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Commencement Address
Assumption College
Ambassador Nicholas Burns
May 17, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Assumption College Class of 2008, I am so honored to join you, President Cesareo, the Board of Trustees, your families and friends and the faculty of your school as we gather for the one, real purpose of a commencement service—to pay tribute to you on this great day.

Graduation day in America is an iconic part of our culture. A college community assembles in a medieval academic ritual in gowns and hats direct from the sixteenth century. Alums old and new return to remember their halcyon days on this beautiful campus. Families gather to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of their sons and daughters. This day is all about you—the graduates. We celebrate your completion of the long, exhilarating and sometimes exhausting marathon of a college education. You will remember this moment—where you were and how you felt and the friends all around you—until the end of your life.

And, I will bet that you will remember most the truly indispensable people who made this day possible—your parents. They gave you life and raised you and dreamed of your attaining what has become in our country one of its indispensable features—a college diploma. I am the parent of college students and I can tell you that your parents have paid for today’s diploma in more ways than one. With that in mind, may I suggest that the graduates all stand and salute your parents with an enthusiastic round of applause! They say that graduation day is one of the most momentous in your life, along with the day of your birth, the day of your marriage, the day your kids are born and the most momentous day of all far in the future—that wonderful day when you finally pay off your student loans.

Now, I can tell you from experience that once that diploma hits your hands in a few moments, two things will happen. First, your parents will be very proud. And second, the Assumption College Alumni Association will have you listed permanently in its data bank as a prime, prospective donor! Don’t be surprised if you even get a call on your cell phone in the next few minutes asking you to make your first donation to your alma mater.

Graduation Day is surely about what you did here as students but it is also about your future. You are joining today the alumni ranks of a great American college. I have been so impressed by this school and its people. You have an extraordinary history—founded over a century ago to provide a university education for the French-speaking population of New England and other immigrants. I was amazed to learn that Assumption was bilingual in French—ahead of its time—until the 1950s.

The savage tornado that destroyed your first campus in 1953 also destroyed my grandmother’s apartment nearby here in Worcester. Cardinal Cushing, Senator John F. Kennedy and his family and thousands of others rushed to help Assumption to rise again, Phoenix-like, from its ashes. In our time, Assumption College has its doors open to young people from every corner of our society who want a ticket to education, and knowledge and success.

I admire President Cesareo’s theme that what Assumption is all about is “Transforming Lives”, and that you are a community of “Learning, Faith and Service”. That is what makes a Catholic college education unique—it is an education for your whole being, designed to stretch your heart as well as your mind. And, you graduates have embraced that idea. You have worked with disadvantaged kids here in Worcester. You have volunteered to help poor people in Mexico and Puerto Rico and Appalachia. Some of you will serve after this ceremony in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Americorps. This Assumption commitment to the Social Gospel and leading lives in service to others is vital and beneficial and it is very special. May it always be part of your lives.

As your Salutatorian, Amanda Carelli mentioned, I have roots in Worcester. My grandparents immigrated here 100 years ago from Ireland. I think I am related to half the city of Worcester—I have over 70 first cousins in this area. One of those cousins is Sister Cathleen Toomey who has given so much to Assumption in the Campus Ministry. I am so pleased she is here today along with her brother, and my cousin, Joe and his wife, Gayle. Their son, Paul Toomey, is graduating today. 

I graduated from Boston College 30 years ago this week. I remember how happy I was that spring morning. But, frankly, I do not remember a single word that my commencement speaker said. Chances are you won’t either. And, I promise not to take it personally.

Commencement speakers are supposed to give advice for the future. Let me simplify it this morning. Here is my advice in two sentences. First, go out and do great things in the future. Second, save our country and save the planet. Not to put too much pressure on all of you this morning!

The easiest way to do great things in the world is to believe in your capacity to be great. You must hold fast to the conviction in a sometimes bitter and difficult and painful world that faith and optimism and goodness can and will prevail in all human endeavors. In short, be hopeful. Be positive. Be inspired to change our world for the better.

I was thinking earlier this week about your class and this moment when you are about to enter the real world and take your place on its central stage. You are coming of age at one of the great hinge points in modern history as we leave the industrial age behind and enter the new age of globalization. We faced a different world thirty years ago when my wife, Libby, and I graduated from college. As your parents will attest, we did not have cell phones, personal computers, ipods, You Tube, American Idol or My Space. Our daughters wonder how we possibly survived such essential features of a happy life!

We lived in the more certain and predictable world of the Cold War, in a more conservative society in many ways and at a time of seemingly limitless American prosperity. You will take your place today as Assumption graduates in a dramatically different world—dominated by globalization—when Americans have never before been so buffeted by the winds of change in the world. Our country finds itself as the undisputed leader in the world but also very much intertwined with the fate of everyone else on our planet. Consequently, it sometimes feels as if our borders have shrunk or even disappeared. Scientific change has narrowed distance and time. For the very first time in human existence here on earth, global forces are linking the fate of all people in all countries. Think of globalization this way—there is a bright, positive side and there is also a dark side. They represent at once your generation’s greatest future opportunity and your greatest danger. We see the bright side of globalization in our everyday life—the awesome power of the information age which is transforming our lives for the better. Computers and jet travel and the extraordinary advances in medical science give us a degree of personal liberty and wealth never experienced before in the history of the world. Think of the medical advances that are helping us to eradicate polio, malaria and even HIV/Aids. Think of the cutting-edge energy research in hydrogen, biofuels and wind power that promises to help replace carbon-based fuels and confront perhaps the single greatest challenge we face—climate change. Think of the space research that might take one of you into the solar system beyond Mars. If we look at globalization this way, then we understand that we live at one of the most hopeful and positive times in human history. Think of that for a moment. We have more power in our time to create wealth and good jobs, to conquer poverty and ignorance and improve the human condition than any generation before us.

This is a great time to graduate from college. There is so much you can do to make America and the world what Assumption College graduates should want it to be—more just, more compassionate, more free and democratic. But, we cannot ignore the other reality of our modern world—the dark side of globalization. We see the enormous challenge of the global dangers that appear to be racing under, over and right through our borders. Climate change that threatens the global environment; the scourge of trafficking in women and children in enforced prostitution; the spread of global drug cartels that bring crack cocaine and heroin to every city in America; the emergence of international criminal gangs that exploit the poor and elderly; the spread of pandemic diseases that could affect millions of people; and, especially, the evil of international terrorist groups, like al Qaida and the terrible threat that they could get their hands on chemical, biological and nuclear technology and kill multiples of the people they murdered on 9/11.

These are real challenges. They are daunting. They will be out there when you leave Assumption College. And we have to think together—intelligently and creatively—about how to defeat them. And here is the real truth about globalization—these global forces positive and negative—cannot be managed by one nation alone, even one as powerful and purposeful as the United States. Instead, we have to work with countries throughout the world in common cause. It is the only way forward. The United States is the most important global leader at a time of globalization. We have the largest and most successful economy, the strongest military and the greatest diplomatic reach. We are the indispensable country called upon to tackle the world’s most difficult problems. This very fact gives us, as Americans, the opportunity to do great things internationally. But, it also gives us the responsibility to lead the world effectively and to do the right thing.

To lead effectively, we Americans need to be engaged in the world. We cannot retreat from global responsibility as Americans have been often tempted to do in our isolationist past. If 9/11 taught us anything, it is that we can never again isolate ourselves from the great challenges of the world or pull the covers over our heads on stormy mornings. But, we also cannot be unilateralist and try to go it alone in the world as some neo-conservatives have wanted us to do in more recent times. We should not want to be the lone global cop in a world where our soldiers do all the fighting and our taxpayers foot the bill. Instead, we need to commit to a more vigorous global leadership that will convince the rest of the world to join with us in a great, international effort to make our planet what we all want it to be—democratic, secure, peaceful.

We need to signal the rest of the world that what they worry about is part of our agenda too. That, together, we can rebuild the United Nations and overcome poverty and disease and end injustice and war. If we communicate to the rest of the world that their problems are on our agenda and that we are listening to them, we can begin to reduce the anti-Americanism so rampant in the world today.

We need you graduates to accept this challenge—to embrace public service and to provide the kind of international leadership the world needs. You might think of your Assumption education as a call to service. Assumption has given you a moral compass with which to navigate your lives beyond this campus. It asks, as President Kennedy did so clearly, what you can do for your country and the world beyond. Gandhi put it differently. Gandhi said, “you can be the change you want to see in the world”. So, don’t wait for someone else to empower you to make a difference in the world. Each of you can give something unique and good and positive to the world in your lifetimes.

What I admire so much about so many young people is that you remain idealistic. Please don’t ever lose that. Idealism is essential in our world. Americans have been at our best when we held fast to our ideals and acted on them. Jefferson was idealistic in writing that all people are equal before God. Lincoln was idealistic in freeing the slaves and preserving our union. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were idealistic in creating the United Nations out of the ashes of World War Two. And, we mark this spring, the achievements of two remarkable Americans who gave us positive and inspiring and idealistic leadership when we needed it most. These two men—Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy--gave their lives for us all, 40 years ago, in the crucible of 1968.

Martin Luther King may have been the single greatest American of the twentieth century. His faith and idealism led him to write a letter from a Birmingham, Alabama jail calling for peaceful and non-violent change against the hatred and evil of discrimination and segregation in America. More than anyone else, he redeemed for all Americans the promise of freedom and equality that all of us can live as true equals in our country.

Robert Kennedy was also struck down by an assassin’s bullet that same spring as Martin Luther King. His message in pursuit of the Presidency was that Americans had a self interest and an obligation to fight poverty, injustice and war. He called upon us to remember the words of the Greek poet, Aeschylus, “to tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of the world”. Forty years later, we are right to remember the quality of leadership and the courage of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Now, I remember what it was like to listen to a graduation speaker and to wonder—what can I possibly do to make the world a better place? The answer is that you can actually do quite a lot if you give your mind and heart and soul to it. As you leave Assumption College today, think about what you might do to answer the call to service that is open to every man and woman in our society. Think what you can do in government service to combat the existential threat of terrorism. Think what you can do as business leaders to create jobs. Think what you can do as doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses and civic leaders to strengthen bodies, minds and communities.

There are role models right here today who can show you the way forward. Many of your grandparents are here today. They are rightfully called the Greatest Generation because they overcame the great Depression and then went on to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the most terrible war of all time. Your parents are role models. They launched the great crusade to end racial segregation in America. They put men and women into space. They learned how to transplant hearts and condense a library full of books into a single, slender disc. They and we are finally ensuring women equal rights in the workplace and before the law. Your grandparents and parents have spoken the essential human truth that everything is possible and that your hopes and dreams can be achieved if you believe in yourself and commit to a lifetime of service for the public good.

As you set out today from Assumption, may you retain the will to take risks, the strength to be courageous, the spirit of optimism and idealism that is particularly American, the importance of defending our great country, and the imperative of keeping alive the dream we don’t talk about enough anymore—the dream of peace—peace here in Worcester, peace in America, a global peace that will reach all people in all countries.

As you graduate today, you join the ranks of a privileged community—the community of the educated. Your Assumption education has changed your life forever. It is the key to the American dream and will help to propel you forward all the days of your lives. All of us here we wish you the very best of good fortune, happiness and success in the years to come. And we look forward to follow your accomplishments as you live and write the history of America and of the world in the century to come. Congratulations!

 



 

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