Richard Stockton College Commencement Speech

5/9/2005

Good morning Stockton graduates of the Class of 2005!
It is truly a pleasure to join you on this happy and pivotal day in your lives.

Thank you President Saatkamp for that warm introduction and for the invitation to present this commencement address.  I’d also like to thank the Board of Trustees, the distinguished faculty, staff, honored guests, graduates, and families for welcoming me to campus today.

Congratulations to Andrew Buetel, your valedictorian, on your thoughtful speech.

I’ve been looking forward to delivering this year’s commencement address and providing the class of 2005 the opportunity to get a solid fifteen or twenty minutes of sleep.
As the cartoonist Garry Trudeau once observed: “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that matriculating college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.”

I’ll try to invalidate that proposition but I fear this may be fundamental law of nature. We’ll see…

I’m especially pleased to address this year’s seniors. We have a lot in common  —
I too am looking for a new job.

In all seriousness, it’s a great honor to share this day with you.  Collectively, you pulled all-nighters and worked part-time jobs.  You ate cold pizza, and you drank warm beer.  You studied Classical Greek and some participated in Greek life.  You battled sleep and occasionally even made it to your 8 o’clock classes.  You found time for workouts and rehearsals, games and plays, chemistry labs and political protests.
Your energy, your hopes, and your hard work have made Stockton College a thriving and vibrant place to live, to learn, and to grow.

Today, Stockton College is truly a higher education institution recognized for its excellence it is a national asset.

Some of you earned straight A’s.  Others…Well, let’s just say you didn’t get elected to Phi Beta Kappa.  But all of you earned the right to walk across this stage today.

Along the way, all of you have made your families proud. And you’ve made Stockton College proud. To all of you new graduates, congratulations on a job well done.

Now, let me take a moment to acknowledge the families of the class of 2005, the people here today who are smiling the most.  Without your sacrifices and support, this moment would not be possible.  From reading “Green Eggs and Ham” for the fiftieth time to double-knotting shoelaces to organizing SAT study groups — you made it happen.  After more than twenty years of holding your breath, Mom and Dad can finally breathe a sigh of relief.  The kid is finally paid for.

So to the parents and families, you deserve a warm round of applause.

But today is about the graduates who now leave this outstanding liberal arts college and who, for decades into the future, will shape the life and character of our neighborhoods, New Jersey, and our nation.

The diploma you receive today comes after more than a decade and a half of schooling. Take a moment, let it all sink in.

I think your parents and mentors will agree: rarely in life are things wrapped up as neatly as they are today.  It’s not often that your achievement is memorialized on parchment or tied up in a bow.  That may be why people get their diplomas framed; it’s one of the few moments in our lives when success can be reduced to a single piece of paper.
After college, there are fewer moments of official acknowledgement for your aspirations, little certification of your successes, and no diploma for your achievements.

As they years unfold, your own values will be your North Star.  Or to make that expression a little more current your values will be your Mapquest.

In the future, no one will be making sure that you establish meaningful connections with your community and the wider world.  And no one will be peering over your shoulder to ensure that you hold to high standards or search for excellence.  In the future, your grader will most importantly be you.  And if you make the grade, sometimes, only you will know.

Success, particularly in those areas that matter most, will be defined by the standards you set for yourself not those imposed by others.  Not even those suggested in a commencement speech.

The best I can offer are some thoughts drawn from my own experience.

In 1969, I was sitting where you are sitting today.  Not literally of course; Stockton College wasn’t yet built.  But I was receiving my college diploma, listening to the brilliant New York Times Columnist James Reston, and honestly, knowing I didn’t have a clue of what life had in store for me.

In the years since, I know I have been incredibly blessed.  I have lived the American Dream.  I’ve raised three terrific children.  I started at the ground floor of a great American company, worked my way to the top, and retired as its CEO.

And then five years ago, I was elected by the people of New Jersey to serve them in the United States Senate.  I was the 1,965th United States Senator of this great nation to be sworn into that honorable body.

To say the least, the last 36 years have been surprising to me, full of chance, opportunity, and setbacks. My years have been filled with moments of great satisfaction, challenge, and personal fulfillment.

Graduates you too have an exciting adventure in the days and years before you.
Embrace it and keep your perspective. Recognize your blessings.

For me, in both my business life and in public service, one of the most important things I’ve learned through all of this is that no one succeeds alone.

It may surprise some of you to hear that from a politician. The political scientist David Mayhew made his name by arguing that elected officials get ahead by claiming sole credit for things that they didn’t do, or at least didn’t do on their own.

From my perspective, I can’t do that because I know that others deservedly share the credit for what I claim as my success.  I’ve worked hard; I feel I have brought something to the table and I’ve had the opportunity to make a difference.  But I also have been lucky in the best sense of the word. I benefited from terrific public schools, grew up with the strength and encouragement of my family and community, and profited from the wisdom of able mentors, teachers, and colleagues like those here at Stockton.

Each of us, at each stage of life, owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to a community of individuals and institutions that have paved the paths of our journey.

During the next few weeks, make sure you take a moment to thank those who led the way for you and made your accomplishments possible your professors, your friends, and, most importantly, your family.

But don’t let it stop there.  It’s not enough to express your gratitude in words, no matter how heartfelt.  And while flowers might be a nice touch, that’s not what this speech is about.

Trying to thank all who helped bring you to this day isn’t humanly possible.  Some are far away from here, while others have long since passed away. They include the long brave lines of freedom marchers who broke down the barriers of segregation and sexual discrimination.  Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Margaret Sanger.  And so many who enlisted with them whose individual names you may never know, but whose acts of courage have made a profound impact on our society and your lives.

And this goes on in different ways even today with citizens who stand up for our civil liberties our free press, our religious freedoms, and the right of free speech. And think of the citizen soldiers who today serve and sacrifice in far away lands.

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, I traveled to Iraq and met with young Americans and brave New Jerseyans many of them no older than you who are doing their best to do what’s right in the most difficult and deadly of circumstances.   All for us.  All with relative anonymity.

Instead of a gesture, the way to honor the contributions of those who have changed our country and those who defend it contributions often made at great personal risk is to ask what you can do in all acts large and small to make better the life of your world.

I subscribe to the timeless imperative: for those to whom much is given, much is expected.
I hope you will be subscribers as well.

Each of us has been blessed to live in the United States in this time and place. As a consequence, each of us has a responsibility to the community and the common good. We feel this instinctively when we see and respond to epic disasters like the tsunami or the plight of a single child in a small town whose family cannot afford the cost of a life-saving operation.

Sometimes the notion of American individualism may appear to conflict with other distinctly democratic American values like justice and equality.  But in the end, the conflict has been most often resolved in favor of what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Because from the beginning, America has been not about individuals acting alone and only for themselves, but choosing to come together to form a more perfect union, a commonwealth of ideals that unite us, and progress not just for some, but for all.

Individual allegiance to shared purpose is what makes any enterprise successful a company, a movement for social change, or a country.

In the last few years, we have been inundated with stories of those who turned aside from basic obligations to community and to justice in corporations from Enron to WorldCom.  And in our own state, we’ve seen how the costs of political corruption have effectively levied a tax against working families struggling to afford the costs of living – of buying a home and raising a family here in New Jersey.

Our state government needs to be reformed; it must serve our citizens, not exploit them.  It must set and meet high standards of honesty and strive to advance prosperity and fairness for all.

But government by itself cannot alone bring justice or mandate the character of its people.

It can, however, be an expression of our values; it can be an instrument of our purpose.  But no political regime can be a substitute for personal commitment.

As Hubert Humphrey once said: “The impersonal hand of government can never replace the helping hand of a neighbor.”  Law can and must end discrimination, enforce equality, widen opportunity, and provide a social safety net.  But no law can guarantee the decency of each person or the connectedness of all.

Instead, we as individuals must come to terms with our own capacity and responsibility to make a difference.  President Bush has called for an “ownership society.”  I, too, believe in an “ownership society.” But for me, that means a society where people take ownership of their lives and their communities take ownership of their responsibilities as a society.
And it means a society where people balance their personal achievement with their obligations to the greater community good.

Striking that balance is a deeply personal choice.  As I noted, I’ve experienced public and private life, and I’ve found joy in both.

The world is filled with wonderful opportunities to succeed and to contribute.  For some, civic participation will take the form of volunteerism or philanthropy.  For others, the route will be issue advocacy or politics.

Public service should be for all, even those in private life and public service should be informed by a simple truth: failure is a lonely undertaking, while success is a shared endeavor.

The more we realize that our individual success or failure is linked inextricably with the condition and aspirations of others, the more likely we are to triumph over the array of challenges facing us in our own cities and states, and in the nation and the world.

Before my two days in Iraq, I visited Sudanese refugees in Chad on the border of Darfur, Sudan and saw the evil face of genocide.  I witnessed the unspeakable suffering inflicted on millions with civilians in the Western Sudan subjected to a coordinated campaign of rape, murder, and displacement sponsored by their own government.

Even today, few people can find Darfur on a map.  I admit I had never heard of it before this horror unfolded.  That’s something I know the student activists in Stockton’s chapter of Students Taking Action Now for Darfur (S.T.A.N.D.) have been working to change.  And I truly applaud those efforts. Your voices are being heard in Washington.

If we could save the sick and starving children I met in the refugee camps, I know we would.  But the truth is there are so many maybe two million children and adults there whose pain should touch our conscience and our hearts every day.
In fact, people’s lack of knowledge about Darfur is not the great cause of our inaction; the cause is a form of voluntary paralysis, a lack of urgency in the corridors of power in Washington and in Africa.  But I believe, as students here do, that citizens can stand together and demand a different course.

I’m not here to ask you to dedicate yourself to Africa or foreign policy.  Bono delivered that commencement speech last year at the University of Pennsylvania.  And, if I’ve learned one thing in the last five years or so as a politician, it is that a politician should never, absolutely never, try to compete with a rock star.

But I am here to say that when confronted with a Darfur, none of us can be silent.

I am here to oppose the bystander syndrome the insidious social disorder where people tune out their surroundings and act like spectators in their own communities and their own world.  And it is not just in Africa, but in all public endeavors, that we need people determined to overcome defeatism and the easy helplessness of negativity the sense that there is nothing that can be done for our schools, or our cities, or attacking global warming.

While individual and collective action doesn’t guarantee success, indifference and inaction does guarantee failure.

What is happening in Darfur today is one of the most daunting and least addressed tragedies existing in the world today.  But progress is possible even there.  Just before I left for Sudan, Senator Sam Brownback and I managed to get the Senate to endorse a series of bipartisan initiatives aimed at quelling the violence and ending the genocide.  Only time will tell if these measures coupled with the brave and selfless work being done by thousands of aid workers will be successful, but there are reasons for hope if we as a people, a country, and an international community are prepared to help.

And if we can move forward in Darfur, we will prove that we as a society can meet and master other great challenges, here at home and far from home.
As Margaret Meade wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Forty years ago, America’s streets resounded with the peaceful promise:  “We shall overcome.”

Then as now, this depends on individuals realizing that they have a personal stake in the future of their community and the tools to achieve meaningful change.  That change will come through community service, public engagement, and political participation. And it will start on our college campuses, in our neighborhoods, in our houses of worship, at local boys and girls clubs and most importantly at the ballot box.

You will decide how to lead your lives; you will choose how to serve or contribute.  That’s the advantage of the freedom we enjoy here in America.  But on this joyous occasion a day when your success will be acknowledged again and again I hope you will hold on to the idea that no one in this world achieves anything alone.

In life, we need to invest ourselves to repay all those people who opened the way for us.  And the only way I know to do that is by helping others find America’s promise and stand up for our shared hopes and humanity.

Thank you once again for welcoming me to campus and for listening.  Have a wonderful day and after the ceremony, a great party. May you be blessed with good fortune in your life’s endeavors.  God bless you, and God bless America.