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Emory University Commencement

Release Date: 
May 9, 2011

Emory University
Atlanta
(Remarks as Prepared)

Thank you, President Wagner. I am honored to be here today at the 166th Commencement ceremony at Emory University. And let me be among the first to congratulate the Class of 2011. It is a very significant accomplishment, and you should be proud of what you've achieved.

Your finals are behind you. Class Day is over. It took a lot of hard work – it took a lot of Everybody's Pizza and Diet Coke. (And just maybe an occasional Pepsi on the sly, as well.) And it took a lot of support and encouragement. So please take a moment to thank your families and friends who helped you along the way.

Commencements like this are always a treat. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the energy on a university campus at graduation time. I have been speaking at colleges and universities throughout the year, talking about the kinds of security challenges our nation faces, and how we will surmount those challenges. One way we'll do that is through the incredible potential and creativity of young leaders like you.

This rings particularly true as Emory celebrates its 175th anniversary. Across two centuries, this university has challenged the minds and spirits of its students, and broadened our collective understanding of the world around us. I don't have to tell you that Emory students are among the most accomplished and engaged in the country, and this university ranks among our nation's finest – but I will anyway.

Emory leads the nation in the areas of HIV research, neuroscience, and the development of new medicines and vaccines. You lead in the classroom and the laboratory, but also in community engagement and environmental innovation. That is why you won the highly-competitive Presidential Award for General Community Service, and boast one of the most environmentally sustainable campuses in America.

And, lest we forget your athletic prowess – Auburn may have gone undefeated this year, but they certainly can't match 175 years without a single defeat on the football field. That's what happens when you don't have a football team!

Now, I know for many of us, it's probably hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a student here 175 years ago. Back when Emory was founded, Charles Darwin was still sailing aboard the HMS Beagle, working on his theory of evolution. The Battle of the Alamo was being waged in Texas. Martin Van Buren had defeated William Henry Harrison to become the eighth President of the United States. And Dooley, the infamous biology lab skeleton, was still roaming the earth with his vital organs intact. (By the way, since I know that Dooley sometimes merits his own bodyguards, I thought I should let you know that I've been talking to the Secret Service, one of the agencies in my Department, about getting him additional protection.)

Of course, in those days there was no Twitter, no Facebook, no CNN. The railroad and telegraph were still a few years off, and it could take weeks – even months – for news to arrive from around the world. If you wanted to chat with your friends, you actually had to go see them, even leave your dorm room. Yes, life was much tougher back then.

And I've seen major changes during my own lifetime. The parents in the audience will remember when there were only a few channels on TV – and you had to change the channel by hand. Now, if someone loses the remote control, it is a major crisis until it is found again. We prepared our term papers on typewriters. We used a slide rule. And we walked around with punch cards to program computers using Fortran. Our first cars were Ford Pintos. We wore bell bottoms and Nehru jackets. And our first cell phones looked like walkie-talkies.

I mention these things because today, we live in a world where change is a certainty – and where the pace of that change is growing ever faster. Past generations could not bank on the fact that the world would be all that different four, forty, or a hundred years in the future. But we can. This gives us greater opportunities, to be sure, but greater risks as well.

Your challenge as graduates will be figuring out how to take advantage of the dynamism of today's world – and use your unique skills – to make it better.

To do this, you will have to maintain your equilibrium, your sense of self, in some topsy-turvy conditions. Just look at the four years since you were freshmen in 2007. Our economic landscape has changed dramatically, which makes your job searches much different from those of the seniors who graduated four years ago. We had a historic presidential election in which the participation of your generation was a major part of the story. And across the world we've seen major developments such as the rise of China and India, and the recent democratic movements in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain.

But apart from just noting change, it is also important for us to remember that the rate of change in our world fulfills a great role. It challenges us and empowers us to shape the world according to how we envision it. And it can open doors that our society has never even imaged.

Take Twitter, for instance. Twitter did not even exist until 2006, when the seniors graduating today were in high school. Now, it is ubiquitous. You're able to Tweet during my speech because you have an app for Twitter on your smartphones. In 2006, we didn't have an app for that – we didn't have an app for much of anything.

Changes in social media and the opportunities they have created have touched us all – including the Department of Homeland Security. Today we are leveraging social media tools like FEMA's mobile website to enable victims of disasters – including victims of the recent tornadoes here in Georgia, Alabama, and across the Southeast – to register for assistance from their smart phones.

All of you will face this challenge to seize the opportunity of change – even though all of you will go on to do very different things. For some of you, the next four years of change will mean moving very far away and doing things you'd never thought you'd do – such as waking up before 10 a.m.

My own career has taken me from law school and legal practice, to elected office, and today, to a massive government agency with more than 230,000 people. There's no exact roadmap for that. But all along, I have had a strong interest in public service, and that has never waned. And I hope that all of you, no matter where your careers take you, will give thought to how your unique talents could help serve the common good.

There are always opportunities for people who are doctors or lawyers to do the important work of giving back to their communities. But there are also needs for people of all kinds of talents to volunteer. It's critical that we have people willing to give their time to do things like help children learn, or – as we've seen across the South in recent weeks – to volunteer with organizations like the Red Cross to assist after a disaster. Your communities need you.

And we also need you in government. We need our best and brightest graduates working on today's challenges. And there are many – from preventing the spread of pandemic disease to countering the ever-evolving threats of terrorism to reducing the impact of major disasters to ensuring a safe and secure cyberspace. We also need more of our experts in science or business or engineering involved in policymaking. We need a diversity of talents so that, for example, when a complex disaster like last year's BP oil spill occurs, we can immediately marshal biologists, oceanologists, physicists, engineers, and a myriad of others to deal with all of the issues presented.

My hope is that someday we will come to see public service as a common – even standard – part of any career path, whether in the private sector, academia, or elsewhere. There should not be high walls between public service and other fields. It should be normal for people from outside the government to work to help solve pressing problems. No matter what career path you begin on, you should be able to spend a couple of years in government applying your particular talents and expertise to a public challenge. This is a vision of public service that we are trying to promote, and that we will need your generation to help move forward.

So as you embark on your careers, I hope some of you will consider spending some time in government, even though at times it may seem like our government can't even agree about the source of its own disagreements.

But if you permit me to close with one more piece of advice, do not fall for the cynical view. Democracy in a big country like ours has always been noisy and contentious. If you think attack ads are bad today, even the most revered figures in our political history dealt with the rough nature of democracy – precisely because the stakes are so high and the issues are so important. This includes when John Adams was called "querulous, bald, blind, crippled, and toothless" during the election of 1800. For the record, his allies shot back that if Thomas Jefferson were elected, "The soil [will be] soaked in blood and the nation black with crimes." Thankfully, it didn't exactly work out like that.

The point is that you shouldn't be afraid to dive in. Emory has prepared you well for all of the challenges of our vibrant democracy.

Indeed, as most of you probably know, on one of the pillars of the beautiful gate here on campus there are two inscriptions. The quotes are attributed to Atticus Greene Haygood, who graduated from Emory College in 1859, and who served as president of Emory from 1875 to 1884. The first one says, "Nothing praises or pleases God like service." And the second says, "Let us stand by what is good ... and try to make it better."

To me, these quotes are as timely now as they were then. Now it is your turn to take what you find in the world and make it better. And to commence this exciting next phase in your lives.

You will find that Emory has prepared you with more than academic knowledge. This university has also prepared you in ways that you didn't necessarily expect, and that will only reveal themselves over time. The value of an Emory education cannot be measured in dollars alone. It must be measured in having the critical thinking skills that our changing society demands.

So, to all of you, I wish you the best of luck. Thank you, and congratulations to the Class of 2011!

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