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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

2012 Lansing Community College (LCC) Commencement
Michigan State University
May 18, 2012

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki 2012 Lansing Community College (LCC) Commencement Breslin Center Michigan State University May 18, 2012

Good evening, everyone. I am honored to be here. Grant [Ridley], , thank you for that kind introduction and for inviting me to provide brief remarks this evening—with emphasis on brief. Let me also acknowledge:

  • Your president, Dr. Brent Knight: Thank you for your generosity and hospitality;

  • Members of the board of trustees;

  • Distinguished members of the faculty and staff;

  • Distinguished alumnus—Mike Gannon, and his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Phil Gannon;

  • Fellow veterans—including Virgil Westdale, who served with the famed 522d Field Artillery Battalion during World War II; other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen;

  • And most importantly, members of the Lansing Community College Class of 2012:

Grant Ridley, president of your Student Veterans Association, represents a small but important part of your graduating class. There are roughly 58 Veterans graduating tonight and probably another 400 Veterans attending undergraduate classes at LCC—some of them combat Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me invite the graduating Veterans to stand and remain standing, if you are able to, or raise a hand, so we can recognize you. [Applause] Let me further ask all the other Veterans in the audience to join them so we can acknowledge your service to our Nation as well. Thank you all very much.

Congratulations to every member of this graduating class! What you have accomplished for yourselves and your families is absolutely superb—for some, balancing family and school; for others, balancing work with study; for others still, balancing all three. Well done.

Success in virtually every profession begins with education, and the higher, the better. Now I know some will point to Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, and say, “Well, they never finished college.” That’s true, but they were not uneducated. They came by their educations differently—just not in a college classroom. For the rest of us, education came through an institution of higher learning.

For you, your work here at LCC is done. You have achieved your goals, and now you face new opportunities and new challenges in your life. Challenges are good. If you apply yourselves as you did here at Lansing, you will grow from them. Keep on learning—keep on growing.

I would like to tell you about a young woman who was orphaned at age 12, after having promised her dying father that she would keep the three youngest of her six siblings together—not letting them be scattered through adoption.

She dropped out of elementary school before completing the eighth grade and worked a variety of jobs—as a day servant in the home of a wealthy family, a store clerk, postal clerk, and ticket seller at the local movie theater—anything that would keep the family together and afloat financially.

Married at age 19, she had her first child at age 21. Money was scarce, so she competed for one of two, full-ride, state scholarships to a beauty college. Despite her lack of an eighth grade education and a high school diploma, she miraculously landed one of those two scholarships—through sheer hard work, self-study, and determination.

At age 22, she chose to leave her husband and year-old son for two long years to travel alone across the ocean to complete her studies, before returning home fully licensed as a beautician to open her own beauty salon. It was 1933; the Great Depression was on; and the woman was my mother; and, yes, she kept her promise to her father.

We lost her in 2006, at age 95. Till the very end, despite an enviable life of business and family success, she regretted greatly that she had never graduated from high school. She somehow felt her life was incomplete. What she would give to trade places with any of you this evening. She would have been so very proud to be sitting where you are—all gowned and gussied up.

As you might expect, her lack of a formal education became a major influence in my life. She was determined that I would have a better outcome educationally than she had—and she succeeded. She would be so proud of each of you this evening.

There are others who are equally proud of you. No one gets this far alone, so take time today to thank those who helped you get here: moms, dads, husbands, wives, close friends, classmates, special professors, key members of the staff . . . guardian angels. And when you’ve finished saying thanks to all of them, pat yourselves on the back. You took on a big goal in life, and you stayed the course. Congratulations, to all of you.

Don’t let Lansing be the end of your educational journey. Stay curious. Keep asking questions about the things you don’t know or understand. Keep challenging the explanations people often quickly offer to make the complex appear simple. Life simply isn’t that way. Grapple with the complex; do your own simplifying. Challenge all the assumptions. In doing so, you will make education the lifelong journey that it should be for all of us. And, you won’t be bored, I assure you.

Now, I know things are still tough out here:

  • An economy that has been slower to recover from the worst financial crises since the Great Depression;

  • Unemployment rates to no one’s liking;

  • Stiff competition for every job opening.

The President has pushed hard to get the economy growing again, trying to ensure everyone gets a fair shot at success. He knows, better than anyone else, that there’s more to be done. Until things are back to where they should be, my mother used to remind me that you had to be tough in the 1930’s. There was not much welfare, no Social Security, no child labor laws, no Medicare like we have today. You just got out there and hustled—took any job to start, earned your way up. Made folks acknowledge your talents. There is nobility in hard work. Seek it. Earn your way.

Americans have always faced uncertainty and hardship, but America was built by optimists. Mom lived through two world wars; the stock market collapse of 1929; the Great Depression that followed, when unemployment hit about 22 percent; Korea; Vietnam; the assassination of a president, his brother, and a great 20th century American named Martin Luther King. My mother would say of today’s economy, “Somebody’s hiring. Get out there, find a job, and start working.”

There’s an old saying I learned in central Texas: “You can’t wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time. You have to do one or the other.” My mother would have been all for rolling one’s sleeves up, and getting on with it.

It’s sometimes said that people succeed because they are destined to, but in truth, most people succeed because they are determined to.

You are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime, and it will be yours to navigate—you, by yourself. Sure, family and friends will still be there as safety nets to your choices, but you'll have to decide which paths you will follow. To quote a line from a famously popular children’s book, "Oh, the places you'll go."

So let me leave you with a last bit of advice tonight. I’ve already shared two bits of advice with you: Thank those who helped get you here; make lifelong learning a part of your lives.

This last bit of advice: As you put your time, talents, and energy to productive uses, find ways to share them with those less fortunate than yourselves. Make no mistake about it—one of life’s greatest gifts is the privilege of sharing one’s own blessings with others. And 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 people who make caring about others a part of their everyday lives. That’s what’s really needed—people who willingly serve the needs of others.

Every generation must find inspiration—inspiration worthy of its highest aspirations, by which to fire its drive for excellence, and with which to achieve its dreams. Make the world a kinder and gentler place, and in doing so, make it safer for our children and grandchildren. The country will continue to require the broad shoulders of the adventuresome, the determined, and the inspiring to lead us all. Keep us at the head of the line.

I wish you all the very best in your lives. Good luck; we'll all be watching. God bless each of you, and may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.