Joni Ernst

Commencement Address at Iowa State University - Dec. 17, 2016

Joni Ernst
December 17, 2016
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President Leath, distinguished graduates, family members and guests—thank you for inviting me to be here today. I mentioned to Dr. Leath earlier today that it was an honor. Thank you so much, Dr. Leath.

Twenty-five years ago I was preparing for the spring semester at Iowa State University, and in that semester I was going to graduate. And at that point if you had told me, “Joni, in 25 years you will be delivering the commencement address at Iowa State University,” I probably would have laughed. If they had said, “Joni, you'll be serving in the United States Senate,” I probably would have laughed.

I want you to remember that as we go through today's discussion, but first I want to congratulate you and thank you for having me here today.

So for those of you that I haven't had the opportunity and the honor to meet I am Joni Ernst and I have the honor of representing you and the great state of Iowa in the United States Senate. And like you I am proud to be an alumnus, and I make it known just about everywhere I go I'm an Iowa State graduate.

While you may not realize it at this moment, you will leave here and go out into the world and accomplish great things, but the friendships you have made and the lessons that you have learned at Iowa State will never leave you.

Growing up, my family owned and operated a very small farm in Montgomery County where we raised hogs, we raised corn and soybeans, and that's where I live today. It was a very simple life, the life that I experienced growing up on the farm, and we didn't have much but we worked hard for all that we did have and we really leaned heavily upon our neighbors and our friends for support.

There were three children in my family. I had an older sister and a younger brother. And my older sister—I looked up to her a lot and I wanted to be just like her. So when it came time for her to go off to college—she was a year ahead of me in high school—she came to Iowa State University. And wanting to be like my sister, I decided Iowa State University was the place for me, too. So she went off to Iowa State and I soon followed and ended up here in Ames, Iowa.

And it was here that after living in my sister's shadow for many years throughout school, we had the same teachers back in Stanton, Iowa, matter of fact they called me Julie, my teachers did, that was my sister 's name. But when I got to Iowa State University it was here that I learned that I could be a leader. I could develop my own personality and I could be my own person. So this is where I truly learned to lead.

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year here at Iowa State University, I had the great opportunity to attend an agricultural exchange in Ukraine, and that's while it was still part of the Soviet Union. Well, in the evening when the community members on that collective farm came together, we would sit down and I anticipated that we would talk about agriculture and the difference between Iowa agriculture and Ukrainian collective farming—and that's not what we talked about at all.

What we talked about when we came together in the evenings, the questions that the Ukrainians asked us, they asked us—what is it like to be an American? What is it like to be free?

Those are things that they didn't experience in the Soviet Union at that time and that made a deep impression on me. They wanted to know what it was like to be able to travel anywhere they wanted without asking someone's permission. They wanted to pick up a phone and know what it was to make a phone call. They didn't know what it was like to have a refrigerator. They didn't have that. My family didn't have a car. They didn't have running water. But no matter how poor many of our families were in the area that I grew up in, we all had those things and we took them for granted.

I realized after that trip not only how grateful I was for the many freedoms that I myself took for granted every day, but I discovered that I needed to do my part in defending those freedoms and I decided to serve my nation.

So I took a risk. I went outside my comfort bubble and I joined army ROTC here at Iowa State University, which ultimately led to my military career in the Army Reserves and the Iowa Army National Guard and then a career in public service. There is no doubt that the experiences I had while at this institution had a profound impact on the person that I am today.

As you embark on your journey, I would like to share some of the principles or the pillars that have helped make me successful and the things that I strive for, and these are my four pillars.

The first one, the first pillar, is leadership.

While in Army ROTC, I saw the importance of being someone that would provide steady support to others and someone that my colleagues could turn to when they were in need and in uncertain situations. Leadership isn't earned just because you have a fancy title and can tell others what to do. That's being somebody in authority. Folks say, “Joni, you're a United States Senator. You were a battalion commander. You're a leader.”

And I push back on them and I say, those titles aren't what make people leaders. Being a leader is when you're able to inspire other people to follow you, follow you towards a common goal, a common goal or objective. That's what a leader is, not just carrying a fancy title. It's encouraging to those who look to you for direction and guiding them on the best path forward, that's what a leader is.

A leader, in its truest sense, is someone like my friend, Kim Reynolds, who is graduating here today. I don't know how she does it. I don't. She's a mom, she's a grandma, and she also helps run our state, the great state of Iowa, as our lieutenant governor, and now soon will become our first female governor.

Kim, you are an inspiration to me and you're an inspiration to so many other people. Thank you for being a tremendous leader. [applause]

No matter how big the responsibility or how small, today I am challenging all of you to be leaders, not just be a person in authority, but be a leader.

The second pillar is assuming prudent risk. And yes, this means taking risks but doing so with a thought of your future in mind.

And as you start this next chapter of your life, whether it's continuing your education, finding a job, serving your country or whatever your next step is, assuming prudent risk is a valuable tool in preparing yourself for what is ahead.

Know your challenges. Know your opportunities. Know the good things. And of course, know the bad. Weigh those out and make a good decision based on prudent risk.

In life, you may not always be able to avoid risk, but I challenge you—welcome it. Welcome it and understand it with good intentions.

The third pillar is service to your community and to your country.

Through ISU Army ROTC, I found a sense of duty to my country, one that would stay with me for over 23 years of my military career. But having been raised in an agricultural-heavy state and in an area where neighbors often lent a helping hand, I also knew the value and importance of service to my own community.

While completing my undergraduate degree here at Iowa State, I volunteered at a women's shelter, a safe house for battered and abused women and their children, right here in this community. At all hours of the day and night, I would be called upon to go to different situations and pick women up or their children and spend time with them at the shelter, taking them to a safe place, helping them avoid the trauma that they were enduring in their own homes. Their stories had such a profound impact on my own life and I realized how much bigger the world was than just my own.

At some point, our community members may need a helping hand and as a society it's up to us to extend one and help keep moving them forward. The feeling in your gut, that sense of responsibility to your community or our nation and to one another, must be acted on.

I challenge you to respond to that call of duty to your neighbors and your nation, in plentiful times and in times of need.

And this leads me to my final and fourth pillar, and that is an attitude of gratefulness.

Folks, we can't get far in life without having someone to stand behind us and support us. And I want you to take a look around this coliseum—just take a look. We've got friends, we've got family members, we’ve got co-workers—they're all here for you today. They deserve your unending gratitude, because without your support and encouragement you wouldn't be sitting here in that cap and gown.

I challenge you to be grateful each and every day for the blessings bestowed upon you and especially for those who help make those blessings possible.

I hope that you will find inspiration and guidance in these four pillars, just as I have for many years. They are the foundation for which my risks and my achievements have been built upon.

And for you, on this day of a new beginning, I hope you will build upon these pillars as well, for if you do, your future certainly will be full of opportunity.

Class of 2016, you are the future of our great country. I implore each of you to rise up and assume risk, lead, serve your community and your country, and illustrate an attitude of gratefulness.

I wish you the very best in your future endeavors and look forward to seeing the many accomplishments of Iowa's next generation of leaders.

Thank you again, Dr. Leath, and to all of you graduates sitting before me for allowing me to celebrate with you today.

Congratulations to you, Iowa State University Class of 2016. God bless you.

Iowa State University Registrar. “Iowa State University Fall 2016 Commencement.” YouTube video, 2:54:00. Dec. 17, 2016.