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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

University of Eastern Kentucky (EKU) Fall Commencement Address
Richmond, KY
December 18, 2010

Good morning, everyone.   

President Whitlock, thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to deliver the commencement address today. Let me also acknowledge your Provost, Dr. Vice, and Associate Provost, Dr. Conneely; General Yerks, and my old friend, Jerry Cecil; most importantly, graduates of the class of 2010, your families and your friends; other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

First, my thanks to President Whitlock for the generosity of this honorary law degree. Speaking to a group of young people on one of the most important days of their lives is privilege enough. To be further honored in this way is more than generous, so thank you.

Now look, my name is Shinseki, and I’m a Soldier. With the exception of General Yerks and Jerry Cecil, we’ve never met before and are not likely to ever see each other again; not my choice, but just a fact. So, I want you to know that I’m honored to be here and that I am privileged to be speaking at the most Veteran-friendly university in the entire country. 650 Veterans are currently enrolled at EKU, and 15 of them are graduating today.

Thousands of EKU Veteran graduates have preceded them and went on to serve our country with honor and distinction. EKU’s support for Veterans has been remarkable, unwavering, and unstinting. “Operation Mend” alone makes it a center of excellence.

Let me invite all of our Veterans—both those graduating today, and those here among the families and friends—to stand, if you are able, and accept our acknowledgement and thanks for your service. Thank you for keeping us the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Let me also acknowledge another group—those who, in a few minutes, will publicly take their commissioning oaths as Second Lieutenants in the United States Army. Not everyone gets to take such an oath. In doing so, they will be taking their places in the long line of 41 million Americans who have safeguarded our Nation in peace and in war, for over 235 years. I congratulate each of them and their families for their commitment to serving our Nation. Knowing what lies ahead of them, I’d trade places with them in a heartbeat.

To all the graduates of the class of 2010—congratulations on fulfilling so many dreams. You will remember today as one of the most joyful days in your lives. And, with good reason; the work is done, the degree is in the bag, the post-graduation party is all planned, Christmas is just around the corner—and now, your only question is, “How long is this guy going to talk?”

Not long, I promise. I’m reminded that a commencement speaker is like the body at an Irish wake; they need you to have the party, but nobody expects you to say much.

So, three bits of advice.

Number one: Don’t let today be the end of your quest for knowledge. What you have achieved here at Eastern Kentucky opens a door to lifelong learning, where knowledge becomes a catalyst for growth and positive change.

Stay curious. Keep asking questions about the things you don’t know or understand. Challenge the quick and easy answers people offer to make the complex seem simple. Life isn’t simple. Grapple with the complex; do your own simplifying. In the process, challenge all the assumptions. And when standing firm just to stand firm doesn’t make any sense, be the agent of change, and strike with enthusiasm. No one likes following the tentative or the wobbly in crises. Your head and your heart, your EKU education and the instincts you honed here, will tell you when change is needed.

We are reminded that “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” That comes from someone named “anonymous.” And, from the wisdom of Saint Augustine, “If you would attain to what you are not yet, you must always be displeased by what you are. For where you are pleased with yourself, there you have remained. Keep adding, keep walking, keep advancing.”

Number two: No one gets this far alone. Take time today to thank those, who helped you get here—special professors and key members of the staff, close friends and classmates, Moms and Dads, husbands and wives, and guardian angels. You will never gather together the same way again. This is a special time; enjoy it. And when you’ve finished saying thanks, pat yourselves on the back; you committed to a big goal in life and stayed the course.

President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “We succeed only as we identify in life, or in war, or in anything else, a single, overriding objective, and make all other considerations bend to that one objective.” In short, you must be determined to succeed, which includes a willingness to prepare, to lay the groundwork for your success. I used to say, in a former life, that “luck plays a role in every operation, but luck favors those who plan best.” To get to today, you have had to live those statements.

Now, you will have the opportunity to decide how to channel your time, your energy, and your talents productively in order to make the most of the opportunities that will certainly come your way.

Third, and my last piece of advice: Even as you put your time, talents, and energy to use, find ways to share them with those less fortunate. Trust me; one of life’s greatest gifts is the privilege of sharing one’s own blessings with others.

I’m talking about more than just “random acts of kindness” here. Random acts of kindness are important, but they are not enough; the world does not thrive this way. What is most needed are unselfish people, who are regularly, habitually, and deliberately kind—people who make caring for others a personal devotion, a part of their everyday lives. That’s what’s really needed, people who are willing to serve the needs of others.

The world needs you. How is that for responsibility? The world needs you.

I was born about a year after the 7 December, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and spent the formative years of my life growing up under martial law in Hawai’i, which was within the Pacific Theater of military operations during World War II.

I came from a family in which there wasn’t much education. Both of my parents dropped out of school at early ages for economic reasons—my dad as a sophomore in high school, my mom as an eighth grader. So from an early age, the pursuit of education became a singular, riveting focus for the children. There was no question that we were going to get our high school diplomas and go to college—never whether, just where.

Like my friends and classmates from those days, I was born into a family that saw no shame in hard work, physical or intellectual. I learned early that there is no greater nobility in life than the willingness to work hard to be the best at whatever you choose to do and to be a good friend to those you meet.

Today, in one of the most affluent parts of this country, almost 70% of the residents of Falls Church, Virginia, have at least a bachelor’s degree, and the median income is near $110,000. At the same time, other counties in our country have fewer than 5% college graduates and median incomes under $20,000. Our President and this administration have made it important to ask two questions that begin with the words why and what—“why are things the way they are,” and “what should we do about them.”

Poverty and hunger are widespread; you can help allay their effects. Disease is decimating whole nations; your skills are needed to bring healing and comfort to the sick. Homelessness haunts our cities; your determination can exorcise it from our Nation. Hate still finds its victims in our free society; your compassion will be called on to help bind the festering wounds of prejudice and ignorance.

Can you do something about it? Of course you can. You have it in your power to take on these challenges and build a better world. That responsibility now falls to you, to help lift others up to see a better world.

America needs great people—people who will be citizens, not spectators; people who will build and enliven their communities; people with courage; and people with character. Eastern Kentucky has done all it can to insure that each of you has these attributes.

Now you are our hope for the future, not only for America, but also for the world. Aspire to greatness in every challenge you accept. Encourage others to aspire along with you. Show them the path to greatness by your example.

In accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in Oslo, 60 years ago, William Faulkner remarked, “I decline to accept the end of [mankind]. I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone, among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

The noble spirit Faulkner described resides in each of you. When you stop asking the questions about why injustices occur and what you can do to resolve them, that spirit is diminished. But using that “inexhaustible voice” to answer what can be done about it preserves the “compassion, sacrifice, and endurance” that, for Faulkner, defined the soul of man.

God bless all of our graduates, their families, and their friends here today. God bless the men and women who serve and have served in uniform. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours. Thank you.