Remarks at Eastern Kentucky University Commencement
“The Power of One”
May 5, 2012
Thank you, President Whitlock, and thank you to the leadership of Eastern Kentucky University for the honor of addressing the Class of 2012.
Graduates, thank you for allowing me to share such a special day with you.
My deepest gratitude today is reserved for a member of the Class of 1928.
He was an Army veteran of World War I, a husband, and the father of four young children. He had a job. To the best of my knowledge there is only one photo of him in any Eastern yearbook. I suspect he was just too busy.
By today’s standards, he would be considered a non-traditional student.
By personal definition, he was my grandfather, Albert Wilson.
His decision to sell his farm, leave the mountains of Whitley County, and enroll in college – something completely foreign to anyone in his large Kentucky family – is why I am here today.
And why I am so humbled to be addressing a class of EKU graduates.
A college education changes everything, and changes it forever.
Your decision to attend Eastern Kentucky University, and your determination to graduate, will resonate long after today’s hugs and applause.
A college education sets in motion ideas and careers that few can imagine on commencement day. It prepares you to be flexible, to think creatively and to contribute to the needs of our communities. It gives you the tools and the confidence to create a better tomorrow.
And one day, your grandchildren will thank you.
Like so many women and men who have come to Richmond, Albert Wilson was the first in his family to attend college. His parents were poor and illiterate, like so many of their generation.
While he attended school part-time, Albert worked as foreman of the Stateland Dairy. He milked cows. He was one of 13 charter members of Eastern’s Agricultural Club.
Coal and crops, the natural resources of Kentucky, fueled the economy and put food on tables.
Today, the state’s most precious resource is in this arena: you.
Human capital – the intellectual currency of EKU graduates, and your fellow college graduates throughout Kentucky – will determine the course of this state and nation.
Kentucky ranks 48th in the country for residents with college degrees. I’m not pointing fingers; Michigan is 37th. These are not the kind of rankings anyone likes to brag about.
It makes your achievements today all the more poignant.
You leave here as privileged individuals. You are highly educated. With that education comes tremendous responsibility.
Our world is about to experience the ramifications, good and bad, of a youth bulge – the largest wave of young people in human history.
Half of the world’s population is 30 and younger. In Africa, the number is almost 70 percent.
Eighty-five percent of the world's young people live in developing countries.
These are the workers, the citizens, and the decision-makers of tomorrow. These are people who will want and need decent housing, clean water, access to health care and outlets for their ideas and creativity.
Yet unlike you, most of these young people – your global peers – have little or no connection to higher education or decent-paying jobs. Unemployed and undereducated, they have taken their angst and anger to the streets, from Egypt and Libya to the financial districts of this country.
Even those who do have access to classrooms and teachers – whether in the next county or across the country – could, and should, be better served.
Let me share this observation about the state of global education from experts at the World Bank:
“Very few education systems emphasize the thinking and behavioral skills—motivation, persistence, cooperation, team building, ability to manage risk and conflict—that individuals need to process information and make wise decisions.”
This is the world that awaits you. It is around the globe and just up the road.
This is the world you must navigate, as police officers, teachers, nurses, therapists and counselors.
This is the world you must change, and change for the better.
It is an uncertain, unpredictable environment that makes your education more valuable than ever.
And more critical than Albert Wilson could have imagined when he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky State Teachers College.
I know that across the campus there stands a bronze statue of Daniel Boone, and that rubbing his toe will bring you luck. I hope you gave him one final pat this past week during finals.
We have a similar tradition at Michigan. A large, bronze M marks the center of campus, and any freshman who steps on it is destined to fail that first bluebook exam.
There are far more significant traditions that come with being educated.
As a nation, we have always believed that the next generation deserves more and better.
My guess is some of you today are the first in your family to attend college. And proud as you are feeling, I guarantee your parents and grandparents are prouder.
I was born not far from here, at Pattie A. Clay Hospital. Of course, that event occurred in the old, original building! As Mary Sue Wilson, at age 5, I was a “flower girl” for the annual college formal ball, and I attended Eastern’s Model Laboratory School for the third grade.
I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be back to see both the familiar and the new on campus.
I loved school and learning, and it was because my parents believed in education. Like my grandfather, my father graduated from Eastern. He went on to a master’s degree at Kentucky, a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and a successful career as a chemistry professor.
Like my father and grandfather, all of us – as college graduates – are obligated to improve the world around us, encourage the discovery of new knowledge, and celebrate the achievements of the next generation.
So as of today, you are not only a graduate but also a role model.
You leave here with obligations.
Your fellow citizens will look to you for ideas, answers and knowledge. Citizens who share the same dreams as you, but may not have the education, tools or wealth to achieve them.
I am a biochemist by training, and biochemistry teaches you about reactions in living systems. A college education – the diploma you have worked so hard to earn – has a catalytic effect of geometric proportions.
The decision by my grandfather to attend college – and to encourage his children to attend college – generated 22 bachelor’s and advanced degrees in my generation of the family.
That includes two doctors, a hospital administrator, a county prosecutor, a teacher and a university president.
That is the power of one – one man, one decision, one college education.
The 19th century author and clergyman Edward Everett Hale said, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”
I was in graduate school when my grandfather died. My plans were to become a scientist and college professor, and I’m proud to have spent the first 20 years of my career at the University of Kentucky.
Still, I could never have dreamed of leading the nation’s top public research university. Never.
Albert Wilson and Eastern Kentucky changed the course of my family. It has changed you during your time on campus, and it will deliver untold rewards for you, and for your families and communities, in the years ahead.
Now I am a grandparent. And just like all the grandparents in this arena, I want only the best for my grandchildren.
This is what we want for our young people, and what they deserve. This is what education can and does provide. This is what you, as educated citizens, embody, and what you must champion and celebrate.
Your grandchildren will love you for it.