Nancy Mace

Commencement Address at the Citadel – May 4, 2024

Nancy Mace
May 04, 2024— The Citadel, Charleston, South Carolina
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Rep. Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of The Citadel, also became their first female commencement speaker at the 2024 ceremony

Thank you, General and distinguished guests, friends of The Citadel, esteemed Board of Visitors, the president of The Citadel, the commandant of cadets and members of the class of 2024.

Twenty-five years ago, I had the honor of sitting in one of those chairs that you're sitting in today, about to become the first woman to graduate from The Citadel Corps of Cadets. I was pale. I was nauseous. And I couldn’t comprehend how I had made it down the road less traveled.

Today you sit with your powerful rings, about to grip your hard-earned diplomas, as you think about all you have endured to bring you to this moment today.

That uncertain fall four years ago, you could have chosen to stay home in the middle of COVID-19, with mom and dad, where it was safe. You could have chosen to go someplace else, where it was easy. But you made a difficult choice, during exceptionally difficult times.

You may have regretted that decision knob year, but you now know, it was the best decision of your life.

Today you will think of all of your teachers, all of your coaches, all of your superiors, peers, even a few irritants, now all friends for life.

There are people in this room who at one time you had probably wished had never even been, who have now turned out to become people you could never live without.

Because even though it probably didn’t feel like it at times, you know today, you were all in this together. And for those who wear the ring, you will be in this together for a lifetime. Your journey doesn’t end, but in fact, it is only beginning.

And then of course your parents and family are here. They are the ones who know exactly where you are sitting. They’re getting their phones ready to capture the moment when their sons, and yes, daughters, walk across this stage for one brief shining moment as you join the long gray line forever. In my family, if you were scared of my dad’s bark, you knew not to mess with my mom’s bite. Some of you could probably relate.

Prior to arriving on campus on August 24, 1996, I was assaulted at the age of 16. By 17, I had dropped out of high school. I didn’t believe for a minute at that moment in time that I ever had a future but one day in the summer of 1996 all of that changed. The Citadel offered me something no one else could when it opened its doors to women.

It offered me a place to face an obstacle unlike any other—like many of you. It offered me a place to face a challenge I had never seen before, where I could learn not just to survive, but I could learn to thrive. And The Citadel, by the grace of God, saved my life.

But with age, comes wisdom, as they say—or so it should. I know today what I couldn’t comprehend then, 25-plus years ago. We make it here at The Citadel because of our courage. We make it here at The Citadel because of our discipline. And we make it here at The Citadel because of our strength. And if you can make it here, ladies and gentlemen, you can make it anywhere.

At the age of 17, I quickly learned that dropping out of high school might not have been the best decision. My parents’ immediate reaction was to say, Nancy, if you’re going to stop going to school, you have to start going to work.

So I did - at a fine-dining establishment some of you may be familiar with, also known as the Waffle House. Let’s just say It didn’t take me long to realize that while Waffle House may have been an important part of my journey, it would not be my destination.

After finishing high school and getting my academic house back in order, my road less traveled led me to the place where we gather today. I went from “Good Food Fast” to Duty, Honor and Respect.

Now, I know for all of us, the path to duty, honor, and respect was not always smooth sailing. Just ask the sailing team, who had the creative idea to hone their craft during last fall's hurricane with a couple of sailboats and a kayak. I am sure it was a blast until they had to be fished out of the water by a man in his own boat, who happened to be Col. Gordon, the commandant of cadets. I think the hurricane boaters may have just finished their last tours a few hours ago, just in time for today’s graduation.

You all have endured, because you all wear the ring. On the ring you wear proudly, you have the oak leaves, because it’s the symbol of strength and it’s a symbol of endurance. Because without endurance, none of you would be crossing this stage today.

I want to take a brief moment and talk to the female cadets graduating today, because one day, 25 years ago, I made history as one.

When you cross this stage, it might feel like a quick walk. But it’s not. It’s a long path that took over 150 years to forge. You’ll be following in the footsteps of thousands of men and 800 women who came before you.

Women like Amanda Orson Class, who was Citadel of 2003, who was the first woman battalion commander and has gone on to Harvard and Wharton, and today she is now the founder and CEO of a company using AI to power real estate.

And then we have The Magnificent Seven, the first African American female graduates in Class of 2002. They have become leaders in industry, leaders in medicine, and leaders in the military.

And that brings me to Sarah Zorn, Class of 2019. She was the first female regimental commander, now an Army artillery officer and an accomplished black belt. She was also selected by Annie Leibovitz to headline a series of photos featuring influential young women pioneers.

And as women, we hear a great deal about glass ceilings. But glass is meant to be broken. So shatter it to pieces. Because the reality is only as strong as the power we grant it.

Let your legacy inspire the women coming after you. And as the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So when you get to where you’re going, turn around and help the next woman behind you find her way.

But today, whether you are male or female, sitting here getting ready to get your diploma: to all who enter those iron gates on a hot Saturday in August embark on the road less traveled. It is a road I am proud every single one of you chose to take.

Courage, discipline and strength. I am sure you have observed these values are in short supply everywhere you look today. We have seen a lack of these values leads to chaos and lawlessness both at home and abroad.

What we are witnessing around college campuses, at our borders, and in wars around the world is proof that without discipline there is no strength, and that an idle command to stop, without fear of consequences, will be ignored and even mocked.

What is happening across this country in our so-called elite universities is not just unacceptable. It is un-American. It is difficult to imagine that in America today, there are college students being instructed to leave campus for safety reasons simply because of their religion.

But that’s not the way it is here. I would love to see how long one of these self-appointed student leaders at one of these so-called elite university campuses would last during Hell Week. I think they could all use a dose of Citadel discipline.

Whether you end up as the president of a company, president of a university, or president of the United States, strength is an indispensable ingredient of a respected leader. From her founding, America has always been the envy of the world because of her strength.

Over the last few years we have seen wars break out in Europe and, more recently, in the Middle East. While I actively participate in the ongoing debates around America’s role in these wars and around the world, I keep coming back to the undeniable facts that have been proven throughout history: strength preserves peace and weakness invites war.

Your job now is to accomplish the goals you’ve set for yourselves. You have tools and knowledge that generations before us could only have dreamed of.

Teddy Roosevelt referred once to "The Man in the Arena." His words apply just as readily to the men and women in this arena today. You now experience "the triumph of high achievement" and your place will "never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

Today, America needs leaders who possess unbeatable and unparalleled strength.

All over America in the next few weeks, colleges and universities will be holding commencements where the graduates will all be told they are the future of their country.

While they are technically our future, only a select group of graduates will be our future leaders. However, today I am proud to be in the presence of 490 future leaders today. America's true future leaders aren't setting up encampments on college campuses. America's future leaders are about to walk the stage in McAlister Field House at a school where we don't burn American flags, we salute them.

You are graduating at a time when America needs the courage, when America needs the discipline and when America needs the strength that flows through the veins of every single Citadel graduate.

While many of you will be joining the noblest of callings in our armed services, others will enter private enterprise, while many may even join me in public service.

No matter your career, your Citadel experience and your Citadel principles will always light your way.

For me, I’ve had fun shaking things up in Washington by introducing them to a new concept we all know by heart: A member of Congress will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.

So no matter where you set your sights when you leave here today, your loftiest dreams have been made more achievable by the discipline that has been instilled in each of you from the moment you arrived on this campus.

Mother Teresa once said, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”

It is what has allowed me to go from the kitchen at the Waffle House to the historic chamber of the U.S. House.

It is what will separate you when you face the inevitable challenges life throws at all of us.

You will think of the time when you fell flat on your face and you didn’t think you had any pushups left in you, yet you finished Recognition Day. When your once nemesis and now tomorrow’s friend-for-life screamed “Get up, knob! You can do this.” And you did it.

And not to quote Ferris Bueller, Cadet Allen, but when life comes at you fast, you can look down at your ring and remember, it represents your courage, your ring represents your discipline, and your ring represents your strength in every challenge you endure, and there will be many in the years to come.

And I speak from experience when I tell you, your sacrifice here was great. But your reward after will be greater.

So congratulations and God bless the ladies and gentlemen of the graduating class of The Citadel Corps of Cadets, class of 2024. May God bless each and every one of you. Thank you.

The Citadel. “Corps of Cadets Commencement Ceremony | Class of 2024.” YouTube video, 2:54:50. May 4, 2024.