Barbara B Kennelly

Trinity Washington University Commencement Address - May 22, 2005

Barbara B Kennelly
May 22, 2005— Washington, D.C.
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President Patricia McGuire. Trinity faculty, administration, families and friends. And, especially, the 2005 graduates: Congratulations.

I am greatly honored that you have asked me to join you today.

This is my third graduation at Trinity. First of all my own graduation from Trinity. Then, in 1986, as a fairly new member of Congress, I came to give the commencement address. Now I am back again, older but much wiser, and I am delighted to be receiving an honorary degree.

I have watched Trinity change and grow, with awe. I am so proud of this university. But I have to admit, in many ways, it isn’t the same one I attended. Long gone is the required freshman course in Gregorian Chant. Curfews had many of us, literally, running back to campus minutes before 10:00 PM in order to avoid getting dinged with “late minutes.”

Trinity College is now Trinity. It is not a somewhat staid women’s school, but a vibrant institution that addresses the needs of people of many ages.

One of the high points of my life at Trinity was chairing the Sophomore Tea Dance, which involved—you guessed it—dancing with boys from Georgetown in the guise of a Saturday afternoon tea.

Another high point was organizing a fundraiser for missionaries. I was chair of a club called the “We Can Do Its!” We charged $1 for area students to come drink coffee with Senator John F. Kennedy. Afterwards, Senator Kennedy brought some of those fun-loving Georgetown students back to their campus where they all wound up talking and going out to a movie. Hours after the coffee, I got a very distraught call from the Senator’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln because Mrs. Kennedy was hosting a dinner party at their home and the Senator was missing.

Truly, those days seem a century ago.

Yet, as much as Trinity has changed, I am deeply satisfied to note that three lifetime lessons I learned here—lessons that have helped me both achieve and survive—are still emphasized at Trinity today: 1) Relish competition; 2) Remain loyal; and 3) Remember to keep learning.

COMPETITION: Competition is really the life blood of American existence. Competition in the marketplace, in the workplace, on fields between players, or in rival labs between researchers. It is a mechanism that yields what is best in ourselves and the best we can produce, both products and ideas. All of the lessons about playing a game well by playing it fairly, are true in politics, business, and human relations.

LOYALTY: In friendship, in love, in politics—there is probably no more fundamental value. In many ways, I have to say that the secret of my success in Congress was more the result of loyalty than of competition. Being a superior competitor gives you the win, but being known as a loyal colleague makes others want to do business with you which is how you get things done.

LEARNING: At a university devoted to knowledge, as Trinity is, you learn how to learn. Nothing keeps you more intellectually fresh, more saleable, or more flexible than a commitment to lifetime learning.

This lesson means that no matter how much the context changes—as my Trinity has changed so dramatically—you are able to adapt, find purpose, and participate meaningfully in the amazing theatre of life.

After I left Trinity I went on to Radcliffe in Cambridge for graduate school. Then I did what many did in that day, I got married and stayed at home to raise four marvelous children while my husband, Jim, worked. Through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, I told Jim that when our youngest child, our son John, went to first grade, I was going to work. I repeated that story during a talk at my son’s college a few year’s ago, and he yelled out, “and she hasn’t been seen since!” Children…they’re occasionally ungrateful.

My first job was running for the Hartford City Council. Then I was Secretary of the State of Connecticut. Then I ran for Congress. And I found a home away from home. I was on the Ways & Means Committee, which raised all the revenue that runs the country—then spends most of it. I was appointed the first woman on the House Intelligence Committee which was a heavy, but fascinating assignment.

My Trinity experience prepared me well for leadership as it prepared other Trinity women such as Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, the first woman to lead a major political party in Congress and Kathleen Sebelius Governor of the State of Kansas. Both of these intelligent women combine self-confidence with a strong commitment to serve their communities. Your Trinity experience gives you the same orientation: You are intelligent, well-prepared to face a challenging world, and hopefully, aware that a well-lived life includes giving something back.

During my years in Congress, I gave numerous commencement addresses. I often told graduates: Go into public service. Run for office. And I say to you today: I hope a few of you do exactly that. We need smart, committed people in the political arena. However, since leaving elected office, I have learned that politics is not the only way to serve.

I went from Congress to a government agency, the Social Security Administration. I realized that federal workers are unsung heroes, who serve. They keep our country on track. Now, I’m at a non-profit organization. I’ve been traveling the country, involved in the heated debates around social security. Many of the discussions are hosted by community groups, usually run by volunteers, who spend their free time promoting the most democratic idea: The idea that debate can bring clarity to public policy.

There are so many ways to serve. Many of you may be thinking, “No way”. Your immediate plans may include work, travel, or graduate school. But as you move along in life, you should get active in your community. And that can mean becoming a member of the Board of Education, or the Zoning Committee, or much more.

I can now say that there are almost no limits to the heights that women can now scale. For example, two out of three of our recent Secretaries of State have been women, Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice. My own most exciting political moment was nominating Geraldine Ferraro to run for Vice President of the United States.

I look at Condoleezza Rice and see a marvelous example of how a well-lived life draws you into public service. Secretary Rice doesn’t like to talk about herself much, but she has an inspiring story.

She was born in 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama where racial segregation meant that her family couldn’t eat at the same restaurant counter with whites, or ride in the front of the city bus. Her parents were both teachers, who home schooled her until she was 10 years old. At age 15 she began taking college courses. She became fascinated with Russian history and politics. [In fact, her most influential professor was a former Czech diplomat, Joseph Korbel, Madeline Albright’s father!] After graduating at age 19, Condi Rice got a masters, a doctorate, and went to teach at Stamford, still in her 20s. At age 39, she was selected provost at Stamford. Soon she was asked to sit on major corporate boards such as Chevron.

Secretary Rice is now serving her country when she could be earning a huge salary in private life. Obviously, there is a lot of natural talent, even genius, in her triumph. But she also embodies a commitment to education and a vision that combines achievement with service. She once told a news magazine, “My parents had me absolutely convinced that, well, you might not be able to have a hamburger in Woolworth’s, but you can be President of the United States.”

Public life is driven by ideas, and policy debates that put ideas into practice. One of the most lively policy debates today concerns social security.

Though it was enacted in 1935, the values that Social Security embodies have been a part of the American fabric from our nation’s infancy. The basic values are fundamental ones: work hard, obey the laws, be a good neighbor, contribute to the common good, and when misfortune befalls, the community will pull together to restore its own.

Social Security is really the modern version of the barn raising. Agrarian life on the American frontier was difficult indeed.

And when a family experienced misfortune that it could not cope with alone, the whole community saw a moral obligation to come to their aid.

Industrialization brought mobility, and smaller families, and eroded historic community support systems.

To quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “As the nation has developed, as invention, industry and commerce have grown more complex, the hazards of life have grown more complex. Among an increasing horde of citizens, among the often intangible forces of giant industry, man has discovered that individual strength and wits were no longer enough.” Thus Social Security was created to keep community and traditional common support intact.

Many Americans have come to recognize that the economic security provided by Social Security, like fire prevention insurance, is not something we, as a society, can afford to leave up to individual means. Social Security is not solely for the benefit of the individual. It betters us all as a caring society.

We are now in a battle about the future of Social Security. The crux of the difference as it stands today is: Do we share risk or do we allow everyone to go it alone? When you’re young and strong being on your own makes some sense, but when you are retired or disabled you need some help. Now is not the time to take away the safety net that has worked so well.

I know this is the last thing on your mind today. But, I’ll continue fighting to protect Social Security for you. Someday you’ll be very glad its there.

But today is all about you, the graduates. I look at you and delight in the fact that you have the whole world in front of you. When I graduated from Trinity, my commencement speaker was John F. Kennedy. Although I cannot remember his exact words, I remember his speech made me feel so excited about public service.

Today, I can only hope that some of you will look in that direction. Then one day, one of you may return to give the commencement address at Trinity, hoping to inspire a new class of graduates towards a career that you have chosen. Knowing how hard you have worked to get here today, I can only say go forth with joy, quoting Pope John Paul II, “Do not be afraid!” This is your time. You deserve the best, and you must give your best. Congratulations.

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