Susan Collins

University of Southern Maine Commencement Address - May 11, 2013

Susan Collins
May 11, 2013— Portland, Maine
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Thank you, President Kalikow. Trustees, faculty and alumni, families and friends, it is a pleasure to be with you today.

Most of all, congratulations to the members of this outstanding Class of 2013. You did it! I am honored to be part of this special moment in your lives.

Sitting among those in caps and gowns are four graduates who have been interns in my offices. Throughout my service in the U.S. Senate, I have had the great benefit of having on my staff many bright, dedicated individuals whose talents were developed by USM. They have joined me in serving the people of Maine, and I thank them.

Having delivered many commencement speeches over the years, I have learned two things:

The first is to be brief. I am well aware that this ceremony is the last thing that stands between you and a celebration with family and friends.

The second is to try to leave you with a message that will be part of your graduation day memories. But I approach this goal mindful of the fact that I remember nothing about the speaker at my own college graduation—not even his name, much less what he said.

Now, for the guidance I hope may be helpful to you in your journey through life. Just 10 miles down the coast from here, at Prout’s Neck, is the Winslow Homer Studio. That windswept place, drenched in sea spray, is one of the most important places in American art. It is where Winslow Homer lived during the last third of his very productive life, and where he created some of his most enduring masterpieces.

The studio has been wonderfully restored by the Portland Museum of Art, which hosted an exhibition that displayed many of Homer’s finest works.

When I visited the exhibition, I noticed a quote of Homer’s included in one of the displays. These were Homer’s words: “The life I have chosen gives me hours of enjoyment. The sun will not rise, nor set, without my notice, and thanks.”

Joy and gratitude—what a marvelous way to live. Choose your life’s work carefully, make it something you love, and be thankful for the blessings that make it possible.

Of course, it’s not quite that easy. In fact, there’s another Winslow Homer quote that is a great companion to that first one: “What they call talent is nothing but the capacity for doing continuous work in the right way.”

By the time Winslow Homer came to Maine in 1883, he was one of the most celebrated artists in the world. It was his capacity for work and desire for constant improvement that enabled him to refine his craft, improve his skills, and enlarge his vision. That did not happen overnight but was the result of years of difficult work as a lithographer apprentice, a Civil War artist, and 20 years as a magazine illustrator.

The expanded formula, then, is joy, gratitude, and hard work. As you leave here today with new diplomas and enter a new phase of life, those qualities will help you reach your goals. Just as important, they will help make the journey interesting and rewarding for you, and for all of those individuals you meet along the way.

Joy, gratitude, hard work—wouldn’t it be great if the formula for success were so simple, so foolproof, so completely under your control? It would be if it weren’t for the obstacles and setbacks that are inevitable in virtually every life. It is not a straight, easy, direct path to happiness and success but rather a road filled with twists and turns and some detours along the way.

The final, essential ingredient, then, the catalyst that makes it all work, is resilience. Resilience is that quality that allows us to be knocked down by life and get back up, stronger and wiser than before. It is that part of the human spirit that is as flexible as rubber yet as strong as steel. It is that inner voice that tells us not to turn back, but to find a new path to our goal.

Let me give you an example from my own life. In 1994, I won an eight-way primary but lost a grueling general election to be Maine’s Governor. I was unemployed, uninsured, flat broke, and uncertain how I was going to pay my mortgage. But I never lost sight of my goal of serving the people of Maine in elective office, and I learned so much from the people I met on the campaign trail. In 1996, I had the unexpected opportunity to run for the Senate, took the risk of running again, and this time I won.

I’ll never forget the elderly woman from Lewiston who called to tell me that this time she would be voting for me because I had been “such a gracious loser” in 1994. How you deal with adversity, with setbacks, can well determine whether or not you achieve your goal.

Failures can indeed lead to success if you learn from the experience. When asked to explain the mountain of failed light bulb prototypes piled up in his workshop, Thomas Edison replied: “I haven’t failed. I’ve identified 10,000 ways this doesn’t work.” Once the great inventor eliminated what didn’t work, he found what did. May your failures be fewer, but your resilience just as strong.

A combination of joy, gratitude, hard work, and resilience is more than a formula for personal success. It also is the best antidote I know of to the rampant incivility that poisons our society. From the bitter divisiveness in Washington to bullying in schools and the anonymous, crude insults that fill the vast expanses of the Internet, we all have a responsibility to turn back this destructive tide. As we develop these positive qualities in ourselves, we begin to encourage them in others, including those with whom we disagree. We all have a stake in a society that can work together to solve problems. We each must do our part to elevate the tone and respect one another as part of our greater community.

The diplomas you receive today represent a great deal of hard work on your part, but they also represent a great debt you owe those who made it possible. Don’t forget to thank those who helped you on the road to this accomplishment: the professors, mentors, parents, spouses, significant others, and employers. And, once you have paused to catch your breath, I urge you to apply your talent, energy, and enthusiasm right here in our great state.

We cannot continue to export our greatest asset, our educated young people. Please stay here and help to build a greater Maine. Our State needs you.

And finally, please remember that receiving a diploma does not signify the end of the educational process. Learning is a lifelong endeavor. The words of the famous Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi seem particularly appropriate for this occasion: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Congratulations, Class of 2013. Good luck and Godspeed.

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