Jeanne Shaheen

Keene State College Commencement Address - May 11, 2013

Jeanne Shaheen
May 11, 2013— Keene, New Hampshire
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Remarks as prepared for delivery.

President Kahn, members of the faculty, honored graduates, family and friends. I am so pleased to be here with all of you today to celebrate the accomplishments of the class of 2013. Congratulations to all of the graduates.

You all worked very hard to get to this day and you should be very proud of what you've accomplished. But no great accomplishment is achieved alone. Your friends, your families, and your teachers supported you throughout your academic career. Today is a celebration of their contributions as well. To everyone who had a role in your success - congratulations.

As I stand here today, I can't help but think about the time when I was getting ready to finish college. I went to school at Shippensburg University in central Pennsylvania. When I arrived there in the fall of 1965, the university still had a dress code. There was still a curfew for women. Title IX had not yet passed and women could not independently access credit. Men faced a military draft as the war in Vietnam raged on. And, 18year-olds didn't have the right to vote.

It was a time of great turmoil, challenges and change in our country. And these times shaped the person I became in the future.

You all have come of age in a very different time, one marked by an increasingly globalized economy, great advances in technology and new fights for equality. These events will similarly shape your future. Many of you will follow career paths that didn't exist even a decade ago: you'll be pioneers in new and exciting fields; you'll be entrepreneurs, job creators and innovators. And you'll use technology to advance your goals and aspirations - things that I've only started to learn about, like Facebook and Twitter, because that's how your world works now.

But what has not changed is the value of an education and the value of public service and political involvement, and that's what I want to talk with you about today.

A college education is even more important today, than it was when I graduated from Shippensburg. Today, your bachelor's degree means that you will earn 84 percent more income over a lifetime than those with only high school diplomas. On average, as a college graduate you will earn one million dollars more over your lifetime compared to a high school graduate.

When you think about that reality, you see the advantage you have because of the college degree you earned today. Regardless of the future path you choose, you're in a position to succeed because Keene State has prepared you well.

But getting a good education isn't just about getting ahead financially and professionally. Your education has prepared you to be an active citizen in this great republic.

Young people today are extraordinarily committed to volunteerism, with over 20 percent of 18 to 21 year olds volunteering in their communities.

The fact that engaging in "active citizenship" is included in the college mission statement underscores how much of a priority community service is to the Keene State community. I was particularly impressed reading about the breadth of your community activities and the number of students participating in service learning. You've given blood and walked to end sexual assault and gender violence. You volunteered in New Jersey communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy and this winter, some of you traveled to Guatemala where you spent your break helping coffee farmers.

But, as important as community service is to making a difference in our world, and I do believe it makes a difference, I'm here today to urge you to take your community service to another level and to consider engaging in politics and public service.

Ultimately, all of us are blessed with the rights and responsibilities of self-government. But for those like you who have had the opportunity of attending an excellent institution like Keene State, you are called on to do even more.

After 18-year-olds got the right to vote in their first presidential election in 1972, we saw a steady decline in the political involvement of young people over the next 30 years. Young people have had a negative perception of politics and political engagement. They have seen politics as too divisive and not relevant to their lives.

But in 2008 and 2012, a renewed interest in politics resulted in higher participation rates among young voters in our elections. President Obama's historic candidacy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the struggle for marriage equality--all have made politics more relevant. And your generation has taken advantage of the new social media to engage in political debate - a recent study showed 44 percent of 18-29 year olds use social media to "like" or promote political materials and 42 percent post thoughts on issues.

But, I don't want you to stop there; you have to do more than vote in Presidential elections and tweet about issues.

I'll be the first to recognize that politics has turned off young people for too long. Washington in particular has been seen as too divisive and out of touch. But that doesn't mean you should give up. As frustrating as democracy can be, it's still the best form of government ever devised. But in order for it to work, it requires the active participation of its citizens, particularly people your age, because the decisions elected officials are making now will have more of an impact on your generation than mine.

I learned these lessons when I was in college. It was 1969 and like most students, I was opposed to the war in Vietnam. I vividly recall a conversation with my favorite political science professor when I expressed my frustration with President Nixon. I didn't think President Nixon was listening to the tens-of-thousands of people protesting in the streets against the war. My professor responded that protests and marches weren't going to change the government's policies. He said those would only change after a majority of voters demanded change at the ballot box.

He was right. When a majority of Americans opposed the Vietnam War, the country's policy changed. He also told me that if I wanted to be part of causing change, I should work through the system, not against it. His wisdom and advice has guided my career in public service.

The anthropologist Martha Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Throughout my life, I've seen how just one person can make a difference. New Hampshire National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan is a perfect example. Despite the fact she was dying of cancer and knew it, she devoted herself to ending discriminatory practices against same sex couples in the military. We lost Charlie earlier this year. But her fight remains, and the example she set- for everyone - about how impactful one person truly can be is one I want you all to carry with you. You can make a difference. You can do that by participating in the political process and public service. And you can start right here in New Hampshire.

I believe one of the greatest things about our state is the fact that public service and politics are in our blood. Every four years we have a front row seat for a Presidential campaign that most of the country will never experience in a lifetime. We are home to the largest state legislature in the country which provides even more opportunities to serve. And, unlike never before, you have tools at your fingertips, the technology to be heard and to get involved - tools that didn't even exist 10 years ago.

So as you start the next phase of your lives, don't hesitate to get involved. This country needs your passion, your energy and your idealism. If you see something that needs fixing, work to fix it. Help a candidate who shares your values. Run for office. You won't win every battle, but the only way you '11 truly lose is if you choose to sit out the debate. You'll never regret making the effort –that much I can guarantee.

Congratulations again to you and to all those who helped you along the way--your parents and families, your friends and your professors. I wish you the best of luck and thank you for allowing me to share this very special day.

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