country seeking opportunity. We need an unprecedented infusion of talent in myriad fields, and we need a national commitment to develop this talent, as other countries are doing at present. Talent is important for our country's global leadership, and our ability to serve others, whether in resolving global conflict, finding cures for diseases, or creating innovations to enhance the quality of life — everywhere.

This means that all of you have a unique opportunity to take your special places in the 21st century. Those of you in the health sciences, for example, know the critical need for educated and skilled people to assist a growing aging population, and for those who, through research, will find cures for major diseases. Whether in health care, research, business, education, or any field you choose, your talents are needed — and you must encourage others to pursue education to the highest levels possible.

The mission of Augsburg College is, in part, to "nurture leaders in service to the world." The world needs your service, your talents, your skills, and your engagement.

Almost every day we hear from Iraq of the casualties of war — among both Coalition troops in Iraq and innocent Iraqi civilians. But we also read of acts of heroism and sacrifice, and of the hard work being done to improve the lives of others in Iraq and elsewhere. Last month, the largest Army Reserve deployment from Minnesota in more than a decade left for Afghanistan, where they will clear roads of deadly landmines, and will take part in the rebuilding of schools, hospitals, roads, and other services in the ravaged country. Their mission is dangerous. But they did go, and they are determined to perform their duties well, and to help the people of Afghanistan.

I am sure that among you here today are family, friends, and loved ones of men and women serving in our Armed Forces around the world. Our thoughts are with them, as we reflect upon our gratitude for their service and their devotion to duty.

The world is complex, and these are troubling times, when there seems to be so little understanding, when there seems to be so much conflict, and evil.

Indeed, especially at this time, we all are called to make the world a better place. This reminds me of a quote from our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge — who often is best known for saying as little as possible — a quote surprisingly relevant today. He said: "Little progress can be made by merely attempting to repress what is evil; our great hope lies in developing what is good." Developing what is good is your job, and you are ready for it. You will always be ready if you give generously of yourselves and if you focus on setting important and lofty goals.

A simple message from my own father has always motivated me. He did not have my opportunities, and was not able to attend college — because of the times in which he lived, and because his own father died when he was in his early teens. So, my father went to work, and during his whole work life (beginning at age 14), he worked multiple jobs at the same time, so that his children could live another way.

He always would say to us: "Aim for the stars, so that you will reach the treetops, and at any rate, you will get off the ground." In other words, if you do not aim high, you will not go far. He also believed that it was important to help somebody else along the way.

I have taken my father's advice throughout my career, and woven it into a common thread with three basic strands. They are excellence, leadership, and community.

It was Aristotle who said, "Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." After all, if you are going to spend precious time doing something, why not do it well? And, when you do things well, it becomes your habit.

Secondly, leadership is a fundamental responsibility we all own. We own it because, whether or not we actually are out in front in a formal way, there are many, many who will follow. Think of the people you followed. Think of those who inspired you. You owe those who come after you the guidance of the best example. Leadership encompasses a clarity of vision, an understanding of the broader context, as well as the articulation to share that vision with others. It takes perseverance, and requires very hard work, but an effective leader sets an example by working hard, by being ethical, and by inspiring others to do the same.

Interestingly enough, I did not seek out leadership. My father always said, "The way to get your next best job is to do as well as you can in the one you are in." I was curious, I asked questions, I studied, and I worked hard. Leadership, it seems, sought me. I accepted it, because I saw leadership as an opportunity to multiply, several-fold, what I could do on my own.

The final strand is community. What I mean by community also might be termed inclusiveness. In the global community in which we live, inclusiveness is key, because it is the estrangement of individuals, or of groups, or of peoples, or of nations that is responsible for the divisiveness that haunts us — that makes the world a more dangerous place. Inclusiveness is hard. It requires more effort, more preparation, more study, more flexibility, more everything, but the payoff, in the end, is greater than the sum of its parts. Ironically, perhaps nations can learn from some businesses in this regard. Corporations today are some of the greatest proponents of inclusiveness, because they have learned that to function effectively in a global marketplace, inclusiveness is key to communication, to teamwork, to engagement, to understanding, to acceptance.

Optimism also is part of my father's legacy. As a result, I am determinedly optimistic about the future. Optimism and hope are contagious. Or, as Secretary of State Colin Powell said: "Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier." Indeed, it is a force for change, and it can move people to take positive action. I am optimistic because I was a child of the 1950s and 1960s — a child of transition. Before desegregation and the fruits of the Civil Rights struggle, radical discrimination — America's apartheid — was legally enforced in the land. What a person did — what a person aspired to — was not always one's choice to make. The menu was limited. It is not anymore. So, I am optimistic.

Commencements make me even more optimistic, because they celebrate achievement, new beginnings, and special gifts. As I look out at you graduates today, I know that each of you has gifts — and, while some are apparent to you now, others will emerge in the course of your lives. Lead with your gifts. They are the light you bring to the world. Matthew 24.48 says: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him (or her) shall be much required."

I believe the best education calls each of us to something higher, within ourselves, on our campuses, in our communities, in the world. With this as a goal, education never ends — it is lifelong, evolving, unfolding.

As you embark on the next chapters in your journeys, stay positive, and look forward, with a determination to be a force for change in the world. Do not be discouraged by cynicism, by prejudice, or by failure.

Lead with optimism. Discover — and, bring forth — the best in yourselves, and in those around you. Challenge yourselves to reach new heights of achievement, and of service to others. Find the joy, and the humor, in daily life. These will lift your spirits, and propel you forward.

So, give generously. Aim high. Lead with your gifts. Stay positive. Look forward. Do not be discouraged. Lead with optimism. Challenge yourselves. Find joy in everyday life. If you do all of these, I am confident that you can lead us to a future of peace, a future of greater safety, security, and health for all — a future in which hope prospers, and love and service guide us. Now is your time. Be that future, and you can change the world.

Again, congratulations and Godspeed. Enjoy your celebration.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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