President Potts, Members of the Board, Distinguished Faculty, honored guests – especially proud parents and grandparents - Graduates of the Judson College Class of 2016: it is a privilege to be here today celebrating this special occasion.
I was most honored to be invited to speak at this commencement ceremony. As was mentioned in the introduction, I have long family ties to Judson. My great grandmother graduated from here as did my great aunt. My grandmother attended Judson for some time as well, so this really is a special honor for me.
I’m told that almost 50 years ago, in 1967, Governor Lurleen Wallace came to Judson College to offer the commencement address. I was naturally interested to know what she had to say back then, so we found her speech.
In her commencement address here at Judson, Governor Wallace told an old story about World War II paratroopers. They were packed into an airplane preparing to jump out behind enemy lines as part of the D-Day invasion. The time came for the soldiers to read the famous “great crusade” message from General Eisenhower. One of the flight crew noticed that many of the messages were crumpled up on the floor, some having never been read. He asked why they were discarding the supreme commander’s message, and one tough soldier replied, “If we aren’t ready for the fight by now, no letter is going to help.”
I’m sure the same goes for commencement addresses. If you’re not ready by now, I doubt anything I say is going to help. So, I think I’ll take Lurleen Wallace’s advice and keep it short and simple, and stick to what I know.
What I know is that you are entering one of the most challenging and, yet, exciting parts of your lives. I know because I’ve been there. It wasn’t so many years ago I was sitting right where you were contemplating what lay ahead. Thinking back on that day, I have a few quick pieces of advice based on what I’ve learned since then.
The first is this: it’s great to have a plan for your life – and I hope you do. But, stay open to new opportunities you may not be expecting.
There’s an old saying that we make plans and God chuckles. Sitting where you are, I had it all figured out. I had graduated from NYU with a music business degree, I was heading to Cumberland School of Law. From there I would become a lawyer and work in the Nashville music industry.
Obviously, that did not happen. In law school, I met the man who would become my husband. We both were led to the realization that here in Alabama is where we needed to be. We have a beautiful family, live a purpose-driven life and I have the opportunity to serve in the United States Congress - but none of it would have happened if I had been stubborn about my plan and not open to new opportunities. It turns out God had a different plan.
My husband, Riley is here with me today along with our children, Margaret and George. I hope you’ll give them a hand in case I haven’t embarrassed them enough.
My second piece of advice is: you don’t have to wait your turn to become a leader. Have you ever heard that one? That it isn’t your turn for some position or opportunity? Trust me, you will. I was 26 years old when I first ran for the City Council in my hometown of Montgomery, and I remember how it felt. I remember the comments about my age – many behind my back. The insiders said I couldn’t get elected. The good ol’ boys said it "wasn't my turn."
But, I worked hard and won that election. I didn’t listen to the naysayers because I don’t think our country should operate like the DMV. I don’t think that you should have to take a number and wait your turn to lead.
So, I’m here today to tell you that it is your turn. As women entering the real world, now is your turn. For so long, women have been told they had to choose between a career and a family. And, while choosing only one of those might be right for many women, nobody has to choose. A lot of women are proving that today, which makes me excited for you and for future generations of women.
You know, people sometimes ask me how being a woman influences my views on issues as a Member of Congress. And, I tell them, what I care about isn’t any different from what most men care about – having an economy that works, making sure our country is safe, and building an America that is strong and prosperous for our children.
I think what is somewhat different is the way women approach getting things done. We are natural problem solvers – because we have to be. I think most people would tell you that having more women in Congress is good news considering all the issues we have on our plate. I think the same is true whether in the boardroom, the church or non-profit organizations.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I want you to become involved in your community. I’m not saying that it would be nice if you became a leader in your chosen realm. I’m saying that we need you to be a leader. Our country needs you. Our state needs you. Just look around at the current state of affairs. Alabama is in a leadership crisis in all branches of government. Our country’s two presidential nominees have the highest disapproval ratings anyone has ever seen. Can the generation in charge right now honestly tell younger Americans that it’s not our turn?
Now more than ever, our country and our state need bright, dedicated, young leaders to come to the conversation with fresh ideas. For you, that call may come in business, medicine, ministry, politics, education or another area of life. Wherever and whenever it comes, I hope you’ll listen and I hope you’ll remember that you get to decide when it’s your turn.
The good news is your time here at Judson has prepared you well for the challenge that is ahead. You have been taught by a skilled and caring faculty. You have been part of an environment that values not just knowledge but the application of that knowledge toward the greater good.
In fact, you need only to live the Judson Spirit: “embracing community, thinking critically, developing courage and integrity, leading through compassionate service, and answering the call to ‘high endeavor, lofty thought, and noble deed.’”
I’m excited for you. I’m proud of you, and I know your parents and professors are too. Earning a degree from such a prestigious institution is a tremendous accomplishment.
Congratulations to each of you and best wishes for your future endeavors.