Mr. President; Esteemed Members of the Board of Trustees; Distinguished Faculty; Honored Administrators and Staff; Proud Family and Friends; Surprised Parents; and Relieved Cazenovia Graduates:
First of all, I’d like to thank President Tierno for the invitation to speak here today.
And by the way, Mr. President, that was a very kind introduction. It would be great if you would fax a copy of it to my mother.
When I told her about your invitation to speak to the Cazenovia College Class of 2002, she said, “Obviously Dr. Tierno has never seen your college transcript.”
That aside, it really is a great honor to be a part of such a significant event in the lives of the graduates whose accomplishments we celebrate here today.
The beautiful campus and scenic setting of historic Cazenovia College are very striking, but you have something else that is more important -- a great community, full of compassion and caring as well as academic distinction and intellectual inquiry.
Before I address the graduating class, I wanted to compliment your family members, especially your parents, for all their sacrifices in making this day possible.
Parents, you should take great pride in having ushered your sons and daughters into the ranks of distinguished Cazenovia graduates.
You don’t have to look very hard to find a Cazenovia College graduate who’s made a real difference in people’s lives.
Your honorary degree recipient, Janice Grieshaber, has been a wonderful advocate for the rights of crime victims and has shown great compassion in helping inmates better prepare for life outside the prison yard.
We all should honor and emulate public servants like Janice who puts her values to work on behalf of a greater good.
It would be impossible to come before any group of graduates in any ceremony today without acknowledging the horrendous attack against our nation, our people, and our values that took place at the beginning of your school year.
The fact that you’re here today shows your resilience and determination to carry on.
My own experience has taught me that no matter what difficulties are thrown our way, we need to move ahead, living our lives as individuals, as part of a family, as part of a community, and as part of our country.
By bearing down and getting through the school year, you have demonstrated your resolve.
Hundreds of police officers, firefighters, and rescue personnel performed heroically on that awful day last September, but you have done your job as well, serving as a great example not just to the underclassmen but to the broader community as well.
That continuum is a crucial part of our success as a nation.
But I’m here today not just to compliment you for putting your head down and marching forward.
I’m here to ask you to take the time to stop and think about where you’re going and what you’re doing.
I’m here to ask you to resist the temptation to simply follow a route that others set for you.
I’m here to ask you to find your own path in life that provides meaning while upholding the values that lie at the core of who we are as a good-hearted and generous people.
It isn’t always easy to question the judgment of others or even push back when their judgment just doesn’t make sense for you.
If you think about it, all of us have come to accept a certain norm of social progression.
We go from grade school to high school and from high school to college and from college to a career.
And in choosing a career, a whole set of social pressures, especially the worth attached to making a lot of money and accumulating fancy titles, influences your decisions.
As a result, any original or idealistic thoughts about charting your own course might get downplayed.
If you’re good at science, you’ll be steered towards becoming a doctor.
If you’re skilled in argument and analysis, you’ll be turned in the direction of the law.
If you’ve got a gift for numbers, you’ll be channeled towards a career in business.
And if you’re good at none of that, perhaps you’ll be a politician!
Whether or not these choices are right for you, you feel the pressure to follow them.
If you take one of these paths and excel in your field, you’ll find yourself with a career that by conventional standards appears rewarding.
You’ll have a good income, community recognition, plaques on the wall, and your name in the paper -- all the trimmings that society provides to those who succeed.
But let’s put that into perspective.
I happened to grow up in an environment in Washington where people of great academic and professional distinctions were in our home at all hours of the day and night.
It was a wonderful time, full of promise and energy. However, I sometimes noticed that some of the most successful people I met were also in some cases the most troubled.
And while serving on the Banking Committee in Congress, I saw people with the greatest trimmings of power act at times in the most immoral of ways.
At the same time, many of the poorest people I represented -- who were often the targets of scorn for an “immoral” lack of money -- embraced the highest principles of love and caring in every aspect of their lives.
The experience taught me a great lesson, which is that societal success does not provide true peace and happiness.
Real peace and happiness come from finding your own way in life and in the course of that life upholding the enduring values of love for others and your family.
I know very well the kind of channeling towards a career path that others set out for you.
Just after graduating from college and running a Senate campaign, I chose not to run for office but to work for the federal government’s antipoverty agency.
A lot of people were taken aback by my choice, but that was my interest -- to try and understand how to break the cycle of poverty.
So I went to Washington and worked for an agency that my father and uncles had created.
After many months, it became clear to me that the agency had evolved to a point where its bureaucrats were more intent on maintaining their jobs than accomplishing their mission.
So I left, intent on finding another way to help the poor.
Not long afterwards, I found myself sitting in front of a TV set and watching a story on the news about oil companies, which, with the government’s blessing, were making record profits from gas, diesel, and home heating oil prices that were going through the roof.
The next news segment showed the home of an elderly couple who were literally shivering in their living room, unable to afford the heat needed to keep them warm in the midst of winter’s cold blast.
The contrast shook me to the core.
It was the same old story -- socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.
The answer to the problem so starkly illustrated on the news seemed pretty obvious:
Take the profits from oil transactions and use them to make the oil products needed by ordinary working and elderly people more affordable.
In the case of New England, that meant home heating oil.
In the next few months, I started the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, running the company first from my basement and then from a small office apartment.
I traveled around the world, trying to convince national oil companies to sell us crude oil.
We struck our first deal in Venezuela.
Agreements in Nigeria and Angola soon followed.
We took the crude oil and refined it into by-products -- everything from Vaseline to gasoline -- and sold those by-products on the open market.
We then used the profits to write down the cost of home heating oil to the poor and the elderly.
Through a tremendous amount of luck and determination, the Citizens team used that model to create successful businesses in the electricity, natural gas, pharmaceutical drug, energy conservation, and alternative energy industries, including solar and biomass power.
In each case, we faced great resistance from the incumbent companies.
No one wanted a nonprofit company entering the marketplace and undercutting their profits and they tried very hard to stop us.
We had to take on electricity producers who didn’t want us selling cheap juice to the needy across state lines.
We had to challenge gas pipeline owners who didn’t want outsiders to crack the industry’s monopoly and ship low cost gas to the homes of low income consumers.
Coincidentally, it was Ken Lay, the hero of Enron, who tried so hard to keep out any competition in the gas industry.
We had to take on the drug companies.
We had to go up against anyone and everyone who stood in the way of selling products at their cheapest cost possible to the poor.
My conclusion from all this was that the bumper sticker that proclaims, “Question authority,” really does contain a lesson for all of us.
In the course of forging the Citizens path, the corporate interests married to the status quo discovered that our different way of doing business was in fact good business -- for all concerned.
Capitalism doesn’t have to be uncaring.
Enough talk about compassionate conservatism! It’s time for real compassionate capitalism.
The great wealth of our nation is measured in the annual reports and stock prices of some of the biggest companies on Earth. But in the last year, we’ve learned that such reports can create a false sense of security.
Enron, Arthur Andersen, and Global Crossing are just a few of the corporate giants whose assets turned out to be as real as Britney Spears’s endowment.
At one point, their stock prices helped prop up the Dow Jones index, which purports to measure the health of our economy. At the same time, there are statistics about the health of the world that you won’t read about in the New York Times or Washington Post or see on the national news.
They may not gauge gross domestic product, but they’re every bit as telling about the human condition of our planet.
Of the six billion people on Earth, one-half lives on less than $2 a day.
Almost one billion people, 1 in every 6 on Earth, is malnourished.
Every day, over 30,000 children under the age of five years old die from a multitude of tragic causes. Fifteen thousand of them die of hunger.
Every year, 2.4 million children die from preventable waterborne diseases.
Almost one billion people -- 1 out of every 3 adults -- cannot read or write. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.
Here in our own country, a Third World exists that cries out for help.
Every nine seconds, a student drops out of high school.
Every 11 seconds, a child is reported abused or neglected.
Every four minutes, a child is arrested for drug abuse.
Every eight minutes, a child is arrested for violent crime.
Every three hours, a child dies of gunshot wounds.
Every five hours, a child commits suicide.
Every eight hours, a child dies of abuse.
Every night, over six million children go to bed hungry.
Every year 3.5 million people are homeless. One point three five million of them are children and one-third of the homeless adults are veterans.
Each of us, in one way or another, can act to reduce the pain, the suffering, and the sorrow around us.
You Cazenovia graduates do not find yourselves in the statistics, but you can find meaning by doing something about them.
My grandmother was fond of quoting St. Luke, who said, “[To] those to whom much has been given, much is expected.”
Your hard work has provided you with opportunity. And you are equipped with the energy of youth -- one of the greatest commodities on Earth.
Despite society’s messages to the contrary, young people like yourselves can and have changed the world.
Every major social movement resulting in positive change for our society would not have been possible without the energy and idealism of young people.
The Civil Rights Movement was created by waves of students taking to the streets, joining the Freedom Riders, marching on state capitals and county courthouses to support the greatest liberation movement of our time.
Students stood at the vanguard of the antiwar movement and forced our nation’s leaders to pull back from the destructive war in Vietnam that had wasted so many lives and sapped the moral authority of our nation.
Young people empowered their generation with the right to vote at age 18.
Students, especially young women, created a revolution in the boardrooms and office suites of America by opening the doors to talented women and making equal pay for equal work more than just a slogan.
We should always keep in mind the words of the great Southern writer Walker Percy. He noticed that some of the kids who got straight As still flunked life.
The next 10 years will be a critical time in your lives.
You have a wonderful chance to make your energy and idealism, your education and intelligence count for more than just a paycheck.
And not just in the arena of great social change.
How do you measure in dollars the value of teaching a child to read?
Of comforting the sick?
Of visiting senior citizens idling away their days in loneliness and despair?
Of taking the time to make your community and our country a better place, one person at a time?
The psychologist William James used to tell a story about his son. Just before graduating from college, the young man wrote a letter to his uncle, the novelist Henry James, asking his advice about what he should do in life.
“There are three things I would tell you,” wrote his uncle.
“The first is to be kind.
“The second is to be kind.
“The third thing I would add, is to be kind.
“So be kind, be kind, be kind.”
Cazenovia graduates, you face a world more fraught with danger than any time in the last 60 years.
It will be you and your fellow graduates across the nation whose intellect, humanity, and resolve see us through in the years ahead.
Looking around here today, I think we will be in darn good hands.
I leave you with the Irish blessing:
“May God help you fulfill your dreams And may you help him fulfill his as well.”
Congratulations, Cazenovia graduates. Good luck and a heartfelt Godspeed to you in the many years ahead.