Nikki Haley

Clemson University commencement address – May 10, 2018

Nikki Haley
May 10, 2018— Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina
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Thank you, President Clements. Thank you to the board.

It's a great day at Clemson University, and it's a great day in South Carolina. (applause) Congratulations to the College of Business and the College of Education Class of 2018, and thank you for this amazing honor.

Growing up the proud daughter of Indian parents, my brothers, sister, and I were pressured, as all Indian children are, to either be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. And while it took me a while – but look, Mom and Dad, I did it! (laughter and applause)

I'm honored to be here today and to be given yet another degree from Clemson University. This one is fancier, but I have to say, I worked a lot harder for the last one. And that's something I have in common with the graduates here today. I know exactly how you're feeling, because I remember sitting where you are. I know you've worked very hard to be here. I know all about those all-too-early eight o'clock classes, the 18-hour semesters, and the all-nighters.

But I gotta tell you – I hate to do this in front of your parents – but I know about the other stuff too. (laughter) I know you've all had fun at The Esso, TD's, and Tiger Town Tavern. You've played on Bowman, you've played at Lake Hartwell, you've cheered on the Tigers to conference and national championships. You've made Clemson your home, and I get that.

Most commencement addresses rightly focus on pride – pride in what you've accomplished, the importance of this milestone in your life – or they focus on hope, the bright and shiny future that awaits all of you. Both of those things are good, but today I'd like to talk about something a little bit different, something that Clemson represents for me, and that's gratitude.

I don't mean gratitude in the Hallmark card sense. I mean gratitude in the active sense, in the change-making sense. We all know of gratitude as a feeling, the good feeling we have for the things we've been given, but what I wanna talk about is gratitude as intention. That is gratitude as the determination to take the things that have benefited us and pay them forward. I'm talking about the institutions, the ideas, and the people. Gratitude is ensuring that they're preserved, protected, and passed on to others.

Aside from my parents, Clemson is what has shaped my life the most. I met my husband, Michael, my very first weekend at Clemson. We were engaged four years later in the Botanical Gardens. Now I'm happy to say our daughter is a proud Clemson Tiger, too.

Not only did I find a family, I also found myself here. I'm very grateful to Clemson. I came here as an undergraduate on a textile management scholarship. Yes, textiles. My timing was not great. By the 1990s, the textile industry was in a major decline in South Carolina, and to tell you the truth, I wasn't really interested in cotton, wool, or silk, but the scholarship was my ticket to Clemson. I was a girl from a close-knit family and a small town, Clemson was a big deal – full of new people, full of possibility, and I ran with it.

As you might've already guessed, I didn't last long in textile management. After my first year, I changed my major to – wait for it – accounting. I know, I know, (chuckles) from textiles to accounting – I was living on the edge. (laughter) But I loved math and I loved numbers, and my accounting degree from Clemson led to my first job as an accounting supervisor for a corporation in Charlotte, and that led to my involvement in the business community, which led me to running for and winning a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives, which led me to run for governor, which led to me being able to raise that orange flag over the capitol dome at the State House when Clemson football won the national championship (applause) in 2017! Go Tigers! That is truly a memory I will cherish forever.

My active gratitude now is to represent the best of America to the world, paying it forward for the blessings America has given to me and to my family. The least I can do is sacrifice and serve the country I love so very much.

I realize that talking about gratitude sounds like something your mother or your grandmother used to do, telling you to make sure and say thank you – and you should do that by the way, always listen to your mother and your grandmother too – but what I'm talking about is something much more profound, something that takes considerably more effort than remembering to say thank you, but also offers considerably more reward.

First of all, to be grateful is not simply to be focused on the past. Gratitude is not sentimentality. At its core, gratitude is focused on the future. It's looking at all that you have and understanding that not all of it came from you. A lot of it came from your parents, or a great teacher, or the freedom and prosperity of the country in which we live. Real active gratitude means that you take responsibility to share those things that have benefited you with others and give back. It's recognizing those things that make life good and meaningful, in cherishing them, and using them to make life better for others.

And gratitude doesn't mean overlooking the very real disadvantages that many suffer. It's not closing your eyes to the bad in the world. It is, instead, opening your eyes to the good in the world.

My husband, Michael, is a good example of gratitude properly understood. Michael was adopted. He and his brothers and sisters spent their early years in foster care – not an easy time – but when Michael was four, he was adopted by a wonderful couple. His adoptive parents were warm and loving. They gave Michael a home. They raised their son with care, love, a good education, and a stable family life. And the thing is, today, Michael never complains about his childhood. He knows it could've turned out much worse. He is grateful. And more than that, he has taken the gift he was given, of loving and supportive parents, and he's paid that gift forward to our children. Having a good dad is something to be grateful for, but being a good dad is real gratitude.

My parents are also good examples of active gratitude. They came to South Carolina in the early 1970s from India. My dad wears a turban, my mom wore a sari. You could say they looked a bit different from small-town Bamberg, South Carolina, and they got their share of uncomfortable looks and even experienced episodes of outright discrimination. But they also watched South Carolina change, and come to not just accept them, but to embrace them. They found opportunity here, and they found a home here, and they never let my brothers and sister and I forget how blessed we were to be growing up in this country. They didn't focus on the challenges that they had had, but they focused on the blessings that they received.

When I was a little girl, I could never have dreamed that I would be a governor, or an ambassador, or now, an honorary doctor. But guess what – I think my mom and dad did. Their American experience hasn't been perfect, but they understood that I had opportunities here that I wouldn't have had in any other country. They made sure I understood that, and they paid it forward.

So here comes my little bit of unsolicited advice. These are a couple of tips to living a life of active gratitude.

First, beware of social media. It's almost as if it was invented to destroy gratitude. Everyone presents their most carefully-edited lives on Twitter or Instagram. We all do it, right? Posting the best pictures of the most exciting places we go and the most interesting things that we see. But our social media lives aren't the real world. Real life is usually messier. And whether we mean to do it or not, the fake lives we live on social media can evoke a kind of envy that is a lack of gratitude that is very damaging. On social media, the grass is always greener on someone else's page, but this is a recipe for dissatisfaction with life. It makes us obsess about the stuff we don't have, rather than to be thankful about what we do. And all for what? So we can spend our lives unhappy, chasing an ideal that doesn't exist?

As a country, we're experiencing something of a gratitude crisis today, and it's not just on social media. Instead of feeling grateful, too many Americans are feeling entitled. We take for granted the many, many blessings that we have. We feel entitled to be free, to speak our minds, and to not have our feelings hurt, but these things are gifts, not guarantees. Just ask the three Americans recently released from a North Korean prison.

And now, my second piece of advice on how to live a life of active gratitude. Be thankful to be alive in America in 2018. Every day at the United Nations, I deal with countries where people are not free, people where there is no respect for the inherent dignity of women or people of different races or faiths, places where the rule of law is nonexistent. Without exception, these are dark, dangerous, unpleasant places. They are countries where governments commit genocide, places where dictators use the torture of children and the rape of women as political weapons.

It's not that the United States is perfect – we're not – but we have been given a great set of tools – freedom, the rule of law, and respect for human rights – with which we can create a more perfect union. Don't take these things for granted. Be grateful for them, preserve them, and use them to make a better life for yourself and your family, but also, for the poor, for the less fortunate, and for generations to come.

So congratulations on graduating from Clemson University. Yes, you will miss the football games, but you will love even more when you come back to visit. You should be hopeful. There is very little you can't achieve in life if you really put your mind to it. I'm proof of that. And you should be grateful, not just because you have been given so much, but because you have so much to give.

Enjoy your special day. Thank you again for this honor. I wish you all the very best in the real world ahead. God bless.