Good evening, everyone!
Thank you, Ambassador Cobb, for that kind introduction. Let’s hear it for President Shalala. Thank you for your distinguished service to our country and your extraordinary leadership of the University of Miami.
I’m truly honored to be here. And I’m hoping that if my speech is good enough, someone will invite me to the Rat.
This is an amazing university. It’s hard to think of another school in America whose reputation has soared as high as the University of Miami’s over the past twenty years. That’s a tribute to President Shalala, to President Foote before her, and to this vibrant, diverse student body.
Your university has had the great fortune to be led by visionaries. And you are the result: graduates who are fired up and ready to take on the world.
Over the past four years, you’ve grappled with the great mysteries…like what the Iron Arrow Society is. You’ve confronted the painful parts of your heritage…like getting robbed at Tempe. You’ve coped with great hardships…like living in Pearson. And you’ve confronted great challenges…like all those comebacks against the Seminoles.
So congratulations class of 2012! You’ve achieved something enormous. I hope you’re feeling proud of yourselves. I know the rest of us are.
Let’s also hear it for the parents out there. My kids are old enough for me to know that it has not been easy for the Moms and Dads either. They’ve made big sacrifices to invest in your future. I hope you’ll always remember that — and don’t forget to call your mother.
Now, I remember my own commencement. Kind of. But I don’t remember much about the commencement speech. In fact, as President Shalala has said, “Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the body at an Irish wake. They need you in order to have the party, but nobody expects you to say much.”
Even so, tonight, as you relish your accomplishments, I want you to think about what lies ahead for you and the world you’ll shape.
You are graduating at a moment of furious change and enormous potential. And, time after time, the engine of that change has been your generation.
Think of the Arab Awakening. Powered by vision and daring, linked by technology and social networks, young people from Tunisia to Libya, from Egypt to Syria rose up to reject authoritarian regimes. Enough, they said. Enough repression. Enough unemployment. Enough corruption. Enough of the tyrants who use brutal force against their people.
They did not just want change. They demanded it. And they made it happen.
I will never forget visiting Benghazi, Libya, last November. Just months earlier, Qaddafi’s forces had been at the city’s gates, and he vowed to lay it to waste. Now Benghazi is free. I met the rappers who created the beat of the revolution. I met the young poets, cartoonists, and bloggers who dared defy Qaddafi. I met the young engineers who rewired the phone system for eastern Libya so that Qaddafi’s henchmen could no longer intercept the rebels’ calls.
I met the parents of a fearless young journalist named Muhammad Nabbous who sacrificed his life to free his country. Together, they have all planted the seeds of what they now call “Free Libya.”
In Libya, as throughout the Arab world, their ultimate success may not yet be assured. But these young people have tried mightily. And they are not about to stop now.
Like so many before them, these young people are inspired by the universal yearning to be free. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Every person—no matter her religion, race, sexual orientation, gender or culture—shares that innate hunger, that irrepressible impulse to demand the human rights we all share.
As Americans, we have embraced this profound demand for freedom and human dignity. Our history defines it. Our principles demand it. And our security depends on it.
Some argue that we can’t place our ideals over our interests. But let’s be clear: our national interests are advanced by our ideals. That is because free societies, democratic societies, are ultimately more prosperous, more peaceful, more just, and thus more stable. And that is because our ideals define who we are as a people, and the role that the United States plays as a leader in the world.
The practice of liberty is the work of each generation, but the principle of liberty was present at our creation. And each new generation of Americans has pushed to enlarge our freedom, because that is the American way.
Now, that imperative falls to you.
As you know, the University of Miami was an all-white school until January 1961, when the school’s board bravely decided to admit students regardless of race. In part, the inspiration for integration came from outside Florida – from our neighbors to the south, born like us out of the revolt against colonial rule. Even in 1961, this university’s leaders looked at our diversity and saw that our future lay not in limiting freedom; it lay in expanding freedom.
In my time, an elderly political prisoner named Nelson Mandela walked down the path of reconciliation and ended apartheid in South Africa. In 1989, the yearning for freedom ended a Cold War that split the globe for more than forty years. Yes, we knew communism could not deliver. We knew that half a world could not remain shackled forever, but still it sometimes felt like the world would never change.
And then suddenly it did. Old leaders gave way. A wall cracked. You can rarely predict when such a crack will emerge and how large it will become. But today, we stand again at such a hinge in history. And we all must do our part.
Your generation is already producing its own heroes. I remember, especially, a young Iranian woman named Neda who was murdered by the regime in June 2009, as it stole an election and crushed peaceful protests. Neda and other young Iranians risked it all, and their movement did not succeed – not yet. But their bravery inspired young people in nations nearby. And everything that has happened since must make the tyrants in Tehran shudder.
History changed when a produce seller in a quiet Tunisian city got fed up with police harassment and burned himself to death. His desperate deed sparked protests across Tunisia that ended decades of dictatorship in just four weeks.
Then, young people in Egypt flooded into Tahrir Square. Ordinary citizens rallied in Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain and in the streets of Yemen. Schoolchildren watched the revolutions on television in Deraa, Syria, then rushed out to paint graffiti demanding their own tyrant go. And revolution came to Syria.
We do not know how all this will turn out. We cannot expect the immediate future to be smooth or easy; indeed, it will not be. The advance of democracy is rarely linear or swift, as our own history shows. But liberty is always the wise long-term bet. A freer world is a more secure world.
Before he became president, Barack Obama put it this way: “The institutions of democracy – free markets, a free press, a strong civil society – cannot be built overnight, and they cannot be built at the end of a barrel of a gun. And so we must realize that the freedoms FDR once spoke of – especially freedom from want and freedom from fear – do not just come from deposing a tyrant and handing out ballots; they are only realized once the personal and material security of a people is ensured as well.” In short, we need a world freer both from want and tyranny. To improve security at home, we must improve lives around the world.
Your generation gets this. Think of all those social networking tools that your parents can’t stand or don’t really understand – like Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and Twitter. They have revolutionized dissent by allowing protestors to organize without being exposed. Technology powers political change by making local struggles instantly global.
Across the globe, change is being driven by people like yourselves—people like you, but with much less than you: less freedom, less security, less opportunity than we enjoy in the United States. So you must do your part. It is in the American tradition and in the American interest that such profound change must also be driven by you.
The challenges we face here in the U.S. are different but no less worthy. We need you to question, to participate, to innovate, to serve, and to demand the full measure of freedom and opportunity that our founders promise. We need you to lead.
Is it an America where men and women actually earn the same pay for the same day’s work? Is it an America where whom you love and choose to marry is no longer fodder for political debate? Is it an America where chronic illness cannot lead to chronic poverty?
Is it an America where college is accessible and affordable for all? Is it an America where we produce the energy we consume, and the energy we consume no longer threatens our climate? Is it an America with more and more good jobs that continues to export and innovate so that our economy remains the world’s leader?
Whatever your vision is, lead in making it real.
As President Obama has said, “Ours is a story of optimism and achievement and constant striving that is unique upon this Earth. And that is why the rest of the world looks to us to lead.”
Precisely because you have so much, now including this great University of Miami education, you have so much to give. The great challenges America faces will not be met without you, just as the great challenges our world faces will not be met without America. So shape our great nation and shape our changing world.
President Shalala sometimes offers 10 lessons for graduates. So let me conclude my own 10 lessons about how to change the world.
First, always challenge yourselves.
Second, get out of your comfort zone—you’re too young to take the easy road.
Third, go travel—get dust in your hair.
Fourth, learn more languages—see the world through other eyes.
Fifth, focus on what stirs your soul. It’s hard to excel at anything that you don’t love.
Sixth, be fearless. It is difficult to make progress without breaking at least a little crockery.
Seventh, don’t be afraid to go down fighting, if you’re fighting a righteous battle.
Eighth, never want something so badly that you do something you don’t believe in to get it.
Ninth, don’t sweat what other folks may think of you. As Dr. Seuss said, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
Tenth, be about more than money. Comfort and economic security are good, but they’re not enough. You should be about creating change, not just counting it.
Class of 2012, yours is the first truly global generation of young people.
Your generation is changing the world with incredible speed.
Your generation must give hope to those who still sleep in the dust.
For there truly is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something in the spirit that drives us to free those still in chains.
There is something in our beloved nation that calls us to serve and to strive.
Now is the time to start being the change you want to see. You have the privilege, you have the power, and you have the responsibility.
I know you can. I know you will.
Congratulations graduates, and best of luck.
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