Martha J. Kanter's Commencement Speech
May 15, 2012
Photo by David Woods
On Saturday, May 12, and Sunday, May 13, Martha Kanter, under secretary of U.S. Department of Education, was the commencement speaker for the Hamilton Holt School and Colleges of Arts & Sciences and Professional Studies' 2012 Commencement Ceremonies. Below are the speeches she delivered.
Thank you, President Duncan. It’s inspiring to be here but, I must say, it’s a challenge to follow Christian or Michael! If this is the standard for communications in a Rollins classroom, no wonder U.S. News and World Report ranks Rollins first in the South with the best value for students.
Let me now congratulate the Class of 2012! It’s obvious that you have chosen well and that you know how to communicate, essentials for your success going forward.
Today is an important milestone in your personal and professional journey – and it’s a journey you started off right. By enrolling at Florida’s ranking liberal arts college and one of the nation’s finest institutions of higher education, you clearly set out to challenge yourselves and secure a rigorous education.
And, by persisting – no matter what hurdles you faced along the way – by completing all the courses required for your major, and earning your degrees, you’ve made the best possible investment in your future I can imagine.
It’s evident that the entire Rollins community cares deeply about what it takes to equip you with the knowledge and skills for success as leaders in our increasingly competitive global economy that surrounds our hyper-connected knowledge society. Your professors, your provost, your president, your trustees and everyone here – especially your family and friends - are focused on your success. Your commencement signifies to everyone that you will make a difference in building a future for our nation and our world that will give you and the generations that follow you the civic, social and economic prosperity upon which our democracy was founded.
Part of our mission at the U.S. Department of Education is to preserve the legacy of higher education in our country that we inherited as a fundamental opportunity for every American who has a dream for a better life and a brighter future. Today American higher education is the envy of the world, but we cannot rest on our laurels at any point in time.
And that’s obviously not the Rollins culture, even if you are first among many. That’s why each of you and every graduating class across our nation will propel our nation’s capacity and prosperity to be the model for the rest of the world.
Let’s pause for a moment and thank President Duncan and the Rollins trustees, faculty, administrators, and staff for their dedication to higher education as they tirelessly advance the quality of a Rollins education that is well-poised to keep pace with changing needs and conditions of our time.
I applaud Rollins’ plans to advance innovation in teaching and learning by incorporating flexible, creative approaches to assessment, a stronger focus on the integration and application of knowledge, and even more effective uses of educational technology.
I also applaud the work underway here to accelerate time-to-degree, from offering a year-round curriculum, to expanding 3+2 programs, which combine a Bachelor’s degree and a Master’s degree in one five-year sequence.
What’s more, I know Rollins is weighing other steps that are hallmarks of a 21st Century campus, from increasing community engagement, entrepreneurship, civic learning, and global competencies to expanding plans for environmental sustainability. You’ve already earned “Green College” status from The Princeton Review!
Of course, to my mind, what will most distinguish a 21st Century college in this country is when every student who enters college graduates with a degree that signifies, like Rollins does, that you have received a quality education. That’s a standard we must achieve as a nation.
So, graduates, in the years ahead, as you become the exemplars of your alma mater, remember that Rollins never rests on its laurels, but will continue its transformation like you are doing, to be that exemplar for our nation that strives for excellence and innovation.
We’ve come together today both to celebrate your accomplishments, and to launch you on exciting new adventures.
We say that whenever students walk across the stage to accept a degree, their whole family walks with them. Clearly, this arena is full of the very people who’ve believed in you and supported you every step of the way. I’m sure you agree your family and friends deserve a round of thanks as they honor each of you on this wonderful occasion.
Please stand, turn to face them and join me now in thanking your family, friends, professors, staff and mentors. Let’s give them a round of applause for all that they’ve done, and all that they’ve given, to help you reach this special day. Please be seated.
Rollins Class of 2012, each of you has your own unique success story that accompanies the proud record of “personal bests” here at Rollins. I’ve been deeply inspired by your achievements and want to mention a few.
Aislynn Betancourt is one of six Rollins students who’ve received Fulbright awards this year. Aislynn, a religious studies major and a Jewish studies minor, will travel to Malaysia to learn more about the practices of the country’s three largest religions – Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Think about her new opportunity for leadership in building bridges across the world’s religions. When she completes her Fulbright program, Aislynn plans to pursue dual advanced degrees in law and religious studies.
Physics major Aditya Mahara who you’ve already heard from graduates with special recognition for his Outstanding Academic Achievement in his major, and will be continuing his studies at Dartmouth College. After founding the non-profit “Making Lives Better” chapter and preparing to lead the organization’s third trip to Nepal this summer, I can only imagine what’s next. During past visits, Adi and his team installed water purification filters in primary schools, and collaborated with other charitable organizations to offer health check-ups and distribute medical supplies in the region. Think about his opportunity for leadership in creating healthy living conditions for people who suffer in our world today.
Coincidentally, your fellow graduate Ian Wallace is also heading to Nepal to immerse himself in the Nepali language as part of his Fulbright experience. Ian is an international relations major who won special commendation for superior work in his minor, Asian Studies. And, when he returns to the U.S., Ian hopes to work for Teach for America. Ian, as a lifelong educator, you have my special thanks! We need a million gifted new teachers in the years ahead to replace those who will retire and to meet the needs of our growing population. And we need those teachers to transform the millions of lives they will change for the better.
Then there’s women’s golf standout Fabia Rothenfluh who is also an award-winning economics graduate! Fabia spent last summer in South Africa as part of a social entrepreneurship team with the ThinkImpact organization, helping local South Africans create a bakery. Now that she’s earned her degree from Rollins, Fabia plans to pursue a Master’s degree at the University of Switzerland, Lugano. Imagine the opportunities for international leadership that await her.
These are just a few of the hundreds of examples of the spirit of excellence and service that characterizes each of you in the Class of 2012. I want each of you to know what a great inspiration you are to me and to all of us here with you today.
As the Under Secretary of Education, every day in office, leaders from our nation and the world ask the government for help. I try every day to listen carefully and respond, always considering what’s best for all of us, not just some. That’s why I’m so honored to be your commencement speaker, because I now have the opportunity to ask you for help. I want you to take one extra step in the months and years head of you.
This is what I ask of you: I want you to tell your stories to others, the stories about how you entered and succeeded at Rollins, what you did, how you overcame the challenges you faced, how you felt here today and how you leveraged your education to make a difference in your community, your nation and the world.
I ask you to take special care to encourage young people in your family and in your circle of friends and coworkers to study hard, focus on their future, finish high school, and enter and graduate from college. You can also encourage older relatives or neighbors to pursue further education, or to finish a degree they put on hold years ago. Yesterday’s Hamilton Holt School Commencement included a 73-year-old Master’s degree recipient! That’s true lifelong learning!
I ask you to make the commitment to help others work hard to set and achieve challenging educational goals for themselves as you have done. As you receive your degree today, please remember that you’re not only changing the course of your own lives and serving as examples in your communities. You’re also demonstrating to all of the people who will look up to you that their own achievements are possible. And, even more, by your example, you are doing your part to ensure a brighter future for America.
Right now, bold steps are needed to secure our nation’s prosperity, and preserve the American Dream for future generations. Today, just over 40% of Americans have college degrees. Working together as a country, we need to bring that number up to around 60% by the end of this decade to make sure our country remains the model nation for the world, a model for civic, social and economic prosperity, a model for responsibility to our people, and a model for preserving and strengthening the values of our democracy across our nation and throughout the world.
Just a generation ago, the United States had the world’s highest proportion of college graduates. But we’ve now slipped … to 16th place - and that’s cause for alarm, because, as President Obama often says, “the nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
That’s why, soon after taking office, he challenged us all to meet an ambitious goal: that, by 2020, America will again have “the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.” Your graduation today signifies that you are bringing us closer to reaching that goal.
Since establishing that goal, President Obama has worked tirelessly with Congress to help more Americans fulfill their goals of college, rewarding careers, and prosperous lives. We’ve made the largest investment in federal student aid since the G.I. Bill. We’ve launched a host of reforms to make college more accessible and affordable, to close the achievement gaps because far too many Americans are underprepared for the jobs and opportunities of the future, and to boost college quality and our national graduation rate.
Getting a quality education like you have received at Rollins must become a standard for our nation.
To the President, and to me, providing every student in this country with a world-class education is an economic necessity and a moral imperative. As my boss, Secretary Duncan, has often said, “Education is the civil rights issue of this generation.” It’s the best way to preserve the democratic values we all treasure. And, it’s the one true path to fulfilling the promise of the American Dream … for all of us.
What’s more, with a great education, you can help raise standards of living around the globe like many of your fellow students are doing. President Obama has observed that, “Our leadership in the world relies upon citizens who are not only well-educated, but also driven by their humanity and civic virtue.”
Here at Rollins, you’ve used your talent and gifts to lift and serve others for the common good.
Two years ago, Rollins was recognized as one of just six recipients, nationwide, of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Presidential Award. As a community, you’ve volunteered with youth during Pathways to College Day; you’ve raised funds for the Children’s Miracle Network; and you’ve participated in Rollins Helping Haiti, Rollins Helping Japan, and Rollins Relief.
Your civic awareness and commitment to helping others in need – at home and abroad – has inspired leadership from your Student Government Association, from creating a social honor code, to campaigns for fairtrade and non-sweatshop labor products in the bookstore. Clearly you are becoming true citizens of the world. According to the Institute for International Education, Rollins ranks in the top 20 among comparable colleges and universities, for the percentage of students who study abroad.
Our nation needs millions more graduates who are passionate lifelong learners, searchers of truth, and generous people who take action to make life better for others. By graduating here today, you will now become the role models who will move our nation forward.
As President Obama has said, “No matter what you choose to do, know that you have the ability – each one of you – to write the next chapter in America’s story.” You are the authors of your own destiny. You live in a country of possibility and opportunity. Make the most of your future.
As you write this new chapter in your lives and in the life of our country, you will likely hold multiple jobs over the course of a lifetime – jobs of increasing complexity in a world where discriminating nuance will become evermore important. You’ll be members of increasingly diverse communities, where cross-cultural understanding and appreciation will be vital to success for all, not just some. You’ll have numerous opportunities to be entrepreneurial, creative and visionary.
And, given our ever-more interconnected global society, you’ll have unprecedented opportunities to collaborate as never before with your peers throughout our country and in other nations to address some of humanity’s greatest challenges and add a more just, equitable, and peaceful chapter to the history of the world.
So, as you embark on this exciting new phase of your journey, know that all of us here believe deeply in your ability to be a force for good in the world. Let me close my remarks with a few parting words of advice: face head-on and cast off the fears that lay ahead of you, rely on your inner strength, use the knowledge and skills that Rollins has given you to make a difference and to make life better for others, and don’t let anyone tell you that you aren’t bright enough or up to the challenge. You are!
Congratulations, Class of 2012!
Thank you, President Duncan, for the kind introduction, and the warm welcome to Rollins.
I applaud you, your trustees, faculty, staff and administrators for helping this time-honored institution rise to the challenges and opportunities of our new millennium. Students, you have achieved most probably one of the most significant milestones in your lives and everyone here shares the joy of knowing that you are joining our nation’s best-educated Americans with the degrees you have worked so hard to attain. You came to Rollins from various walks of life, from incredibly diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences and you will leave here filled with the knowledge and skills to lead us well into the 21st century.
Congratulations to every graduate of the Hamilton Holt School’s evening programs! We are so proud of each of you. And we have high hopes for you. We believe in your ability to lead, serve, and innovate. We believe you will contribute to a brighter future, for the U.S. and the world.
Now, by “we”, I mean your family, your community, and this college. I also mean myself, and all of us at the U.S. Department of Education. I also mean President and Mrs. Obama! Because, by earning your degrees, you’ve taken a huge step forward, not only for yourselves, but also for our country.
You see, right now, only 42% of Americans have a college degree. We need to do better in this country – and, together, we can. For generations, the United States had the world’s highest proportion of college graduates. But today, we’re in 16th place. The President says that “the nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” Soon after taking office, he set a bold goal for this country: by 2020, America will again have “the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world.” By graduating, you are doing your part to help America meet that goal.
In Washington, President Obama and the rest of us on his team have worked tirelessly to help you, your siblings, and your friends gain the opportunity to complete a postsecondary degree. Over the past three years, the President has focused much of his attention on helping more Americans fulfill their goals of college, rewarding careers and prosperous lives. Since 2009, our President and Congress have made the largest investment in federal student aid since the G.I. Bill. We’ve launched a host of reforms to make college more accessible and affordable, to help Rollins College and the other six thousand six hundred and ninety-nine institutions of higher education survive the economic recession and state budget reductions that have made it harder to give students every opportunity they deserve, and to close the achievement gap so that every student can achieve comparable rates of success as you have evidenced here today.
Our President has proposing new reforms to increase affordability and quality for higher education and will always stand up for every student who needs help getting a great education like you have received from this wonderful institution.
To the President, and to me, this is an economic necessity and a moral imperative – because education is the great equalizer. It’s the best way to preserve the democratic values we all treasure. It’s the path to fulfilling the American Dream that is open to all of us. Graduates, you represent the full scope and power of that dream. You represent diverse backgrounds and experiences. You range in age from 22 to 73! And, a good number of you are the first in your families to earn a college degree.
As you know, Hamilton Holt was a remarkable man. He was a great educator, editor, and author, as well as a great champion of civil rights, social reform, and international peace. He was the eighth President of Rollins College. He helped found the NAACP. And, even though he made his mark in the 20th Century, his vision has the same power and relevance in the 21st Century – and Rollins carries his legacy with pride each day forward.
Rollins is unique in design, offering evening, nonresidential programs that lead to a bachelor’s or master’s degree for non-traditional students. Many of you have come to Rollins after being in the workforce, serving in the military, raising a family, or taking other important steps that made your commitment to Rollins such an important milestone in your lives!
Rollins has also treasured Mr. Holt’s commitment to innovation, reinforcing his belief in the power of talented faculty to change lives for the better – faculty who recognize each student’s unlimited potential, and help transform them into lifelong learners who pursue knowledge for its own sake as well as for the career goals that you have. I know that each of you has your own special list of professors, advisors and others here who’ve helped you gain the confidence to succeed!
I hope you’ll let them know how much they’ve meant to you. I also know they want to stay in touch with you, even those who were the toughest on you at various times, because they knew you could rise to the occasion – and you did! Being here is another point of fact that you met their expectations! So in a quiet moment in the future, ping them on Facebook or Twitter to express your appreciation and tell them what you are doing now!
I also ask that you take every opportunity to thank your family and friends for their encouragement and support. And in the end, the best way to repay their faith in you is by going on to accomplish great things with your lives!
As Hamilton Holt said, “Nothing worthwhile comes easily. Work, continuous work and hard work, is the only way to accomplish results that last.”
Clearly, you all know the meaning of hard work! You and your families have made great sacrifices so you could get your degree. But, you’re about to reap the benefits, in the form of lasting results. You’ve made the best possible investment in your future, by getting a great education.
Each of you has a unique story, and each of you followed a unique path to reach this day. I know you’ve also helped to motivate each other along the way. So, let me mention a few of your classmates who’ve overcome tremendous odds to earn a degree – and who exemplify the spirit and dreams of Hamilton Holt.
One such student is Robert Morrison. For most of his time at Rollins, Robert has faced serious medical challenges. During his final year of coursework, he received weekly blood transfusions, and is now undergoing chemotherapy in preparation for a bonemarrow transplant. Yet Robert completed his degree in with a GPA of 3.61. And although he’s unable to attend Commencement, he and his family are in our thoughts and prayers today. Please join me in saluting Robert’s incredible courage and his relentless pursuit of excellence. He is truly an inspiration to us all!
Let me give another example. Patty Hughes is wearing a cap and gown today, though there was a time when Patty’s friends doubted she would even make it to college.
Well, Patty, you not only proved the nay-sayers wrong, but you did it twice. It took Patty nearly twenty years of grit and dedication to earn her Associate’s degree. Then, after fourteen more years of raising her children and working to support her family, Patty returned to Rollins to achieve the second part of her dream – obtaining her Bachelor’s degree. Just think of what Patty’s example means to her family. That’s the kind of perseverance and success that changes the equation across several generations.
And of course, this year’s outstanding senior, Traci Campana who just delivered that inspiring address, is living proof that disabilities need not dim the brightness of a person’s dreams – or stand in the way of a great education. You heard that when Traci was diagnosed with multiple disabilities, her parents were told their daughter would never attend mainstream classes, or graduate with a standard high school diploma.
With hard work and her family’s loving support, Traci disproved each one of those grim predictions. An outstanding graduate at the top of her class, Traci is graduating with a 4.0 GPA and a BA in psychology and she’s on her way to a master’s degree already!
Just like Robert, Patty, and Traci – each student receiving a degree today has beaten the odds. You’ve mastered whatever stood in the way of your success. You’ve caught the wave of your own tremendous ability to make a difference and excel – and I hope that’s something you’ll never forget, no matter what hurdles you face in the years ahead.
Remember, too, what your example means to others. In fact, I want to close by asking each of you to make a special pledge today. Pledge to encourage others – your family, your neighbors, your circle of friends – to set their own challenging academic and career goals, just as you have. Tell them your stories, encourage them with your example, help them understand that it is possible. For I truly believe that the measure of success in life is not just what you do for yourself – but also the doors you open for others. You now have an opportunity to open doors for others and I ask you to make the most of it, to open doors for others throughout your lives.
Urge those you know to pursue a two-year, four-year or advanced degree, get technical training, or earn a certificate or other career credential. They’ll listen to you, and their paths just might be a little easier, because you helped blaze a trial.
In a speech about higher education a few months ago, in North Carolina, President Obama spoke powerfully about the America within our reach: a country where everybody gets a fair shot; everybody does their fair share; and everybody plays by the same rules.
Those are the values that have kept the American Dream alive for each new generation, since this nation’s founding. Those are the values we have to sustain – and I’m confident that, with all of us working together, we can not only preserve our democracy for today’s generation, but pass it on to our children and their children, stronger than ever before.
As the President has said, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation; the belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us; by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is; who have courage to remake the world as it should be.”
Now, as Rollins Hamilton Holt School graduates, you are ready to write your own destiny and make your mark on the world. You’re ready to play your part in tackling the grand challenges of the 21st Century. You’re ready to help remake the world as it should be – to help create an even brighter future … for yourselves, for this country, and for humanity.
Thank you again for inviting me to share this wonderful occasion with you. Congratulations to you all!
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