Graduates, friends, and families, and newly-minted Zoom experts, congratulations on this milestone in your life’s journey.
When I was first asked to offer these commencement remarks in the midst of the global pandemic, I was hesitant. In this unprecedented time, what can anyone say about the future to the class of 2020?
Then I thought back to my own graduation in the midst of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, riots in our streets, and an overall sense of confusion and uncertainty. Every time and every graduating class faces its own challenges and opportunities.
My father graduated from Penn State in 1935, the middle of the Great Depression. He had to jump on a freight train from his home in Scranton, Pennsylvania to Chicago to find a job. So, what about all of you and where we are now? I’ll start with the obvious. This is not how any of us expected to be celebrating the class of 2020. I’ve had the privilege of speaking at a lot of college graduations and there is nothing more inspiring than looking out over a crowd of students standing on the precipice of the rest of their lives. And despite the fact that we can’t be together in person today, I’m no less inspired by you wherever you are and whatever you’re setting out to do. I salute you while recording this from my house in Chappaqua, New York wearing full academic regalia including the hat.
But, let’s be clear. You’ve had a tumultuous four years. Most of you started college in the fall of 2016, right before an election that would upend our country. And now you’re graduating in the midst of an unprecedented global health and economic crisis. I’d be willing to bet that every single one of you has had to give up something you worked long and hard for: a senior spring with friends and classmates, your dream job, and of course the chance to walk across the stage and celebrate with your loved ones. My heart goes out to all of you, especially those who are the first in your family to graduate. You deserve to celebrate all that went into this milestone and I hope you’ll get to do that soon.
Oh, I wish I had the perfect words of wisdom to help you navigate an uncertain future, but the truth is I don’t have the answer, as hard as that it is to say even for a recovering politician. But, I do believe that you, the class of 2020, have the answer.
So, today, instead of following commencement tradition and giving you advice through inspiring platitudes, I want to talk a little bit about why you and your generation inspire me. And why you are better suited to chart your own path during this crisis and to help build a better future for all of us.
Let’s start with a little history. We don’t have to look much further than the last big economic crisis in 2008 to understand that young people just entering the work force often pay the biggest price in a recession. Even though the economy has grown over the last several years, millennials who graduated during the financial crisis are still more likely to have credit card debt and student debt. They’re less likely to own homes or be invested in the stock market and more likely to have part-time jobs with fewer benefits and no it’s not because of all of that avocado toast. You know, one study found that for every one percent rise in unemployment, new graduates lose seven percent of their earnings at the beginnings of their careers. And not only does graduating in a recession lead to lost income right out of the gate, it can stick with you for decades. Many of you or your friends and families are already feeling the squeeze. More than half of people under 45 have lost a job, lost hours, lost benefits, or been put on leave because of the pandemic.
Three college students in Arizona were so fed up with the uncertainty that they created a website called ismyinternshipcancelled.com which compiles the latest information on hundreds of companies’ changing plans. And imagine trying to explain that to someone who graduated when your parents did.
Now, I’m not telling you all this to give you even more anxiety about what’s next. I’m sure you have plenty of that already. I’m pointing all this out because the needs of young people usually don’t get addressed or prioritized the way they should and this time has to be different. We simply cannot allow your generation to fall through the cracks or carry the scars of this crisis long into the future. And there is a lot that leaders in government and business can and should do that will help young people immediately like providing student loan forgiveness and rent relief or fixing the clunky, outdated systems that too many people have to navigate to file for unemployment insurance. Or how about ensuring that all young people have access to quality, affordable healthcare in the midst of a global health catastrophe. Or how about seeing young workers as assets to invest in for the future, rather than the first costs to cut when times get tough. You know, investing in the next generation isn’t just the right thing to do. I know it’s the smart thing, as well.
Keeping people safe and healthy and rebuilding our economy will require new skills, knowledge, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit, all the things that the class of 2020 has shown you have in abundance. The ability to communicate, innovate, and do business online has never been more in demand than it is right now. And there has never been a generation better equipped to meet this moment than yours, the first truly digitally native generation. You’ve never even known a world where we weren’t connected to one another through the internet. The same skills that are second nature to you are the ones our world and our economy are depending on like never before. Even before the pandemic, young people were already using technology to learn, from watching YouTube videos to pick up a new skill to using apps to learn a new language. And in recent years, the number of graduates studying STEM has increased by more than fifty percent. As we grapple with new medical, public health, and information needs, we should be creating pathways into the workforce for new graduates who are ready to lead right now. Helping this generation gain a foothold in our economy will help pay dividends for everyone in the decades to come.
There was a great piece in The Atlantic magazine last month by a writer named Amanda Mull about the impact of the coronavirus on what has been called Generation Z: the kids, college students, and young people whose live will be forever shaped by this pandemic. She interviewed a medical anthropologist at Johns Hopkins who pointed out that this generation is uniquely suited to transform this country and lead to some very necessary, revolutionary change not in spite of your experience right now, but because of it.
This pandemic has laid bare some of the biggest social problems facing our country. Deep inequalities that have plagued America since long before we even heard of the coronavirus are becoming not only more clear, but more dire by the day. For example, less than a quarter of the counties across America are predominantly Black, but those same counties are home to nearly 60% of all deaths from the virus. It’s hard to find a clearer example of the deadly consequences of systemic racism within our health care system and society. We know that when economic inequality worsens, so do health disparities. Unsurprisingly, people who are already struggling the most economically are more likely to contract the virus and more likely to die from it. But, as daunting as these problems are, your generation has never been one to throw up your hands and give up in despair.
In fact, this generation is the most diverse our country has ever seen and one of the most politically engaged. Just look at the 2018 midterm elections when voter participation among 18 to 29 year-olds went up by nearly eighty percent. This is a generation of voters and believe me there is nothing more powerful than that. So, yes, your generation will always be remembered for graduating during a pandemic, but you’ll also be remembered for the way your responded to this crisis with resilience and creativity.
Across the country, college students started mutual aid networks, shared financial support, hot meals, housing, and other resources. At the University of Pittsburgh, for example, more than 2 dozen students have dropped everything to organize their campus network. At Wesleyan University, students raised more than 320,000 dollars for first-generation, low-income students in need. Student athletes at Lincoln University in Philadelphia are volunteering at a food bank for seniors in their community. A senior at Eastern Kentucky University is sewing face masks with a clear window so those who are deaf or hard of hearing can read lips while 2 community college students in San Diego have 3-D printed hundreds of ear savers, so health care workers at local hospitals can comfortably wear masks for hours at a time. One young woman who works for me took time off to volunteer all day, every day for an organization serving meals to hungry New Yorkers. When she started, they were serving a couple thousand meals a week. Now, a month later, they’re up to 100,000 meals across New York and New Jersey. Well, I am very proud of her and of everyone else who is out there helping.
Your generation has always embodied the principle that we can solve more problems together than we can alone. And this has to start with someone and why not you? After all, as one of my favorite Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt, said “Human rights begin in the small places close to home. So does all the progress we want and need.”
But, I’m not going to mince words. This is not an easy time to begin your careers and if any of you are feeling overwhelmed by what you’ll be walking into, well, I’m a little familiar with that feeling. My classmates and I didn’t trust government, authority figures, or, really, anyone over 30. We were asking urgent questions about whether women, people of color, religious minorities, immigrants would ever be treated with dignity and respect. And we were protesting a president who thought he was above the law. So, you know, a totally different world. And to top it off, I’d been asked by my classmates to speak at our graduation. I stayed up all night writing and editing, trying to figure out what I could possibly say to capture a time that was just as hard to put into words as this one. When I spoke at graduation, I shared a story of something that happened to me the day before. I was talking to a woman who said that she wouldn’t want to be me for anything in the world. She wouldn’t want to live today and look ahead to what it is she sees because she’s afraid.
Well, fear is always with us, but we just don’t have time for it, not now. And over the last 50 years, I’ve seen just about every response to fear that a person can have and what I’ve learned over and over again is that we all have a choice. Fear can paralyze us or spur us on.
So, class of 2020, I’m almost done, but I don’t want you to go away empty-handed, so I will leave you with a few pieces of practical advice. Good friends will get you through even the worst of times, so stay in touch with them. Thank people for what they do for you and send thank you notes. Being polite is not the same as being politically correct, so treat others as you would want to be treated. Learn how to sew on a button. Check the source of everything you read or share. Vote in every single election, not just the presidential ones. Believe in science, including vaccinations. Wash your hands. And, if all else fails, try meditation or alternate nostril breathing. I did it before three debates with Donald Trump, so, trust me, it really is a good technique for dealing with stress. Seriously, Google it.
Hold onto what you learn during this challenging period. Is there something you’re doing just because it brings you joy? Are you painting or making sourdough starter or gardening or playing the piano? Well, keep doing it. Have you been talking to your grandparents once a week on Facetime? Well, keep that weekly date. When you go to the grocery store, do you find yourself treating your neighbors, those who are working there on the frontlines with a little extra kindness? Keep reaching for that sense of compassion. Has this crisis opened your eyes to bigger social problems in our country? Well, keep your eyes open because we’re going to need your empathy, your energy, your activism more than ever in the days and months and years ahead.
These are frightening times, but as Eleanor Roosevelt’s husband said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We don’t have the luxury of wringing our hands or being daunted by the enormity of the task ahead of us. This isn’t a time just for words, it’s a time for action.
So, congratulations, graduates. Good luck and I can’t wait to see how you make your mark on our world. Thank you all.
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.