Congratulations class of 2020 on a well-deserved and long-awaited recognition. As a professor, I am always delighted to see students honored for their hard work and today is no exception.
Still, this celebration is unusual. It is not the one that you imagined or anticipated or dreamed about, but you can be especially proud of what it represents: your ingenuity and relentlessness and that of your teachers, families, and friends in challenging, sometimes tragic, and unprecedented times. Commencement, someone once said, is a funny thing to call the end. That is, of course, because it is both an end and a new beginning. The harsh reality which marks the end of your journey today will one day pass, so I want to encourage you to look to the brighter days ahead, to the possibilities before you, to prepare for that future so that when you look back you will have left nothing on the playing field. I can tell you that the time before you will go by in a flash. It seems not too long ago that I was sitting where you are wishing that the speaker would finish quickly. Trust me, it was a long time ago. So, promise yourself today that you will savor and make the best of every moment of what lies ahead. Embracing challenge, living humbly, and dedicating your talents to a higher human purpose.
Here are a few thoughts about how to do exactly that. First, you have to be passionate about something in your life. There should be that one thing that makes you feel most alive. If you’ve not yet found it, keep searching. My passion was to be a concert pianist. I could read music before I could read. but, in college, I realized that I was good, but not great, that my career path would likely end playing in a department store while people shopped. I was crushed and I searched for quite a while until one day I took a class in international politics taught by a Russian specialist. I knew what I wanted to be and it was in that moment that I began a journey which would lead me to work in the White House and to be secretary of state.
There’s a funny thing about passions, they are uniquely yours. I grew up in Jim Crow Alabama where my family because of the color of our skin couldn’t go to the same movie theaters or restaurants as our white neighbors. Despite the circumstances, my parents who were educators never allowed me to have limited horizons. Still, there was no reason that a black girl from segregated Birmingham, Alabama should want to be a specialist on the Soviet Union. So, here's my plea to you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be passionate about something because of the color of your skin or your gender or the circumstances from which you came. It is your passion. Work for it, embrace it, and it will pay dividends throughout your life.
I understand that it may be hard right now to even imagine a life in which you can pursue what you love to do. For those heading to college, it is unsettling not to know what life will be like on a campus with social distancing. Will you be asked to learn online as well as in the classroom? Will there be anything like the social life that you had expected? For those who are entering the job market with record unemployment and no way to predict when recovery will come, I know that it is daunting and hard and scary. But, you are going to make it through just as you’ve made it through the months that have just passed. Find answers in community and friends and family and, if you are so inclined, in faith. Yours is not the first generation to face hardship. So, immerse yourself in the stories of those who came before you, those who faced great depressions and great wars and came out stronger on the other side.
I also ask you to recognize that education is a privilege. It is not an entitlement. Spend a little time today reflecting on how fortunate you are to have the possibilities before you thanks to your educational achievements thus far. Remember that there are those who were just as intelligent, just as deserving who did not graduate for whatever reason, maybe a broken home, maybe extreme poverty, maybe addiction. They didn’t make it to this day. Pledge now that you will not look down on them, that you will not forget them and that when you can you will try to help. When you serve those who have less than you do, you will never be given over to entitlement “Why don’t they give me?” or grievance “Why don’t I have?” You will ask instead “Why do I have so much?” That is a healthy and grateful place from which to seek your own possibilities and help others seek theirs.
As you think about your possibilities, think too about the road ahead for our country and how you, a citizen of a great democracy, will help America fulfill her promise. How you will help to heal the divisions that plague us. You don’t need to have a grand plan. You can start by promising not to add to those divisions. If you find yourself constantly retreating to the company of those who agree with you, who say amen to everything you say, find other company. Most of all, in these troubled times, I implore you to have faith that the future will be better than where we are today.
This pandemic, the lives and livelihoods lost, could define your emergence into the real world. History will write of your generation as the one that came of age in the age of Covid-19, but this crisis and the worst aspects of it do not have to define you. This crisis will subside and when it does, I pray that we remember and carry on with the spirit of warmth, resolve, and love for each other that the crisis has brought out in us. That is the optimistic outcome that we must all pursue. When I raised my right hand to become secretary of state in 2005, my oath was administered by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Jewish, female justice of the supreme court. On the wall above us hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin. I silently wonder “What would old ben think of this?” Two women, one Black, one Jewish at the highest levels of the United States government. I know that Benjamin Franklin would never have considered that possibility. And frankly, as a little girl in segregated Alabama, neither did I. And knowing my friend Justice Ginsburg, when she was fighting to be taken seriously in law school, neither did she. There was a time not too long ago when it seemed well impossible. That moment is a testament to the vision and dedication of brave Americans who pushed our country to rise up and live out its founding creed of freedom and equality.
That job, though, is not finished. Injustice and inequality linger and dangers not yet imagined will emerge. Our world needs you. You are the next generation of Americans who fight for what is right and one day make the impossible seem inevitable. Your contributions need not be televised or published or celebrated to make a difference. In fact, it is the many small acts of kindness and innovation that leave the most lasting impressions. From my own experience, I know this to be true. It doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going. You can come from humble circumstances and do great things.
You’re headed into a world where optimists and dreamers are too often told to keep their ideals to themselves. Don’t do it. Believe in the infinite possibility of human progress. Act to advance it. Your education, the achievement we celebrate today, has powerfully equipped you to affect change. Pursue those possibilities with vigor and determination, and then watch the good things that will happen. May God bless you on your journey today and in the days to come.