April 28, 2007
Congratulations to a class of graduates so remarkable that we have to show you off to the 42nd president of the United States!
President Clinton, the University community welcomes you to the Big House! We do many things well at Michigan, and the team we’ve put on the field today is one of our best!
Just as special as our graduates are their families, for the love and encouragement they have given to make today possible. Graduates, please join me in thanking your families for all they have done for you.
I’d like to begin this morning with the story of two boys, born some 500 miles and 33 years apart but with common bonds between them.
The first boy was born into violence, with a father who slapped his wife and threatened his newborn son with a butcher knife.
The second boy was born to a single mother and lived with a stepfather who abused alcohol and handguns in front of his young family.
The first days and years of these boys’ lives were marked by every indicator that foreshadows a troubled life: divorce, alcoholism, poverty and domestic violence.
But each young man would come to know the power of encouragement. They flourished under the love of their mothers, the mentoring of their teachers and coaches, and the benevolence of their neighbors. They found refuge in sports and music, and excelled in the classroom. As high school seniors, each earned a trip to Washington, D.C., where both saw a glimpse of their futures.
These boys, each seemingly born under a dark sign, would grow up to become president of the United States.
One of them, William Jefferson Clinton, honors us with his presence today. And the other honored our university for decades by being our most famous alumnus and our most dedicated public servant: President Gerald R. Ford.
No child should have to experience the volatility that marked the childhoods of these two leaders. And yet every child should share in the tremendous goodwill they received from so many people who believed in them.
Graduates, you leave the University of Michigan today with an education that has prepared you for an electrifying world that is changing faster than imaginable.
You now have the skills to make an impact as engineers, writers, teachers, scientists, and business leaders who will transform communities, corporations and countries.
But more important than your achievements at the office, in the boardroom or in the laboratory will be your life’s other work: that of being a parent, a coach, a neighbor, a mentor.
Regardless of what your business card says, you are first and foremost a citizen of the world. Where you will make a real difference is in how you treat and support others, because those are the actions that will truly change a life.
Seven thousand miles from here, in the country of Rwanda, HIV infects a quarter-million people. For mothers with the disease, it is absolutely vital to feed their babies with infant formula rather than risk transmitting the disease through nursing. This is a public health challenge in a country where no corporation manufactures baby formula.
Last year, four students from the Ross School of Business set out to find a solution. For seven weeks, Mathieu Van Assche, Leena Ray, Mark Bailey, and Amisha Parekh explored the many obstacles to providing proper nutrition to babies. They worked alongside government officials and business executives with the single goal of ensuring a healthy future for Rwanda’s most vulnerable citizens.
These students devoted their time and ideas in Rwanda with the support of the Clinton Foundation, and Mr. President, they are with us in the stadium today.
Two generations have passed since John F. Kennedy stood on the steps of the Michigan Union and energized students with his concept of the Peace Corps. Michigan students did more than just listen to a candidate’s speech; hundreds of them signed petitions saying they were ready, right then and there, to become volunteers, and John Kennedy realized he had struck a nerve. To this day, the U-M is always among the top universities with graduates in the Peace Corps.
Bill Clinton’s legacy as president will be written by tomorrow’s historians. But I believe one of the greatest gifts he gave our country was AmeriCorps, the domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps that encourages citizens to improve our communities, our schools and our environment.
I’m proud that the first director of AmeriCorps was Eli Segal, a U-M alumnus, and that over the years, Michigan students have devoted nearly 476,000 hours — an amazing 54 years — to AmeriCorps.
Graduates, when you applied to become a U-M student, it was important that you demonstrate your commitment to community service. We always want our student body to uphold the Michigan tradition of service to others.
And you have. You have helped rebuild New Orleans on Alternative Spring Break. You’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars by dancing for hours to help children in need. You have embraced prison inmates and shared their art with the world.
As you prepare to leave Ann Arbor, please don’t pack away your service work in the same box with your textbooks and faded U-M T-shirts. Take the leadership that is a Michigan education, and share it with those around you.
Becoming engaged does not require traveling around the world to Rwanda. Becoming engaged means voting. It means tutoring a second-grader, being a big brother, or delivering meals to senior citizens.
Being an engaged citizen also means a better life — for you. Research has shown us the positive health benefits of giving back. If you want to live longer, start volunteering tomorrow.
Years from now, when you look at your Michigan diploma, reflect on the fact that the president who created AmeriCorps and founded the Clinton Foundation delivered your commencement address. Remember that you graduated from the same university that produced a president who helped heal our nation following one of its darkest periods.
Know that you have this bond with two individuals who every day personified the power of giving back to make the world a better place.
Gerald Ford had a high school principal who believed in him, and an aunt and uncle who helped pay his tuition bills. Bill Clinton had a grandmother who taught him to read, and teachers who nurtured his intellect.
When you step forward to coach a soccer team or mentor your niece … when you help clean up a local park or raise money to end childhood diseases … when you find your own unique way to share your compassion, know that you will make a difference.
And that one person you touch just might grow up to become president of the United States.