Betty McCollum

Commencement Address at University of Minnesota CFANS - May 18, 2013

Betty McCollum
May 18, 2013— Saint Paul, Minnesota
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Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Dr. Levine, Dr. Bell, Regent Devine, President Bruininks, University faculty members, distinguished guests, parents, family members, and friends – I am thrilled to be here honoring the CFANS graduating class of 2013.

Graduates – congratulations! You have done it!

Tonight is a time for celebration, you’ve all earned it. Graduating from college is a milestone you will always remember. Your parents will always remember this moment as well, likely with a great sense of relief.

Tonight your college career ends. Tomorrow, diploma in hand, a new reality begins. Which translates into – it is time to find a job.

You don’t have to start looking tomorrow. Take the weekend off, but Monday the job search continues.

It is nice to be in Minneapolis this evening, but as the congresswoman from Minnesota’s Fourth District, I know this great University has prepared you well because you were educated in St. Paul.

You have earned a degree from a college with a global reputation for expertise and a commitment to taking on the real life challenges facing our world. The College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources is truly a Minnesota treasure and a national gem.

Graduates, the investment you have made in time, energy, and expense is significant.

Getting a college degree is vitally important to maximizing future opportunities, but it is also a tremendous sacrifice. I recognize that, which makes your career choices all the more important because your knowledge, your skills, your energy and passion are needed.

We need you in government service, in research labs, in the private and non-profit sectors, and we need you in farm fields and forests and in far-away places contributing your talents.

But remember, even with this diploma the learning never ends. In the years to come you will pursue your careers, at some point you may get married and become parents, and at times you will feel like you are navigating life’s challenges flying by the seats of your pants. And, sometimes you will be. That is how life goes. But always keep learning, keep exploring, and keep seeking answers.

Hopefully it will be the intellectual foundation – the core knowledge and experiences –that you have gained here at the U of M that will help you learn and adapt and make your way forward.

Now, for the record, a number of my family members have graduated from the St. Paul Campus. We have a dietician and two foresters in our family. All three love their career choices and they all fondly reflect upon their time on the St. Paul Campus. One of the foresters just had twins which is truly testing the outer limits of what she learned at CFANS.

Soon you will be starting new jobs. You may be moving to new cities. It’s like you are starting new lives. What are you going to do with this new life of yours? What’s are you going to contribute? What are you going to be a part of?

You could try and save the world, but how about setting a more modest goal … how about just working to make progress, even if it’s slow and incremental?

I know concept of progress in and of itself may not be a sufficiently lofty goal for graduates of CFANS.

Most of you have likely taken classes in Borlaug Hall and quite possibly have even been touched by Norman Borlaug’s spirit.

Striving for mere progress may seem like setting the bar too low. This is especially when a former university student who used to wander your campus went on to become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and is credited with saving over a billion lives with his agriculture research.

If anyone here tonight aspires to matching the Borlaug legacy, please, go for it! You have our support.

But for the rest of us, working for progress is a worthwhile goal. Striving to make progress is why we get up in the morning. It is what gives our lives meaning.

Progress happens when we grow as individuals. Progress happens when people work together. It happens when citizens, scientists, companies, faith communities, educators, you and I – when we come together as a family, a community, or a country to focus on a problem, discuss it, debate it, and decide upon a course of action – and then act!

Progress happens when facts and data and sound science are allowed to guide the path forward.

Progress happens when we allow all voices into the discussion, to share ownership in the outcome, not just the loudest voice or the most privileged.

This is how we shape the future.

But progress, at its most basic level, is also the joyful simplicity of a toddler learning to walk or a child learning to read.

For a moment, I would like you all to think back in time, back to the year 1990. For the parents and older adults with us that’s not too hard to do. For our distinguished graduates it is likely more difficult since most of you were just babies or maybe not even born yet.

It was only 23 years ago. Did the Internet even exist then?

It was a very different time. I remember we actually had to go to a video store to rent a VHS movie. There was no Netflix.

In 1990, if a person was diagnosed with AIDS it too often resulted in death. Today, we have anti-retroviral drugs and HIV infected people in even the poorest countries of the world are alive. That is progress.

In 1990, climate change was a theory, a hypothesis about the consequences of uncontrolled carbon emissions. Here in Minnesota we’ve just had a snow storm and a near 100 degree day only weeks apart. And, this week scientists reported that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached a concentration not seen on earth for 3 million years. Climate change is real and it is progressing.

In 1990, invasive species like Asian Carp or the emerald ash borer were unknown to most Minnesotans. Today, they are threatening Minnesota’s lakes and forests with destructive environmental and economic consequences.

In 1990, more than 12 million children under the age of five in poor countries around the world died needlessly from preventable disease and illnesses. Today, preventable deaths have reduced by more than five million a year. Imagine, five million children are alive this year because of advancements in basic nutrition, immunizations, and a commitment by the global community – including the U.S. taxpayers – to provide the resources to save lives. That is progress.

In 1990, gay rights were whispered about by supporters and ignored or condemned by the vast majority. Yet, this week, gay and lesbian Minnesotans have achieved marriage equality under the law in our state. That is progress.

The many, many successes and the challenges that have evolved over the course of your lives – the past twenty-plus years – are the measure of our collective progress, our failures, and our lucky breaks – as individuals and as a society.

These benefits and the burdens belong to all of us. Progress is possible on issues big and small when motivated individuals, organizations, governments, leaders, followers and doers come together to act. It is courage, curiosity, and collective determination that makes change happen, that allows our most difficult problems to be overcome.

Each and every one of you here tonight will make enormous contributions over the coming decades. For your families, your communities, your employers, to our country and likely for people far beyond our borders, you will make a difference.

You are graduating from one of the elite public universities in this county and you know that your world is not just St. Paul or Minneapolis, not just Minnesota or the Midwest. Your world is the entire world and your generation will lead an interconnected, interdependent global network that will transcend culture, language and geography.

The world is literally at your fingertips which means tremendous opportunities for progress – from the mundane to the miraculous – are within reach.

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