Commencement Address at Michigan State University
I had the opportunity of a lifetime to deliver the commencement address at Michigan State University’s College of Education’s graduation ceremony, and I will be forever thankful to Carole Ames, Dean at Michigan State for giving me this opportunity. I knew enough to keep my comments brief, less than 10 minutes, and to focus on the graduating seniors. Below is a copy of my address. Bill
Students, parents, faculty and honored guests. It’s an awesome day – a day you thought would never arrive. It’s a day that each and every one of you contributed to in your own way.
Faculty, with each discussion you led or project you assigned, you lit a fire within your students—well at least you struck the match. You pushed and prodded—you did your best to motivate—hoping your students would approach this day with a head full of knowledge and a sense of satisfaction.
And you were led by a scholar, Carole Ames, whose extraordinary vision and compassion for others was felt not only here in East Lansing but across United States and around the world. We congratulate Dean Ames for her service, and we will miss her leadership as she returns full-time to teaching and research.
Parents, for years you nurtured, supported, and guided. But more important, you had the difficult task of giving your sons and daughters wings—wings so that they could soar into adulthood, away from the cozy nests you created years ago.
And students, you deserve the bulk of the praise, because you are most responsible for what you achieved. It wasn’t easy – tests, ungodly hours, financial worries—OK, mom and dad probably had a few of those also—boyfriend and girlfriend woes, juggling classes and work—and hoping you would be the “survivor who remained on the island.” But no matter what college-life threw at you, you persevered. And it’s this strength and persistence that will help you as you embark on your new adventures.
But that’s looking back. Now it’s time to look forward – to envision how you can make a difference in the world as you enter your chosen fields or pursue advanced schooling.
Although you are all going separate ways – some focusing on health and wellness — aspiring to shape strong bodies — and some focusing on education – aspiring to shape young minds. Regardless of your focus, you will all be touching lives. But it’s how you go about this that will determine your success. My goal today is to focus on the “how.” To do this, I chose one word: Transformation.
The word “transformation” is heavy with meaning. Maybe it conjures up images of super-powered machines that can annihilate or save the world in a matter of minutes. But I want you to see it as a word heavy with potential.
For the last two years, I have participated in an important initiative in Washington, D.C. Picture two dozen national education leaders and officials from the United State Department of Education meeting just blocks away from our nation’s capitol. The topic during these quarterly meetings is how to transform public education. Notice I said “Transform Public Education.”
Lately, there’s been a lot of rhetoric about education reform. But too many Americans believe that the word reform means that our schools are bad. In truth, there are many good things about our system of public education—things that are too often overlooked by naysayers. For instance, while we’re learning from other nations new ways to teach math, those nations are learning from us better ways to teach creativity and problem solving.
But there are many things in education that do need to change. They need to change because the world is changing—changing at a more rapid pace than ever before. So in Washington, we focus on needed change—on transformation.
I am up here looking at 400 young people, mostly future educators, who have the potential to make things different. You have an exciting opportunity to be our “designated change agents” and you can accept this challenge by seeking out and embracing innovative ideas in education or in your chosen field.
But I have some not so good news. Unfortunately, there isn’t an app for this. Fortunately, you don’t need an app—but you do need to engage—no—you need to lead, and here’s why.
Most of the transformations we envision during our meetings in Washington are technology related. Your generation has never lived without technology. That’s why we need you to take the lead.
For example, technology can be a great motivator. Look at Angry Birds, the number one downloaded iTunes game app. If you are familiar with this game, and I know you are, you know that the key is to constantly improve your score and advance to the next level, not unlike Mario or most other games. It’s addictive. Now think about this. What if education was addictive? What if every student had the desire and motivation to advance to the next level—and couldn’t wait to do it? You can motivate those you work with through the same use of technology. This will happen—when you take the lead.
You can transform education through personalization. Personalization is everywhere – at the stores where we shop, at our favorite websites and social media, even at the doctor’s office. So why not in education? Picture a future where each student is taught in a manner in which he or she learns best. Picture a future where we know why each student progresses or fails to progress, and we have the technology to change things for that one student. Picture a future where we all work in teams not just to teach a class, but to teach a child. This will happen—when you take the lead.
Former Vice-President Al Gore often shares a favorite African proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone—if you want to go far, go together.” That’s great advice. Accomplish these transformations by working with others—and it will be easier for you because of the unique program here at MSU’s College of Education that permits you to remain in contact with your outstanding faculty for another year. And while your faculty mentors are important, your peers are just as important. Remember, individually you are knowledgeable — collectively you are brilliant. You and your peers have the power to transform education. It will happen—when you take the lead.
So in closing, I ask you—will you be a leader in this transformation? I think I know the answer to that. Because you are here today, receiving your diploma from one of the very best and most challenging education schools in the nation, you’ve already proven you won’t settle for the easier path.
If you accept your role as an agent of change—as the generation that transforms education—then you also know your hard work is not ending, it’s just beginning—but that hasn’t stopped you yet.
I wish you only the best life has to offer. You’ve earned it. Thank you.