Janet A Napolitano

Commencement Address at Northeastern University - May 2, 2014

Janet A Napolitano
May 02, 2014— Boston, Massachusetts
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Thank you Mr President, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, students, staff of Northeastern. Thank you to my fellow honorees, who I’ve had the pleasure to spend some time with over the last evening and today, and to family members, friends, and guests of the Northeastern community who have joined us here today. What a great Husky Nation you have.

Most importantly, thank you, and congratulations, to you, the Class of 2014. What an honor, and a privilege, to celebrate with you today. Give it up!

Now that you are on the verge of leaving Northeastern, this is the time to ask yourself a few serious questions:

Without Rebecca's, where will I buy chicken fingers?

Without Symphony Sushi, where will I take my dates?

Without Conor Larkin's, where will I meet up with my friends?

Now, I don’t know the answers to these fundamental questions.

What I do know is something about what you learned during your time at Northeastern. You learned how to think critically. You learned about new ideas, and whether or not they resonated with you. You met new people from all over the world - and you learned from them, too.

Many of you spent time in a co-op placement - one of the nationally recognized hallmarks of a Northeastern education. Some of you are about to start your first jobs with these very employers. Others are going to law school, medical school, graduate school. Some of you are simply taking a big step into the unknown, making up your future as you go along. And your parents hope you get a paycheck while you do it.

In whatever it is you decide to do, I want you to keep one thought it mind: it’s not how much you make in life, it’s whether you make a difference. It’s not how much you make, it’s whether YOU make a difference

If you listen to the national dialogue, you will find some the talking heads questioning the purpose of a college education. They think that the point of a university is, essentially, to operate as a jobs program.

My view is different, and I think yours is, too.

Yes, employment is an important objective. But employment must be meaningful - to you, to the people you love, and to the greater society in which we live. You don't go to college so you can punch a clock. You go to college so that you can be in a position to make a difference. That’s YOU can make a difference.

Maybe some of you saw a viral video of a slam poetry performance a few years ago. The poet’s name is Taylor Mali, asks he the question, "What does a teacher make?"

He answers it not with a salary number, but with a riff on the differences that teachers make in students' lives and in society, by educating the next generation, keeping the doors of the classroom open.

So...let’s ask ourselves, what difference does a Northeastern graduate make?

Northeastern graduates make sure wounded soldiers receive the best possible medical care. Northeastern graduates do it.

Northeastern graduates help ensure that the transportation system of Boston is as safe.

They make sure that our energy resources are preserved - and enhanced.

They make sure that those who come after them have access to the same educational opportunities that they did. And remember—it’s each generation’s obligation to help the next generation along.

The list can go on and on and on, because Northeastern has such a distinguished history. Northeastern graduates can make a difference—you are in a position to make a difference. And now it is your turn.

...Whether your first paycheck comes from Goldman Sachs, or from a graduate student fellowship...

...the point is making a difference, and that is why those of us on the stage are so excited to be here with you.

Now, commencement speeches are hard to write. Maybe someday you’ll have to write one. They’re really tough. You want to get your diplomas, you want to go to lunch, you want to get an aspirin. I know that. So I could give you lots of advice, but I’m going to narrow it down to one point. And that is: Beware the tyranny of the straight line.

Think about what you see when you're walking in Back Bay in late spring, looking out at the Charles. Or looking out over Boston Harbor in the summer.

What you see are lots of sailboats. And if you watch them skimming the whitecaps, you will notice something important. Sailboats do not glide through the water in a straight line. They tack. They zigzag from here to there. And that’s how they move forward.

In 2064, when you’re wearing a golden robe and you return to Northeastern for your 50th reunion, my hope for you is that you will look back at the decades that have passed and see the twists and turns - the tacking - that are the hallmark of a well-lived life.

I walked across my own undergraduate commencement stage at Santa Clara University in California in…ah…well, a number of years ago. I had no idea of the future that lay before me. I didn’t have a job, I hadn’t decided to go to graduate school. I knew I wanted to do something in public service—somehow, somewhere—but the journey was just beginning. The journey has taken me in places no-one would have identified then. They would not have identified that I would go to law school and move to Arizona, a state where I had never lived. They would not have identified that I would be in private law practice, but that President Clinton would ask me to be a United States attorney in Arizona. They would not have identified that I would decide myself to take the biggest risk, and that is to run for political office myself, and I hope some of you do because I think you can do it better.

From attorney general, to governor—two terms, well, one and a half—and then service in President Obama's Cabinet, and then as president of the largest research university in the country and perhaps the world—the University of California. Talk about zigging and zagging. That’s a zig, and a zag, and a zig back. But the point is, always moving forward, and always thinking about not just yourself but the difference you make for your family, friends, for your community, for the society in which you live.

I would say that it has been an exhilarating ride. And I would not have traded it for all the foresight and predictability in the world.

Watch for the tyranny of the straight line.

Stay alert to the opportunities - especially the unexpected ones - that will move you forward. After all, you may notice, those of you who sail, that when a sailboat tries to go straight, it's often caught in irons, and it slows to a stop.

You want to move forward. You want to make a difference.

I’d like to close with a final story, and I selected one about one of Boston's favorite sons.

A little more than 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy first articulated the idea behind the Peace Corps, and he did it on a visit to a university campus. It wasn't this university - it was Michigan - and Kennedy was not yet the president. In fact, it was three weeks before the 1960 presidential election. He had just arrived in Ann Arbor. It was 2:00 in the morning. He was greeted by 5,000 students. Students are often up at 2:00 a.m. in the morning.

These students were just like you—bright, energized, ready to go, ready to take on the world.

Kennedy looked those at students and he asked them this: "How many of you are willing to contribute?" How many of you, he asked, are willing to contribute part of your life to this country? To work as doctors overseas? To travel the world for years in the Foreign Service?

And then Kennedy took a pause. And he said, "This college, this university, is not maintained by its alumni, by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose."

I think if you were to ask the leadership and alumni of Northeastern, or more importantly, your own parents or family, what it is that they dream for you, they would say the same thing. There is a great purpose.

There is a greater purpose to why you are gathered here today, poised to take on the world - just as those Michigan students stood poised to serve 50 years ago.

They would say, make a difference. And they would say, don’t be afraid of the zigs and the zags that will take your sailboat further.

I’m looking at you right now. You look good. And I ought to tell you—I know something about this university and I know the kind of education that you have received. It’s a world-class education. And I predict, in 50 years, there will be a long list of the differences you have made for those in your family, your community, your nation, and around the globe.

Northeastern graduates of 2014: Go forth, make a difference. I expect nothing less.

Thank you very much.

Speech from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yZ3FLVdWDI.