As commencement exercises are being conducted at institutions of higher education across the country, women’s voices are taking a prominent place in offering congratulations, advice and inspiration to the graduating classes of 2011. In a series of posts, Women’s Voices for Change is sharing excerpts from selected commencement addresses.

 

 


 


Amy Klobuchar

U.S. senator from Minnesota
Concordia College
Moorhead, Minnesota
May 1, 2011

The truth is that America can no longer afford to be a country that churns money and shuffles paper, a country that consumes imports and spends its way to huge trade deficits. What we need to be now is a nation that thinks, that invents stuff, that makes things again, that exports to the world.

In the words of New York Times columnist and Minnesota native Tom Friedman, what we need to be doing is nation building in our own nation. And by this I mean that the next great breakthrough in energy efficiency is going to come from Concordia College — I saw what you guys did with your water saving, by the way — in Moorhead, Minnesota, and not King’s College in Cambridge, England. I want the next advanced window-manufacturing plant in Fargo, North Dakota, not in Frankfurt, Germany, and the next biofuels plant in Benson, Minnesota, and not in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

This is going to be hard work and it’s not going to be easy. But I know that you graduates are up for the test, and I challenge you along with my colleagues in Washington to build a competitive agenda for this country. It means an emphasis on exports. It means an emphais on science and engineering and technology. It means looking at our policies on the local, state and federal level and make sure that they encourage that kind of investment and that kind of innovation.

When we think about education, it means building on everything that you’ve learned here at Concordia. And I know that you all are graduating with a diverse range of degrees and backgrounds and that’s a critical thing. People who get narrow educations also risk having narrow minds. We aren’t going to meet the challenges I laid out if we can’t think big. if we can’t use our imaginations and see things from difference perspectives.

I bring this up because I spend my weekdays in Washington, D.C., a city where there are almost always shades of gray, where the truth is rarely cut and dried and where no one person or political party has a monopoly on truth, despite what they might tell you on TV.

Today we live in a country where it seems the public square has been divided up and fenced off into separate warring camps, where people listen only to themselves while shouting at everyone else. You can’t even turn on the TV without hearing people calling other people things like “fascist” or “socialist,” shouting at each other as if the loudest voice is automatically the one that would win the debate. It’s not a recipe for a lot of bipartisan compromise or for legitimate efforts to find common ground.

When we allow the extremes to crowd out the center, we lose many precious things: the hope of democratic deliberation, the possibility of constructive compromise, even the plain old-fashioned values of common courtesy and mutual respect. I believe in government today people need to engage rather than retreating to opposite ends of that boxing court. Republicans here, Democrats here — it is never going to work. It’s never going to meet the challenges that I laid out today. I use politics as an example, but I believe the same rules apply to virtually all corners of our lives: science, religion, the business world.

Serious discussions will inevitably arouse people’s passions. But there’s no triumph in petty victories. The real triumph is when we’re able to put aside our differences and come together, when we’re able to stop digging trenches and start building bridges.

 

 

Photo courtesy of University of Northern Iowa/University Relations - © 2011

 

Michelle Obama

First lady of the United States
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, Iowa
May 7, 2011

And that’s the third value I hope that you will all embrace – to find that passion within yourself, and follow it wherever it takes you.  With all of the classes, extracurricular activities, and other experiences you’ve had over the last four years, this university has given you so many chances to discover that passion.

But that process of discovery doesn’t stop when you leave this campus.  I know that from my own experience.  Back when I graduated from college, I was certain that I wanted to be a lawyer.  So I did everything I was supposed to do.  I got my law degree.  I went home and got a job at a big firm in Chicago.  By all appearances, I was living the dream.  But the truth is, all the while that I was climbing, I knew something was missing.

Sure, I was working up in a tall building downtown, but when I looked out across the skyline of the city, even though I could see the community I’d come from off in the distance, I was so far up, and so far away, I couldn’t feel that community.  I felt like I was beginning to lose that connection to where I had come from.  And I realized that I didn’t want to climb anymore.  I wanted to be grounded, working with the folks that I knew, folks like the ones I grew up with.  I wanted to be mentoring young people, I wanted to be helping families put food on the table and a roof over their heads, I wanted to be giving folks the kind of chances that I’d had.

So I did something that shocked my friends and family, and added about a decade onto my student loan debt: I quit that job. I left that high-paying firm to go work for the city government.  And from there, I moved on to lead a nonprofit organization called Public Allies, helping young people pursue public service careers.  I wasn’t making nearly as much money and my office wasn’t nearly as big or as nice, but I was working with terrific young people and colleagues who inspired me.

I found that I would wake up every day with excitement, with a sense of purpose and possibility, because I was finally doing something that made me feel fully alive.  And graduates, that’s what I wish for all of you today – for you to find that career, that calling, that makes you feel alive.

Now, I know that your passions may not be the same as mine.  You may feel most alive in front of a classroom, or a board room, or even in one of those high-rise Chicago office buildings.  But no matter what it is, keep that fire burning.  I know that it won’t always be easy.  The path won’t always be laid out neatly for you.  Sometimes you won’t be able to find that perfect job.  Sometimes you might momentarily take a job just to stay afloat.  Those are the realities of life.

But no matter what you do from nine to five, know that you should always try to find some way to pursue what you love.  Maybe it’s a hobby that one day becomes your own business.  Maybe it’s some volunteer work that helps you develop new skills and passions.  You will have some false starts and setbacks along the way.  But I promise you that if you keep listening to yourself, and keep yourself open to new possibilities, new people, and new ways of thinking, you will find a place in this world that feels right for you.

 

Gail Collins
Columnist, The New York Times
Stephens College
Columbia, Missouri
May 7, 2011

(To hear the full speech, click here.)

Never apologize for putting glitter on your mortarboard. This is really important. There are very few things in life that cannot be improved with a little glitter, I swear to you.

And you know in our history for our fight for suffrage in this country when women got the right to vote, it was basically a 50-year-long slog that was really boring and depressing. Women knew they couldn’t get it through Congress because of the Southern senators, so they went from state to state with petitions and referendums, and it went on. They had five referendums in South Dakota alone. There were hardly five people in South Dakota back then but every year they had another referendum. Susan B. Anthony’s sister said she never realized Susan was old till the fifth referendum in South Dakota.

But then suddenly a new generation of women came who were born and were into the new century. It was the beginning of the 1900s and a new generation was coming on, the generation of a new century. And they looked around and they saw what was happening and they said we need parades. We need lots of parades. And we need floats, and we need flowers, and we need a really beautiful woman on a great white horse who’s a fantastic equestrian at the front of the parades, and we need songs, and we need to have games, and we need to have slogans.

And they did and instantly the world got interested in women’s rights all over again.

And there were also protests and there were arrests and there were strikes. But the floats were very important. You have to have great causes and have great fun at the same time. And I know you’re going to march into amazing news paths in the future. And my research shows there’s a distinct possibility that many of you will be doing this marching while wearing extremely uncomfortable but fabulous shoes. That’s OK. Go for it. It’s great.

Whatever challenges you face go for them, talk them over with other women, support other women. Have confidence in the community of women. But you already know all this stuff. You went to this school. You know this stuff better than I do, how important the community of women is in your lives and in your future.

And have faith in the future. The one thing that I was most overwhelmed by when I wrote all these books about women’s history was that the vision of what women could do that had existed from the beginning of civilization, the idea of women’s limits, the idea that women were meant to stay home, that men were meant to lead, women should defer, that men were strong, that women were weak, that men controlled the public world, women controlled the domestic life.

All of those rules that had restricted the possibilities for women from the beginning of time ended in my lifetime. I saw them end and that continues to knock me out to this very day. And the thing is they ended for you.

History made a seismic shift, just recently. It lifted up a platform for you, for the new women who grew up just being themselves, without any of the restrictions that had held forth before that.

We have been waiting for you for all of Western history. And here you are today and I cannot wait to see what you do. You are special and you are chosen and you have been called to an amazing role. But first have lots of desserts tonight.

 

 

 
Other posts in the Collected Wisdom series:

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