A turn of the tassel, and off they go

Commencement speakers exhort graduates to live as global citizens and to maintain 'quickness of sympathy.'

By

Anna Quindlen

Novelist, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist
Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y.

I can predict, with what I think is considerable accuracy, this about the century to come:

It will be remarkable because its history will be shaped and written by a group of what promise to be truly remarkable human beings. You're what demographers named the millennials, born between 1975 and 1994, 70 million strong, the biggest bump in our national line graph since the baby boomers. For my money you are a great bunch.

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That's not the conventional wisdom about your generation, if you read newspapers and magazines. It's littered with negatives. The younger members are said to be spoiled, overindulged by guilty working parents, powered by the timpani of medication and video games. The teenagers are associated in the public mind with lewd music, foul mouths, and one school shooting after another.

Born after Watergate, Woodstock, and Vietnam; heirs to the microchip and the cathode ray tube; under pressure from parents who are high achievers or wish they had been; in a world in which seemingly endless choices, good and bad, swirl like flakes in a snow globe; you live a life that the one-size-fits-all generations before you can scarcely imagine.

The dutiful son has a pierced tongue, the student government president dresses like Morticia Addams. Where once we could identify who was who by the college, the color, the crewneck sweater, now the lines of identity are constantly blurred. I suspect that you're going to need this spirit of individual inquiry and self-confidence as you grow along with this country.

Samuel Butler once said, "Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along." Look in the mirror tonight. Who is that man? Who is that woman? She is the work of your life. He is its greatest glory.

So pick up your violin and lift your bow and play, play your heart out, live well, because you are our role models.

John Herrington

NASA astronaut
South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Rapid City

I went to college in 1976 not knowing what I wanted to do or what I was going to study. I ended up learning how to rock climb and spent a good portion of my time in the mountains. As a result, I earned two Ds my freshman year of college and they kicked me out the door.

It wasn't because I wasn't intelligent - it was because I wasn't motivated.

That year I was out of college I worked for an engineering firm. My job was to hang off canyon walls and hold a prism as part of a survey crew. If you know point A to point B, and how long it takes to get there, you know the distance. You know the angles, you know the rises to run. You know trigonometry. I was learning trig on the side of a rock from folks outdoors.

The fellow I worked for took maybe 30 minutes to make a difference in my life. He said, "What are you going to do with your life?" Let's see, I'm making $4 an hour, room and board paid, living in the mountains, skiing on weekends. What more could [I] want? And he said, "You need to go back to school."

Everybody here has somebody they're thinking about who has made a difference. Honor them. Take what you've learned and put that knowledge into practice. Do your very best in whatever field you've chosen. In doing that, you're going to make a difference in this world.

And once you've done some good stuff, you get to return the favor. This world today, right now, is a better place because you're sitting in those chairs and you're getting a degree, because you're going to go out in this world and make a difference.

Meryl Streep

Oscar-winning actress
University of New Hampshire, Durham

I went to school in New Hampshire as one of the first women to integrate Dartmouth College. We were 60 intrepid girls on a campus of 6,000 men. We tried to lead them, gently, toward a difficult idea - that women are valuable to a university.

Your graduation class of nearly 3,000 is almost 2-to-1 women, and your school is not an anomaly. This imbalance, to differing degrees, is replicated at colleges and universities around the country.

Scan the mastheads of news organizations, the lists of top echelons of business, the hierarchies of power in government, and it still reads pretty much like it did in the middle of the last century, or the century before that. It's like the membership list of the Augusta Golf Club today.

Why this discrepancy? Why does it hurt more to lose to a girl unless, deep down, you think girls are worth less than boys? This is an old and deep-seated prejudice; you can circle the globe and find its gnarly roots wrapped around the foundations of many societies.

The gentlemen of the graduating class experienced life on campus as members of the minority. At least this may have given you an appreciation for the importance of preserving the rights of the few. Put blinders on those things that conspire to hold you back, especially the ones in your own head, and guard your good mood.

Kofi Annan

Secretary-General, United Nations
Duke University, Durham, N.C.

There are few moments in life so powerfully mixed with hope and fear as this one - this day on which you take wing in the wider world, this day on which you and the world start to test each other a bit more seriously.

Whether you are in Ghana or here in Durham, there is no such thing as thinking only in terms of your own country. Global forces press in from every conceivable direction. We are increasingly connected through travel, trade, the Internet, and even sports.

In such a world, issues that once seemed very far away are very much in your backyard. What happens in South America or Southern Africa - from democratic advances to deforestation to the fight against AIDS - can affect your lives here in North Carolina. And your choices here - what you buy, how you vote - can resound far away.

As someone once said of water pollution, we all live downstream.

The world is at a critical juncture, and so are you. The question typically heard at this time of year - "What are you going to do?" - is a bit more charged than usual.

Make your plans, pursue your chosen fields, and don't stop learning. But be open to the detours that lead to new discoveries, for therein lies some of the spice and joy of life. And remember, if this is a world of peril, it is to a far greater degree one of enormous opportunity.

Richard Parsons

Chairman & CEO, AOL Time Warner
University of Hawaii, Manoa

My job is to explain why this commencement is more significant than any other. Fortunately for me, circumstances have already seen to that. Yours was the last class to enter the University of Hawaii in the 20th century and the first to complete its full course of study in the 21st.

The third millennium arrived during your freshman year, and the whole world joined in the celebration. The stock market was roaring. Our economy was on its longest winning streak in history. A chorus of optimists claimed that, as good as things were, they'd only get better. The spread of free markets was inexorable.

What followed wasn't expected or predicted. The dotcom bubble burst. Easy riches evaporated, as easy riches often do. On Sept. 11, 2001, we found ourselves at war, and it arrived in the same manner it did here in Hawaii 60 years before, only this time the targets were office buildings, not battleships.

This isn't the first time - and it won't be the last - that one generation has been confronted with the mess another generation made. We've grown accustomed to hearing the men and women who came through the Depression and World War II referred to as "the greatest generation." But greatness wasn't handed them - enormous problems and challenges were. Fate confronted them with the near collapse of the country's economy and a worldwide assault on democracy. Their greatness lay in their response to those events.

The new millennium, which once seemed - to borrow Matthew Arnold's famous words - "to lie before us like a land of dreams/ so various, so beautiful, so new" - has proved rife with age-old problems. The eventual outcome is passing into your hands.

I'm confident you'll be greater than any generation that's come before - not just wealthier and more successful, but more committed, compassionate, and caring; more determined that liberty and opportunity be available to people everywhere. The time is ripe. Seize the day.

Seamus Heaney

Nobel Prize-winning novelist
Emory College, Atlanta

The human condition can be understood as a series of immense climaxes and cataclysms in the historical record, but equally and intimately, the human condition is experienced in the privacy and bewilderment of the individual consciousness.

If literature has a virtue, if those works of the human imagination that have been preserved for millennia have a virtue, it is surely their ability to make us realize fully and feelingly what is happening to us as individuals and as nations. We need this realization. The strange truth is this: It is in times of deepest public crisis that we are driven deepest into our private selves.

You graduate at a solemn moment, in the aftermath of grave suffering endured on your shores and grave action taken beyond them, and as citizens of this more somber world you will be faced with the challenge to maintain both balance of mind and quickness of sympathy - to maintain what poet Wilfred Owen called the "eternal reciprocity of tears."

To put it more simply, you will be challenged to be wise and to be good. Turn to the poets and writers and visionaries who took the strain and held the line and stood their ground in the hard-won, decisive place. And then, Class of 2003, go you in your turn and do likewise.

Teresa Heinz Kerry

Philanthropist
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

The United States has become a military, economic, and cultural power the likes of which the world has never seen. Americans can rightly take pride in that fact, and we do. But we must never mistake that power for who we truly are.

Long before it became a colossus on the world stage, our nation was known for the spirit of its remarkable people. Everywhere in the world, that spirit has touched a chord. It touched me as a girl growing up far away in Mozambique. America isn't just a country; it is an ideal. Here, freedom is defined not just by the absence of tyranny, but by the presence of those most elusive of human faiths: faith in ourselves and trust in each other.

As you leave here today, graced with a level of education available to only the smallest fraction of the world's citizens, I hope you will think about how to carry that spirit with you.

It will be the defining challenge of your generation. And while we may fight for it at times on the field of battle, the cause will ultimately be lost or won on the field of ideas. Your generation will win it by creating a world where differences in race and culture and religion are accepted, where the environment is protected, where human rights are valued, and where individuals can live their lives in dignity and to the utmost of their abilities. Make that your fight. Make that your struggle.

Madeleine Albright

Former secretary of State
Washington University, St. Louis

Today, in most places, in most cases, America will stand taller and do better if we are part of a larger team. This matters to us all, because we have learned over and over again that the ideals transmitted and cherished at Washington University and other great centers of liberal education are not self-perpetuating.

Our ideals have enemies, and those enemies can amass great power and inflict enormous harm, especially when democratic forces are divided and bickering.

What is vital is that free nations continue to agree on the big things, so that past mistakes become future lessons, and the demons of terror and totalitarianism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, are recognized early and stoutly opposed.

I hope each of you will use the knowledge gained here at this university to be more than a consumer of liberty, but also a defender and an enricher of it, employing your talents to heal, help, and teach. I hope you will be doers not drifters, and that you will choose to live life boldly, with largeness of spirit and generosity of heart.

It is said that all work that is worth doing is done in faith.

Today, I urge us all to embrace the faith that every dispute remedied by our patience, every prejudice rebutted by our courage, every danger surmounted by our vigilance, and every barrier to justice brought down by our determination will ennoble our own lives, inspire others, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

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