Graduates: “Build your empathy, ethics – your ’human skills‘”
Work and Learning

Graduates: “Build your empathy, ethics – your ’human skills‘”

I had the chance this week to congratulate family members of the Lumina staff in an online graduation speech for our colleagues as they worked from home.

About a dozen graduates could be seen with family and friends in our virtual ”crowd,” some of whom wore the traditional academic robes and caps normally seen at commencement.

A portion of the virtual 2020 Commencement Address from Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie Merisotis

Here’s what I had to say:

Congratulations to all our graduates!

I’m here to applaud your wonderful accomplishments – and to acknowledge that spring 2020 is so vastly different than we could’ve ever imagined. A deadly pathogen has drastically changed how we live in our communities, gather with friends, and learn and work at home, as we all try to become more technology savvy and less daunted by the new, daily challenges in our lives.

Last fall, as you made plans to finish your final year, you likely envisioned your spring as most prospective graduates do – wrapping up your course work, exams or dissertation defense; picking out your prom outfit; ordering your cap and gown and doctoral hood; getting an accurate headcount for graduation tickets; sending save-the-dates for parties and backyard barbeques in your honor. Instead, you’ve been forced to pivot away from so many graduation traditions that we hold dear, and we know that’s been so very frustrating and emotionally stressful.

But I’d like you to consider this:  as part of the Class of 2020, you have rallied, persevered, and made the best of it like no other recent graduating class. Despite COVID-19’s many challenges, you completed your courses, finals, and defended your dissertation – and celebrated with front-yard banners, TikTok challenges, virtual friend hangouts, and Zoom commencements. You stayed on course and earned your degree. You are each amazing.

So today’s celebration really is a family affair. I know you had the support of your Lumina family members – parents, aunts, siblings, or spouses. I salute all of you for this shared achievement.

Of course this is even more of a family affair because Lumina’s work is all about helping more Americans get postsecondary education to fuel our country’s success.

Graduates, you are at what I hope is only the beginning of this great journey of learning and work, and while it may seem that Berenice, Bill and Francesca have reached the summit when it comes to a degree,  even they have plenty of learning ahead of them in our world taking shape.

That journey will be a bit more challenging than it looked a few months ago … but it has never been more important, which I’ll touch on in a moment.

The lasting effects of this pandemic will endure for years. Truth be told, COVID-19 isn’t an asteroid or a unicorn event, but rather a reflection of societal failure – a devastating trifecta of our environmental approach, of our economic approach, and of our political approach. All three played a part in what’s gone wrong.

For far too long, we’ve denied or willfully ignored the warming of our planet. While temperatures are setting records virtually every year – along with more frequent and powerful fires, hurricanes, and flooding – many in power pretend it’s business as usual. Along with the tremendous costs to repair the damage, we’re creating the breeding grounds for old diseases we once held at bay – like measles – and new diseases like coronaviruses.

There’s been similar denial about the strength of our economy, as well. As COVID-19 was beginning its destructive spread, a booming stock market and low unemployment masked a growing chasm of inequality and unfairness in our society.

A recent Brookings report found that “53 million workers ages 18 to 64 – or 44 percent of all workers – earn barely enough to live on. Their median earnings are $10.22 per hour – or about $18,000 per year.”

Just as African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to die of COVID-19 … so the unemployment rates for women and people of color are well above the national average.

We’ve divided workers into essential and nonessential. Turns out essential workers are often people in low-paying jobs that require their physical presence and put their health at risk:  hospital staffers, shelf-stockers, meat packers, warehouse workers, and supermarket cashiers.

Our political approach has also accelerated the spread of COVID-19 and magnified its impact.

  • For decades, we’ve been attacking government itself – making it easy to defund and dismantle the fundamental protections we used to take for granted. Though it seems like a lifetime ago, it was less than a decade when one of the nation’s top conservative intellectuals, Purdue President and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, told a group of leaders that “We must never allow skepticism about big government to become contempt for all government. We can disagree about the scope of government activity. But a free society requires a consensus that government is operated by people of goodwill achieving reasonable results.” Wow, what happened?
  • We’ve also denigrated the importance of science and expertise. And we’ve divided ourselves into warring tribes – red versus blue, rural versus urban, native-born versus immigrants. This leaves us with little sense of a common vision.
  • Most of all, we’ve allowed racial and ethnic inequity and injustice – perhaps the biggest threats to our pluralistic democracy – to fester. Our social bonds have been fraying for decades … and now they’ve begun to tear.

As a result of our political dysfunction, the citizens of the wealthiest country on Earth find ourselves especially vulnerable to this pandemic.

Okay – I know what you’re thinking.  This is a commencement address … so when do you get to the part where you lift our spirits, Jamie?

I’m getting to that!  But I want to paint this sober picture to make the point that just as COVID-19 is a reflection of our breakdown as a society, so it will be up to us to find solutions, to coalesce around a vision of the future, and to revitalize our country as we have after crises throughout our history.

So here’s the part you’ll hopefully find inspiring: we literally can’t do this without you.

As a new graduate, I’m sure you want to know: “What can I do?” And you also might be pointedly wondering, “Why should I be responsible for fixing the problems you created?”

You’re right to ask these questions, as previous generations of young adults and marginalized groups have done throughout U.S. history.

You’re each part of a generation that will create and support the solutions we need to address the failures of our time. With the knowledge and skills you’ve developed, you have to think about what you will do differently. How will you take part?

As graduates, you’re about to begin another journey of school or a career. The world and economy you are entering into would have been different even if this strain of coronavirus had never appeared.

Of course, any commencement speaker would encourage the graduates to continue their educations … and that will be doubly true for me and all my Lumina colleagues – this is our life’s work, after all. But it’s true when I say, often, that education after high school has never been more important for finding a good job and fulfilling work.

In our last crisis – the Great Recession of a decade ago – more than 5 million jobs for people with a high school education or less disappeared and never came back.

What’s happening today has ominous echoes of the Great Recession. More than 35 million jobs have been lost in less than two months – many from hospitality and retail, sectors which don’t necessarily require a college degree for many jobs. Some say that the majority of these losses are “temporary,” but history tells us that some jobs will come back slowly, and many won’t come back at all. That’s why credentials, like Connor’s EMT Certification and 911 Dispatcher Certification, are of growing importance in our current economy – and will continue to grow in tomorrow’s.

At the heart of my new book on human work is the question of what work will look like in the age of smart machines. While automation and technology have had big impacts on jobs for decades, Artificial Intelligence is accelerating that trend.

While the headlines often tell us that AI is a job-destroyer, there’s also evidence to support the view that technology might create millions of new jobs. Technology has always created more jobs than it destroys, and the same may be true in the future. But that doesn’t mean that things are not different this time, because they are different, and we need to pay attention to how and why they are different.

Basically, the key tasks that are repetitive can be done by a machine – and, in many cases, already are. We’ve seen it in fields like manufacturing in dramatic ways. But there are repetitive parts of jobs in many fields beyond manufacturing, including accounting, law and medicine – and we can expect to see smart machines doing them, as well.

What that means is the work of the future will be human work – which will involve those things machines cannot do.

Human work blends our human traits – like compassion, empathy, ethics, and personal communications, with our developed human capabilities – such as critical analysis and judgment. And there’s another essential quality of human work:  it serves a purpose or leads to a result.

And this brings me back to that question you as graduates are probably asking yourselves: “What can I do?”

For all of you graduates, it means continuing your education. Whether formally, as our high school grads must do, or in an ongoing way, both formally and informally, as the college grads and Ph.D. recipients begin new life chapters.

Making that leap is always challenging … and I expect it will be especially so today. We’ll see a range of approaches to learning in the fall … and I expect online learning will be a big part of whichever school you high school grads choose to attend.

But in addition to that, I encourage you to continue to develop your human skills. Your empathy toward others. Your sense of ethics and what’s right versus what’s unethical and just plain wrong. And your creativity and imagination in a world that desperately needs new and better ideas to deal with the uncertainties of our time.

In the past, these were often labeled – somewhat derisively – “soft” skills. But these will be the very skills on which the work of the future will depend. One way to develop them is to find some way to serve others – because that, too, will be a big part of the work of the future, as well as a key to finding meaning in your life.

In the end, you will need to continue to develop your abilities to be an effective and proactive citizen – armed with human skills. That’s the best way to ensure our shared well-being, and out democratic way of life.

So, Lumina graduates. I’m not worried about what’s ahead. In fact, I’m optimistic about our future – and you should be too.

Yes, we have some daunting challenges ahead that were not so much caused by COVID-19 as revealed by it. But overcoming these kinds of challenges is what has made our country successful.

And you are the key to that success. With a hunger for learning and the idealism, imagination, and human skills that no machine will ever match – you make me absolutely confident that we will overcome our challenges and build a brighter future. For all of us.

Again, to all of you, and our proud parents and relatives – Congratulations! Thank you very much.

Here are the Lumina family graduates honored in the May 21 commencement address:

The High School graduates are:

  • Ainsley Brown
  • Holden Brown
  • Emma Clymore
  • Aniya Harris
  • Connor Kite
  • Mya Montiero and
  • Ethan Shewmaker.

The Undergraduates are:

  • Alyssa Arnold and
  • Natalie Raymond.

The Ph.D. recipients are:

  • Berenice Sanchez
  • Bill K. Wheatle and
  • Francesca Williamson.
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