Good afternoon, President Thorsett, Chair Wynne, trustees, faculty, staff, families and friends.
And, Class of 2016, WHAT’S UP?
I was extremely pleased and honored to be asked to speak at Willamette’s commencement. And not just because this is the graduating class that led the way to breaking the world record for the largest game of Red-Light/Green-Light – not once, but twice.
As amazing as that is, I have been a long-time fan of this university. I have encountered many Willamette students and alumni over the years – they have been my colleagues in the House and Senate, and in state agencies. I have hired them as interns and staff.
During the legislative session, the Capitol is absolutely swarming with Bearcats – you can hardly swing a dead Duck without hitting one.
Willamette Bearcats and I – we share this common connection: we are moths drawn to that bright light of public service.
Even though I am not a Bearcat, I too am inspired by Willamette’s motto – which is what, again?
Yep, that’s right. “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”
The university’s motto calls on us to consider the well-being of others; to give back, and serve the greater good.
I sought a career in public service with a singular mission: to give a voice to the voiceless.
For example, it’s true that I carry with me every single day the privilege of white skin, and I don’t know what it’s like to experience racism.
I do know, however, what it is like to be terrified going to work every day, afraid that I might lose my job because someone discovered that my partner was a woman.
And I know what it feels like to be treated differently and paid less – substantially less – than a man, even though I knew I was doing a better job.
And on the day I was sworn in as Oregon’s 38th Governor, I experienced what it’s like to be labeled – to have my first two decades of public service eclipsed by a single phrase: “the nation’s first openly bisexual governor,” a phrase that appeared after my name in virtually every headline world-wide.
I am sure there are some of you out there today who, over the course of your lives, have experienced stereotyping, discrimination, or fear that interferes with your ability to live openly and with dignity. This shouldn’t happen anywhere.
Every one of us should have the right to live with dignity. Equity and inclusion are extremely important to me – in all aspects of society, but none more important than the classroom and the workplace.
I went to law school because I believed a law degree would give me the tools I needed to change the world and create a world of justice and equity for all.
After law school, as an advocate for the Women’s Rights Coalition, I lobbied the Legislature on policies to improve the health and wellness of Oregon women. This included improving domestic violence laws, stepping up child support enforcement, and advocating passage of family medical leave.
My work as an advocate led to my appointment to a vacant seat in the House of Representatives, a position I would need to get elected to in order to keep.
But then, my predecessor, the state representative who had previously stepped down, changed her mind. She decided to run against me, hoping to get her House seat back.
Well, I was doomed – everyone said so. She was well-known; I was not. That made it all but impossible to raise money for my campaign.
But I had two things going for me: guts and determination. If I couldn’t out-fundraise my opponent, I would outwork her.
I became the human embodiment of what it meant to run for office.
I ran, sprinting from dawn until dark every single day – knocking on as many doors and talking to as many voters as I could.
And yes, in the end, I won – by seven votes.
Any time you wonder if you should bother voting, or if your vote even counts, you should think of me.
Today, after more than two decades as a state legislator, Secretary of State, and now, Oregon Governor, I have come to recognize the enormous and positive impact Willamette University has had – and continues to have – on our world.
Class of 2016, you depart a university that defines itself by its service and contributions to local and global communities.
Those achievements are manifested, yes, by faculty, students – even the president of the university, but primarily by alumni.
And as of today, that’s you.
You are joining the realm of alumni who have “lived the motto”. They have served in the Peace Corps; as U.S. Senators and members of Congress; as Oregon Supreme Court Justices, including two Chief Justices. Willamette alumni include a Secretary of State; a Governor; and numerous state representatives and senators.
Additionally, many of your fellow alums are established leaders in their professions and communities. Here are good examples from the Board of Trustees.
Trustee Lynne Saxton, class of 1976 is director of the Oregon Health Authority.
Trustee Jim Cuno ‘73 is president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, the world's largest cultural and philanthropic organization dedicated to the visual arts.
Trustee Sean O’Hollaren, ‘83 is a senior vice president at Nike.
And Trustee Punit Renjen, ‘86 is CEO of Deloitte Global, to share just a few examples.
Over the university’s 174 years, Willamette alumni have made important contributions that have changed our world, for the better.
For instance, in 1954, alumni Gerald Pearson and Daryl Chapin developed the first practical photovoltaic cell— the same basic design we use today to run everything from refrigerators in central Africa to powering lights in Kaneko Commons.
Their achievements lit the way to a brighter, cleaner, less fossil-fuel-dependent future.
Or there’s Dale Mortensen, who left Enterprise, Oregon for Willamette in 1957, the first person in his family to ever go to college.
He dabbled in this and that, joined a fraternity, and played the butler in campus production of Annie Get Your Gun. He also played a little football.
But eventually, Dale discovered his passion for economics, a passion he pursued avidly after graduating in 1961.
And, in 2010, Dale Mortenson, a Willamette Bearcat who once sat where you are sitting today, won the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Now, I don’t expect each and every one of you to go out there and win the Nobel Prize – although I imagine your parents and your university wouldn’t mind one little bit.
What I am saying is this: Nobel Prize or not, Class of 2016, your world needs you.
You have been given an amazing gift, a gift bestowed on a fortunate and happy few – the gift of opportunity.
Your experiences at Willamette have opened the doors of opportunity by helping you discover within yourself the person you were meant to be.
I know it’s true, because two of your classmates told me.
One of them said, “At Willamette I have come to embrace a richer, fuller vision of our world – one that calls for community, compassion, and decisions rooted in values. I now have a thirst for knowledge, for education, for dialogue, and for justice.”
She said, “Director of Campus Recreation Bryan Schmidt taught me to think bigger. Dean David Douglass taught me how to lead with compassion. Professor Melissa Michaux [pronounced “ma-SHO”] taught me that the best work engulfs all aspects of one's being and calls for more than just an active mind.”
And another graduating senior said, “I am a completely different person now than I was as a first-year student. I came to Willamette from a place where I had never really had my views challenged. I had therefore never been pushed out of my comfort zone.”
“But,” he said, “In the past four years…I've had the opportunity to study Arabic and Peace and Conflict Studies in Israel, spend three years working for Senator Prozanski in the Legislature, and meet people from so many diverse backgrounds. My time at Willamette has truly been transformational; I have a whole new mindset than I did when I first walked on campus.”
And perhaps I shouldn’t name names – Becca Brownlee and Joey Goodman! But I bet every one of you has had your own pivotal moment. That moment when you suddenly awakened to the power of your own potential.
Your Willamette experiences have lit the fires of purpose within you. So channel that heat and light into making a difference in the lives of others.
Shine your light into dark places.
President Theodore Roosevelt offered the perfect send-off for young people heading out into the world:
He said, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard – at work worth doing."
This is my wish for you.
That you seek work worth doing and dedicate yourselves to it.
And that the ‘prize’ at the end of your career is a better, safer, and more peaceful world than the one, as a college graduate, you enter today.
2016 graduates, you have my sincere congratulations and best wishes on your next big adventure.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.