Janet A Napolitano

Commencement Speech at Emory University - May 9, 2011

Janet A Napolitano
May 09, 2011— Atlanta, Georgia
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Thank you very much, President Wagner, and it is a delight to be here at Emory.

Congratulations to the Class of 2011!

Give it up!

Let me echo what’s been said before.

What you are receiving today is the commemoration of a great accomplishment

You should be proud of what you have achieved. Your finals are behind you. Class day is over. It took a lot of hard work. It took a lot of everybody’s pizza and Diet Coke. I’m sure no-one tried to sneak in a Pepsi on this campus. It took a lot of support and encouragement, so please take a moment, graduates, to thank your family and your friends who helped you along the way. Give it up for them.

Now, commencements like this are always a treat.

I am constantly amazed and inspired by the energy on a university campus at graduation time. Now, I’ve been speaking at colleges and universities throughout the year, talking about the kinds of security challenges our nation faces, and how we will surmount these challenges. And one way we are going to do it is with the energy, the intellect, and the creativity of young leaders like you. And this rings particularly true as Emory celebrates its 175th anniversary. What a special place you are receiving a degree from.

Across two centuries, this university has challenged the minds and spirits of its students. It has broadened our collective understanding of the world around us.

I don’t have to tell you that Emory students are among the most accomplished and engaged of any students in the country, and this university ranks amongst our nation’s finest. Now, I don’t have to tell you that, but they asked me to speak for a few minutes, so I will. You lead the nation in areas such as HIV research, neuroscience, the development of new medicines and vaccines. You lead in the classroom and in the laboratory. But also in community engagement and environmental innovation.

That’s why you won the highly competitive Presidential Award for General Community Service, and boast one of the most environmentally sustainable campuses in the United States. Now yeah, that’s a great thing.

And let’s not forget your athletic prowess.

Auburn may have gone undefeated this year, but that certainly cannot match your 175 years without a single defeat on the football field. That’s what happens when you don’t have a football team.

Now, I know for many of us, it’s probably hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a student here 175 years ago. When Emory was founded, Charles Darwin was still sailing aboard the HMS Beagle, working on his theory of evolution. The Battle of the Alamo was being waged in Texas. Martin Van Buren had defeated William Henry Harrison to become the 8th president of the United States. And Dooley, the somewhat interesting skeletal figure famous on this campus, was probably still roaming the Earth with his vital organs intact.

Now, I think I need to mention that since I know that Dooley sometimes merits his own bodyguards, I thought I should let you know that the Secret Service is part of my department, and we are on you all the time. Just telling you.

Of course, in those early days, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no CNN. The railroad and the telegraph were still a few years off, and it could take weeks, even months, for news to arrive from around the world. If you wanted to chat with your friends, you actually had to go see them. You actually had to leave your dorm room and go visit with them.

Life was much tougher back then. And the rate of change and the kinds of change we’ve seen have only escalated during my own lifetime.

Now, the parents in this audience—and I think we’re all about the same age—we remember when we were young that there were only a few channels on the television. And you had to get up and change the channel by hand. Now someone loses the remote control, it is a major crisis until it is found again. We prepared our term papers on typewriters. We used a slide rule. And we walked around with punch cards to program computers using Fortran. Our first cars were Ford Pintos. We occasionally wore bell bottoms and Nehru jackets. Our first cell phones looked like Walkie-Talkies.

I mention these things because today, we live in a world where change is a certainty, and where the pace of that change is growing ever faster.

Past generations really could not bank on the fact that the world would be all that different 4 or 40 or 100 years in the future. But we can, and this gives us greater opportunities to be sure, but greater risks as well.

Your challenge, as graduates, will be to figure out how to take advantage of the dynamism of today’s world and use your unique skills to make it better. To do this, you will have to maintain your equilibrium, your sense of self, in some topsy-turvy conditions.

Just look at the four years since you were freshmen, 2007. Our economic landscape has changed dramatically, making your job searches much different from those of the seniors who graduated four years ago.

During this time, we’ve had an historic presidential election in which the participation of your generation was a major part of history. And across the world, we’ve seen major developments, such as the rise of China and India, and the recent democratic movements in countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

But apart from just noting such change, it’s also important for us to remember that the rate of change in our world fulfills a great role. It challenges us, but it also empowers us to shape the world according to how we envision it. And it can open doors that society has never before even imagined.

Now, take Twitter, for example. Twitter did not even exist until 2006, when the seniors graduating today were in high school. Now it is ubiquitous. You’re probably tweeting during my speech, because you have an app for Twitter on your smartphone. In 2006, we didn’t have an app for that. We didn’t have an app for anything.

Changes in social media and the opportunities they have created have touched us all. Including, for example, at the Department of Homeland Security. For example, today we are leveraging social media tools. Like FEMA, which has a mobile website to enable victims of disasters, including survivors of the recent tornadoes right here in Georgia and across Alabama, Mississippi, the entire Southeast. It enables them to register for FEMA assistance right from their smartphone. That’s just one of the many examples we could cite.

So all of you face this challenge to seize that opportunity of change, even though all of you will go on to do many different things. For some of you, the next four years of change will mean moving very far way, and doing things you never thought you would do, such as waking up before 10:00 in the morning. You know of which I speak.

My own career has taken me from law school and legal practice to elective office, and today to heading a massive government agency with more than 230,000 employees.

That’s no exact format for that, but all along I’ve had a strong interest in community service and public service, and that has never waned. And I hope that all you, no matter where your careers take you, will give thought to how your unique talents can help serve the common good. There are always opportunities for people who are doctors or lawyers to do the important work of giving back to their communities. But there are also needs for people with all kinds of talents to participate and to volunteer.

It is critical that we have people willing to give their time to do things like help children learn, or, as we’ve seen across the South in recent weeks, to help with organizations like the Red Cross to assist after a disaster. This points out the fact that your communities need you, and we also need you in government itself. We need our best and brightest graduations working on today’s challenges. And there are many, from preventing the spread of pandemic disease to countering the ever-evolving threats of terrorism, to reducing the impact of major disasters, to ensuring a safe and secure cyberspace.

We also need more experts in science or business or engineering—whatever your field—involved in policymaking. We need a diversity of talent, so that, for example, when a complex disaster occurs like last year’s BP oil spill, we can immediately marshal biologists, oceanologists, physicists, engineers and a myriad of others to deal with all of the issues presented.

My hope is that someday we will come to see public service as a common, even standard, part of any career path, whether in the private sector, in academia, or elsewhere. There shouldn’t be high walls between public service and other fields. It should be the norm for people from outside the government to work inside the government to help solve our society’s pressing problems. So no matter what career path you begin on, you should be able to spend a few years of your adult lives in government applying your particular talents and expertise to a public challenge. This is the vision of public service we are trying to promote, and that will need your generation to move forward.

So as you embark on the next phases of your lives, I hope some of you will consider spending some time in government, in public service, even though at times it may seem like in our government, we can’t even agree about the source of our own disagreements.

But if you would permit me to close with one last piece of advice: do not fall for a cynical view. Democracy in a big country like ours has always been noisy. It’s always been contentious. If you think attack ads are bad today, even the most revered figures in our history dealt with the rough nature of democracy, precisely because the stakes are so high and the issues are so important.

When John Adams ran for president in the election of 1800, he was called, “querulous,” “bald,” “blind,” “crippled” and ”toothless.” And for the record, his allies shoot back that if Thomas Jefferson were elected “the soil would be soaked in blood and the nation black with crimes.” That was in 1800. Now, thankfully, it didn’t exactly work out that way.

And the point is that you should be afraid to dive in. Emory has prepared you well for all of the challenges of a vibrant and contentious democracy.

Indeed, as many of you know, on one of the pillars of the beautiful gate here on campus, there are two inscriptions. The quotes are attributed to Atticus Green Haygood, who graduated from Emory College in 1859 and served as president of Emory from 1875 to 1884. The first inscription says, “Nothing praises or pleases God like service.” And the second says, “Let us stand by what is good and try to make it better.”

To me, these quotes are as timely now as they were then. Now it is your turn to take what you find in the world and make it better, and to commence this next exciting phase of your lives.

You will find that Emory has prepared you with more than academic knowledge. This university has also prepared you in ways that you didn’t necessary expect, and that will only reveal themselves over time. The value of an Emory education cannot be measured in dollars alone. It must be measured in having the critical thinking skills that our ever-changing society demands.

So…you have that education. You are about to be receiving your degrees. Take that knowledge and take that Emory inspiration and help us apply it to the community, to the common good.

I wish all of you the best in whatever the future holds. I wish all of you the best of luck, smooth winds and fair sailing.

Thank you for having me with you today. Give it up to the Class of 2011!

Emory University. "Janet Napolitano Emory University Commencement Address 2011." YouTube video, 19:17. May 10, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-clZWc1q_A