Amy Klobuchar

Commencement Address at St. Olaf College - May 28, 2017

Amy Klobuchar
May 28, 2017— Northfield, Minnesota
Print friendly

Well, thank you so much, President Anderson. You guys look great in the sun on the first hilltop graduation in 60 years. That's pretty cool. And it is just great to be here with the St. Olaf of class of 2017. Thank you, Ben, wherever you are, for your heartfelt words about courage and the importance of the focus on community.

So first, as your senator, I do bring you official greetings from the great state of Minnesota from our unofficial poet laureate, Garrison Keillor, and he would tell you that our state is a state where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the oles are above average.

So, faculty and staff, thank you. The success of these students is your success, too.

Parents, grandparents…. My daughter, as was mentioned, graduated from college just last weekend, so I know what you're going through. The pride, the panic, to back-up rain gear, losing the in-laws—I did that, okay, but I found them so don't worry about it.

And graduates—congratulations. When I hear the music and I saw all of you come in, what's triggered in my mind, of course, was my daughter's graduation, then of course my own. I remember that feeling of worrying I was going to fall when I came over the stage, worried the mortar board was going to fly off in the wind. I saw all of you do that.

And then I'm also reminded of my actual official walk that I will never forget, to similar music, and that was way back. I was the Hennepin County attorney. I was brand new in my job and Bill Clinton was president. This was a long time ago. And I somehow got invited at the last minute to introduce him for some crime legislation and we were standing outside of the East Room. It was filled with people, more cameras than I've ever seen in my life, and I'm standing outside the door with the president, very nervous, and they start playing music similar to what you marched into. But this time it was Hail to the Chief—you know da-da-da-da, right?—so I just start walking in, and all of a sudden I feel this big hand on my shoulder and his voice says, "I know you're going to do great out there, but when they play that song I usually go first." That's a true story. So anything that happens to you today, graduates, will be better than that.

So this is why for over 140 years St. Olaf has been dedicated to preparing students to have successful careers and successful lives. But St. Olaf, it's been talked about, is so much more than a learning institution. It's a community, a place where character's built, minds are enriched, perspectives are expanded. You're a hub for students who can't wait until they graduate to get involved in the world.

I'm thinking of Leonard Vibbi, one of today's grads who developed a program to help women who survived the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, or Colin Scheibner, who helped discover an entire new dwarf planet named DeeDee. Did he name it himself? That's pretty cool.

And you are a powerhouse of musical talent, and this class is a perfect example. Several of you have studied around the world, received national recognition, like Sam Viguerie, who was the national winner of the 2016 MTNA young artist competition, or Sarah Bauer, who interned this summer with the La Jolla Music Society.

And whether you are part of the St. Olaf band, the orchestra, or the choir, you know music isn't just a hobby here. It's part of life at St. Olaf. You are the only school in the country whose students can actually waltz to your fight song.

Now, speaking of your fight song, you're also the home of one of the most dedicated athletic programs and one of the older rivalries in the country, and I know it won't be long before the basketball team joins the football team and gets the Goat Trophy back where it belongs.

You are also a support system second to none, and that's so important because you're going to need that support as you turn the page to a new chapter of your lives. You go out into the world—the world that's changing, that can be chaotic, and a world that truly needs you.

So maybe you are a bit like my daughter. One thing that really bugs her is when people make fun of her generation, of millennials, and you know too often your generation gets a bad rap. These are actual news headlines, not fake news. These are things I actually found, true.

Okay, here it goes. Business Insider—this is a true headline—"Millennials are killing the napkin industry." It's because you're opting for paper towels. But maybe that's not dumb, okay. CBS News headline—"Blame millennials for the vanishing bar of soap." So that worried me a little bit from a hygiene perspective, but then I found out you are using liquid soap instead. Okay, that's smart. The Economist asked rather desperately, "Why aren't millennials buying diamonds?" Maybe you have an answer for them on that. And the New York Post, my all-favorite one, "Millennials have officially ruined brunch." Brunch! I think we need more than brunch right now.

Now I don't make fun of millennials at all. Why? Number one, I have a millennial that I really love—my daughter. Number two, I hire millennials all the time. I run an office that's full of half millennials, okay, and some of my favorite millennials that I've hired are from this very college, St. Olaf. Like Evan in my DC office and Emma Youngquist—where are you?—who is returning to St. Olaf in three weeks to get married at this very campus. I have also seen—and this is my third reason—millennials' passion for our world, and I believe that you are truly the hope and our future.

The young people that I know are hardworking and honest and committed and driven. They are innovative and collaborative, and they are big-hearted. And you don't have to take my word for it, because studies have shown that this generation is more diverse, more inclusive, more globally minded than those that have come before. And this generation is working as hard if not harder than other generations, and you are doing this while you are facing challenges in a world that is bigger and more connected.

So when I look out into this crowd of students, I don't worry about the future of soap or brunch or diamond rings. I don't worry about the future of our nation, because I believe our future is in good hands because it's in your hands.

As you take on these new responsibilities and challenges, know this: purpose is important, but so is taking chances, and you're going to find this sooner sometimes rather than later.

So is, from time to time, failing. Before Oprah was Oprah, she was fired from her job co-anchoring the six p.m. news in Baltimore—true story. Before Bill Gates launched Microsoft, he had a company called Traf-O-Data—ever heard of it? I haven't either. Abraham Lincoln experienced his fair share of setbacks, including losing a job before he ran for president. And Michael Jordan missed more than 9,000 shots in his career.

I have my own failure story, too. It's not about basketball. I was working as a waitress at the Baker's Square pie shop, but my career came to an abrupt end when I once spilled eight ice teas on one customer. That was the moment when I decided to go to law school. So maybe you will not spill a tray of tea all on one person, but I can tell you that you will have some failed moments and it happens to everybody.

My favorite example of this is how you have to embrace and celebrate failure because it often leads to something else is Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. If you ever visit Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, they actually have a graveyard celebrating their flavors that didn't work. They have actual tombstones to honor the dearly departed or "de-pinted" flavors, like Holy Cannoli and This is Nuts and Turtle Soup. The epitaph for Holy Cannoli reads, "Now in front of the pearly gates, Holy Cannoli sits and waits. What brought its ruin no one knows, must have been the pistachios." But who knows? Without taking these chances, without learning from these failures, maybe we would have never had Fish Food. Maybe Chunky Monkey would never exist.

So you have to take chances, and you've learned that here. Some of you took a chance on your freshman roommate who you didn't quite know what to make of at first, and that person became a lifelong friend or someone you'll make sure and call when you get into your other life. Others took a chance when they got dragged to a class or someone told you, "Try out that class," or someone, maybe one of your professors, said "Try out that class," only to find your chosen major and perhaps your profession.

You have to try, and sometimes it'll work out and sometimes it won't. But when it doesn't, you get up and you try again.

And you look out for each other when that happens. You've learned how important that is this class has how to support each other, and don't forget that lesson.

You've been prepared well here at St. Olaf, a college that is steeped in faith, that is committed to thinking beyond the individual, beyond the national. St. Olaf has prepared you to help create a stronger global community. Now more than any other time, when the rhetoric has been heated about people who are from different races or different places, that education is really important.

What I've learned pretty quickly the last few years in Washington is that even if you want to isolate yourself from the rest of the world, which of course is not our goal, the rest of the world doesn't let you. Eventually, international problems and opportunities come knocking at your door.

For me, they come with a phone call from a scared dad whose daughter's high school group is marooned in Guatemala by a mudslide or during a meeting with local steel workers who are irate over illegal steel dumping from around the world. They come from the Minnesota family of a young man imprisoned in Iran for hiking in the mountains or another behind bars in the United Arab Emirates for posting a YouTube video. Or when a student asks how can we prevent Russia from undermining the power of her vote in elections moving forward.

In our state, we have time and time again embraced internationalism in business, in humanitarian aid, in international adoptions, in the openness that we have shown in our colleges and universities and businesses and neighborhoods to immigrants and to refugees, in the understanding that we stand up not just for our democracy in the United States but for democracies all over the world.

We have welcomed students from across the world, students like Sam from Indonesia who is out there today who interned in my office, or students like Norbert who received the first-ever St. Olaf Rwanda scholarship. I actually first learned about Norbert when he was applying for a visa to come to this country. His application had been put on hold and I was thoroughly impressed with his record and worked with the State Department to get his visa approved. Norbert is graduating today and then he is going to continue building a non-profit he started in Rwanda to connect homeless children with foster families and help struggling parents create a positive environment for their kids.

As I mentioned before, St. Olaf is known for your music, and when I hear your choir I'm reminded of the words of the uniquely American poet Walt Whitman. In his poem "I hear America Singing," he said these words: "I hear America singing the varied carols I hear." For Whitman, when he talked about hearing America singing, these were the songs of the mechanics, of the carpenters, of the Masons, of the shoemakers.

For us gathered today, we hear the very carols of students and parents, of sisters and brothers, of faculty and staff—a chorus of different faiths, races, creeds and many walks of life. Every song is important, every singer is important and every voice deserves to be heard, even the smallest voice.

You know, in Minnesota we have the biggest Somali population in the country and we are very proud of that community. And last year when I was visiting with that community, I heard a story about a family. They had been here for years. They thrived; they're in business. And one night the mom and the dad—and it was right during the height of a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric—they went out to dinner in the suburbs and they went out to dinner with two kids and this guy walks by and he looks at the four of them and out of the blue he says, "You four go home. You go home to where you came from." And the little girl looks up at her mom and she says, "Mom, I don't want to go home. You said we could eat out tonight. I don't want to eat dinner at home." You think of the words of that innocent child. She only knows one home and that's the state of Minnesota. She only knows one home and that's the United States of America.

So graduates, this is your home, too, and I know your education will make this a better place for that little girl and so many others. You're going to make it a better place because you are a part of a generation that actually wants to make it better. You will make it a better place because you will go into the world with purpose and still take chances and be buoyed by the occasional failure. You will make it a better place because with your St. Olaf degree you understand that we are intertwined in this world, from Rwanda to Indonesia to Slovenia—those are my relatives—to Japan to Guatemala to Northfield, Minnesota.

But mostly this college has taught you to be respectful, to be civil and to have empathy. This is about assuming the best in everyone you meet.

A past president of my alma mater talked about how the presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. The presumption of innocence, he says, rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of a stranger.

So assume the best and not the worst, and not just of your friends and colleagues and fellow students but of people that you just meet but you may not really know, people you might not even agree with politically. Be generous, be gracious and let this generation be defined as a generation of good stewards—for this country, for the value of learning and for our democracy. Minnesota is truly counting on you and our country is counting on you—all of you.

So I'm going to end like I began, with just a brief little story about my daughter, because it's been on my mind just like your parents have you on their mind.

So when she was four years old, she was in our church nativity play and she was to play the angel, and we were sitting out there in the pews and she had this gigantic white angel outfit with these big drooping wings, but she wouldn't go out to practice. And I finally looked at her, I said, "Why won't you go out there?" and she said, "I want to be the donkey." And I looked in these two hot teenage boys were in that donkey costume. I said, "No, Timmy and Joey are the donkey. You can't be the donkey." "I want to be Mary." I said, "No, Mary is 14 years old. You cannot be Mary." I said, "I don't understand it. You have the best part in this whole thing. You get to come up at the end and spread your wings." And she finally looked way up to the top of the church and she says, "Mom, I don't know how to tell them I don't know how to fly." And I told her that day, "You know what, honey. Not all angels fly."

It is not lost on us that you are the first class in so many decades that are on the top of a hill. This means that you are the guardian angels, right? You're as close as it gets to heaven here. You are the guardian angels for so many people. Those you meet, those you maybe have never met, those who may not even know what you've done for them. This may be in what you choose to do with your life. This may be in how you choose to volunteer. This may simply be a kind word, a momentary decision, a gesture. That's what that's about. You will be the guardian angels of this country.

So that's a lot on your shoulders. Some pretty heavy wings. But I know you have the wings to fly. So take this chance, take this moment to be bold. This is your moment to lead. So fly!

Congratulations, class of 2017.