Blenda J. Wilson
President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation
"The Next Greatest Generation"
Commencement Address at Eckerd College
May 22, 2004
President Eastman, distinguished platform party, faculty, families, friends and - especially - graduates, please know how honored and thrilled I am to be a part of this wonderful celebration of achievement and pride.
One of the joys that accompany the honor of your invitation today is the opportunity to express publicly my personal gratitude for the work of your Executive Leadership Program. A few years ago one of your faculty members helped my Foundation staff and me design our young organization so that we could achieve very high ambitions. I have since learned about your recognition by Phi Beta Kappa and your unique vision of successfully balancing academic excellence with a commitment to lifelong education and ethical reflection. Indeed my admiration for this "college that changes lives" makes my being here a humbling experience.
But I also want to tell you that what I found most admirable about you is your outstanding record on the National Survey of Student Engagement. In every institution of higher education that I have served, having students deeply engaged in learning has been an aspiration and an ideal, but few were able to achieve that ideal. For you to have won an award for engagement while surrounded by all this sun and sand says a lot about the quality of the Eckerd faculty, administration and staff and even more, to be sure, about the character of students who choose to come here. Congratulations and well done!
To the graduates, I offer my heartfelt congratulations and bring you greetings from the Board of Directors and staff of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation which is an organization devoted to educational opportunity and achievement. I am acutely aware of the fact that this speech stands between you and the diploma you have worked so hard to receive. A few years ago, when I was a university president, I asked the President of the Senior Class to tell me what the graduates wanted most on commencement day. Without hesitation, he said "A short speech and a long party afterwards." I'll do my very best to deliver the former, but the latter is totally up to you.
The job of a commencement speaker is to place your graduation in some historical context and to help you understand that we're not just celebrating your success, as significant as that is. In fact commencement ceremonies represent the continuing hope and optimism of our culture - the expectation that you have been well educated and well prepared to create a better world than the one you are inheriting. In the celebration of commencement we reaffirm that the future counts on educated women and men like you to move society's destiny forward.
A few years ago Tom Brokaw wrote a popular book called "The Greatest Generation." The title refers to those young Americans who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. He wrote:
"They had watched their parents lose their businesses, their farms, their jobs, their hopes. They had learned to accept a future played out one day at a time.
"When Pearl Harbor made it irrefutably clear that America was not a fortress, this generation... "left their ranches... their jobs on main streets... the assembly lines... the ranks of Wall Street - they quit school - and answered the call to war."
And when the war was over,
"They were a new kind of army... moving onto the landscapes of industry, science, art, public policy - all the fields of American life, bringing to the same passions and discipline that had served the well during the war."
I've titled my remarks "The Next Greatest Generation", because I believe each generation - including of course the different generations represented by today's graduates - encounters moments of historic significance. Each generation confronts its own set of challenges and dreams its own dreams.
The defining challenges of my generation were the cold war, the Korean conflict, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Vietnam, and Watergate.
But my contemporaries and I also witnessed extraordinary innovation - the invention of the automatic transmission, television, the first computers, the photocopier, the fax machine, cable television and VCRs - tools some of you have never been without. We were also awed by the first manned space flight and man's first steps on the moon. And we continue to be amazed as the advancements in genetic science and cloning technologies alter fundamental assumptions about birth, life and death.
Of those defining events in the past, the ones that truly framed my life and career, however, were those public expressions of my personal beliefs and dreams. I deeply believed, for example, that President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty would continue until the war was won. I thought the Supreme Court's Decision in Brown v. the Board of Education abolished separate but equal schools forever and guaranteed all children--whatever their income level, color, ethnicity - to equal educational opportunity. The 50th anniversary of that legal victory was marked just this past Monday, on May 17th. As you know the promises of the War on Poverty and Brown v. Board of Education are yet to be achieved. I hope your generation, the "Next Great Generation," will complete this unfinished business.
I'm glad I lived to see the Berlin Wall topple. But, history did not prepare us for the spectacle of a peacetime President being impeached. Clearly, no American was prepared for the horrible attacks of September 11th and a continuing war - not only against countries or people - but against an emotion - "the war on terrorism", like Pearl Harbor, has introduced us to the horror of attack on our own land and changed our conception of war, forever.
The point I want to make here is that however hard you have studied and however much you have learned, the future in which you will live out the rest of your life will be dramatically different from the world we live in today. Because that is so, the most essential gift of the education you have received at Eckerd - perhaps the real purpose of education - is the intellectual vitality to analyze and adapt to whatever the future has in store.
Your knowledge of a global society - fostered by Eckerd's exemplary international opportunities - will provide you with perspective and empathy to appreciate other cultures and embrace the ever-changing ethnic dynamics within our own country. And when you face difficulties that seem insurmountable, the faith you have nurtured here will give you fortitude and a moral compass for setting your goals.
My advice to you is simple... since you are as prepared as anyone ever has been to achieve excellence, expect excellence from yourself and set your goals high. Remember your obligation not simply to search for truth, but to use truth to improve the human condition. Once you set high goals, believe in yourself, remain positive and enjoy what happens along the way. You, the Next Great Generation, are the promise of the 21st Century.
I leave you with the popular lyrics of Leann Womack and appropriate here today:
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Living might mean taking chances, but they're worth taking
Loving might be a mistake but it's worth making
Don't let some hell bent heart leave you bitter
When you come close to selling out, reconsider
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance
And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance
I hope you dance
I hope you dance...
Graduates of the class of 2004 - congratulations and Godspeed.