Thank you. Thank you very much, President Leath, distinguished graduates, family members and guests. Thank you for inviting me to be here today. I mentioned earlier to Dr. Leath that it is an honor. Thank you, Dr. Leath.
Twenty-five years ago, I was preparing for the spring semester at Iowa State University, and in that semester I was going to graduate. At that point if you’d have told me, “Joni, in 25 years you will delivering the commencement address at Iowa State University,” I probably would’ve laughed. If they said, “Joni, you will be serving in the United States Senate,” I probably would’ve laughed. I want you to remember that as we go through today’s discussion. But first I was to congratulate you and thank you for having me here today.
So for those of you that I have not had the opportunity or honor to meet, I am Joni Ernst and I have the honor of representing you and the great state of Iowa in the United States Senate. And like you, I am proud to be an alumnus. And I make it known just about everywhere I go—I am an Iowa State graduate. While you may not realize it at this moment, you will leave here and go out into the world and accomplish great things. But the friendships you’ve made and the lessons you have learned at Iowa State will never leave you.
Growing up, my family owned and operated a very small farm in Montgomery County where we raised hogs, we raised corn and soybeans. That’s where I live today. It was a very simple life, the life I experienced growing up on the farm. We didn’t have much but we worked hard for all that we did have, and we really leaned heavily upon our neighbors and our friends for support.
There were three children in my family. I had an older sister and a younger brother. My older sister, I looked up to here a lot and I wanted to be just like her. So when it came time for her to go off to college—she was a year ahead of me in high school—she came to Iowa State University. Wanting to be like my sister, I decided Iowa State University is the place for me too.
She went off to Iowa State and I soon followed and ended up here in Ames, Iowa. It was here that—after living in my sister’s shadow for many years throughout school. We had the same teachers back in Stanton, Iowa. Matter of fact they called me “Julie,” my teachers did. That was my sister’s name. But when I got to Iowa State University it was here that I learned that I could be a leader, I could develop my own personality, and I could be my own person. So this is where I truly learned to lead.
In the summer between my freshmen and sophomore year here at Iowa State University, I had the great opportunity to attend an agricultural exchange in Ukraine, and that’s while it was still a part of the Soviet Union. Well in the evening when the community members in that collective fame came together, we would sit down, and I anticipated that we would talk about agriculture, and the difference between Iowa agriculture and the Ukrainian collective farming—and that is not what we talked about at all. What we talked about when we came together in the evenings, the questions the Ukrainians asked us, they asked us, “What it was like to be an American?” They asked us, “What is it like to be free?”
Those were things that they didn’t experience in the Soviet Union at that time, and that made a deep impression on me. They wanted to know what it was like to travel anywhere they wanted without asking someone’s permission. They wanted to pick up a phone and know what it was to make a phone call. They didn’t know what it was like to have a refrigerator—they didn’t have that. My family didn’t have a car, they didn’t have running water, but no matter how poor many of our families were in the area I grew up in we had those things, and we took them for granted.
I realized after that trip not only how grateful I was for the many freedoms that I myself took for granted every day, but I discovered that I needed to do my part in defending those freedoms and I decided to serve my nation. So I took a risk. I went outside my comfort bubble, and I joined Army ROTC here at Iowa State University. Which ultimately lead me to my military career in the Army Reserves in the Iowa Army National Guard and then a career in public service.
There is no doubt that the experiences I had while at this institution had a profound impact on the person that I am today. As you embark on your journey, I would like the share the principles or the pillars that helped make me successful and the things that I strive for. These are my four pillars.
The first one, the first pillar, is leadership. While in Army ROTC I saw the importance of being someone that would provide steady support to others and someone who my colleagues could turn to when they were in need and in uncertain situations. Leadership isn’t earned just because you have a fancy title and can tell others what to do—that’s being someone in authority. Folks say, “Joni, you’re a United States Senator, you were a battalion commander, you’re a leader.” And I push back on them and I say, “Those titles are not what make people leaders.”
Being a leader is when you inspire other people to follow you. Follow you towards a common goal-a common goal or objective. That’s what a leader is, not just carrying a fancy title. It’s encouraging those who look to you for direction and guiding them on the best path forward. That’s what a leader is.
A leader in its truest sense is someone like my friend Kim Reynolds who is graduating here today. I don’t know how she does it—I don’t- she’s a mom, she’s a grandma, and she also helps run our state, the great state of Iowa as our Lieutenant Governor. And now will soon become our first female governor. Kim, you are an inspiration to me, and you are an inspiration to so many other people. Thank you for being a tremendous leader.
No matter how big the responsibility or how small, today I am challenging all of you to be leaders not just a person in authority but be a leader.
The second pillar is assuming prudent risks. Yes, this means taking risks, but doing so with the thought of your future in mind. As you start this next chapter of your life whether it is continuing your education, finding a job, serving your country, or whatever your next step is—assuming prudent risk is a valuable tool in preparing yourself for what is ahead. Know your challenges. Know your opportunities. Know the good things, and of course know the bad. Weigh those out and make a good decision based on prudent risk. In life you may not always be able to avoid risk, but I challenge you to welcome it and understand it with good intentions.
The third pillar is service to your community and service to your country. Through ISU Army ROTC I found a sense of duty to my country, one that would stay with me for over 23 years of my military career. But having been raised in an agricultural heavy state and in an area where neighbors often lent a helping hand, I also knew the value and importance of service to my own community.
While completing my undergraduate degree here at Iowa State, I volunteered at a women’s shelter—a safe house for battered and abused women and their children right here in this community. At all hours of the day and night I would be called upon to go to different situations and to just pick women up or their children and to just spend time with them at the shelter. Taking them to a safe place, helping them avoid the trauma that they were enduring in their own homes.
Their stories had such a profound impact on my own life and I realized how much bigger the world was than just my own. At some point our community members my need a helping hand and as a society it is up to us to extend one and help moving them forward. The feeling in your gut, that sense of responsibility to your community or our nation, and to one another must be acted on. I challenge you to respond to that call of duty to your neighbors and to your nation in plentiful times and in times of need.
This leads me to my final and fourth pillar, and that is an attitude of gratefulness. Folks, we can’t get far in life without someone to stand behind us and support us. I want you to take a look around this coliseum. Just take a look. We’ve got friends, we’ve got family members, you’ve got coworkers—they’re all here for you today. They deserve your unending gratitude because without their support and encouragement you wouldn’t be sitting there in your cap and gown.
I challenge you to be grateful each and every day for the blessings bestowed upon you, and especially for those who make those blessings possible.
I hope you will find inspiration and guidance within these four pillars as I have for many years. They are the foundation for which my risks and my achievements have been built upon. For you on this day of a new beginning, I hope you will build upon these pillars as well. For if you do, your future will certainly be full of opportunity.
Class of 2016, you are the future or our great country. I implore each of you to rise up and assume risk, lead, serve your community and your country, and illustrate an attitude of gratefulness. I wish you the very best in your future endeavors and look forward to seeing the many accomplishments of Iowa’s next generation of leaders.
Thank you again, Dr. Leath and to all of you graduates sitting before me for allowing me to celebrate with you today. Congratulations to you, Iowa State University Class of 2016!
God bless you. Thank you.