The Power of Learning
Commencement Address, SUNY Empire State College
Congratulations to the SUNY Empire Class of 2018! I am thrilled to be here with you on this life-changing day.
While graduation is always one of life’s great milestones, it’s an extra-special achievement here. I’m told that the average age of undergraduates at SUNY Empire is about 35, and for graduate students closer to 40. That means that, in addition to your studies, you’ve thrived while juggling jobs and families… car and house payments… and perhaps military and civic duties. Like me, many of you are first-generation college students. It’s clear that you’ve shown determination, guts and grit. You’ve invested in yourself to reach this glorious day.
Along the way, I’m sure, you had the support of others—a loving partner, helpful children, dedicated parents, siblings and other relatives, friends and mentors. So, I salute all of you for this shared achievement.
Beyond congratulations, though, I want to thank you. You may not realize it—particularly on a day like today, which is rightly focused on celebrating personal victories—but the degree you’ve earned benefits all of us. That’s because the power of learning will not only continue to change your life for the better, it will help ensure our collective success.
A better-educated nation is a healthier nation. It’s a nation where people are better able to contribute to their communities. It’s a nation where people can tell the difference between what’s real and what’s fake. The future of America depends on people like you.
I know how hard you worked to get to today. My story is probably not that different from many of yours. I come from an immigrant family, one very much rooted in its working-class ethos. My parents never got the chance to go to college. The fact is, my parents didn’t fully comprehend what college was. But they did know one thing: we were going. My siblings and I knew how important it was for us to build on what our parents taught us and to excel—not to exceed what they had accomplished, but to exceed what they had dreamed.
And so, 35 years ago last fall, my parents made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home near Hartford, Connecticut, and dropped me off at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. It was a very strange and disorienting experience at the beginning. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, given my background. I didn’t know how to navigate the system of academic progress. And I didn’t know how we’d actually be able to afford college, though I was very grateful that I had received a need-based scholarship from the college, to go along with my Pell Grant, my state scholarship, my church scholarship, my local community scholarship, and my federal student loans and work-study.
But I did make it through, because of a very supportive family, because of great friends, and because I went to a college that worked hard to make life for first-generation students like me easier, simpler, and better.
College was worth every moment; it has enriched my life immeasurably. In fact, it has defined my professional life. My team and I work every day to extend the enormous benefits of college to millions more Americans.
And that’s where you come in. You may not realize it, but you are part of an immensely powerful wave. You’re the perfect profile of the modern-day student… of the 21st century learner.
Gone are the days when the typical college student was 18 years old, fresh out of high school and headed straight to a four-year campus and a career in one field or industry. Today’s students are older … diverse in every way… working and raising families… learning increasingly online and through new learning strategies… and often struggling to make ends meet. Many have been frustrated trying to navigate our well-intended but frankly outdated system of higher education.
Some find their way to schools that get it—schools like SUNY Empire. Sandra Barkevich did; in fact, she is here today in her position with the college’s Office of the Provost. Sandra went back to school at age 37 when she realized that she couldn’t advance in her career without a degree. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees here while juggling a demanding job and young children. Veteran Ryan Smithson did the same, earning two degrees in the SUNY system after returning home from a tour of duty in Iraq.
Sandra, Ryan—and all of you—are shining examples of perseverance in the pursuit of a better education and better lives. But society needs many more like you. Only by unleashing the knowledge, skills and abilities—the talent—of all Americans can we succeed in our fast-changing economy and society.
Sadly, too many people are being left behind. You’ve seen the hard times. Here in upstate New York, more than 100,000 traditional manufacturing jobs were lost between 2000 and 2008. Now, this region is in the midst of an historic shift to advanced manufacturing and other leading-edge industries.
In fact, a fair number of you are part of that shift, as you accept degrees today in fast-growing areas like technology, finance, health sciences and social services.
You’re also on the cutting edge of another monumental shift—one within higher education itself. Schools like this one—results-oriented, student-centered, and highly responsive to the needs of individuals and society—are helping to redefine college with a fresh, new approach.
You are living proof that this new approach is working. But—don’t get too comfortable! Your degree doesn’t mean you’re done learning. Oh sure, take a few days to celebrate. But then, get back to it.
Because learning is our true superpower, and learning can happen anywhere. So, continue to learn every chance you get—at work, in school, online, in your community, on your own or with your family and friends. This is true, whether you are 69… 39… or 9.
I realized this in a moment of clarity last year with our daughter, Elizabeth, who was nine years old at the time. We’re a family obsessed with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, a play that obviously has important resonance here in Albany, and that obsession has sparked tremendous curiosity in both of our children about history, and the origins and enduring qualities of a democracy. This has given rise to all kinds of interesting conversations, like the time Elizabeth asked me who I would have voted for in the election of 1800.
One day, we were on a long car ride, listening to the soundtrack, and I asked what I like to call a ‘dad question.’ Now if you’re one of the millions of Americans who has gotten on board the Hamilton bandwagon, you know that the recurring theme is whether Hamilton ‘threw away his shot.’ So I asked the family, do you think Hamilton threw away his shot? My wife, Colleen, and our teenage son, Benjamin, jumped in and argued for about 10 minutes, primarily about whether Hamilton’s premature death at the hands of Aaron Burr was caused by his obsessive personality, or by an overly ambitious Burr who saw Hamilton as an obstacle.
Elizabeth said nothing during their debate. There was finally a pause in the discussion, and I heard that tiny but mighty voice from the back seat. “No.” I stopped and said, “Elizabeth, what do you mean, No?” She said, “Hamilton did NOT throw away his shot.” I was intrigued that she decided to join the conversation, so I asked, in perhaps a slightly patronizing tone, “Why not, sweetie?” It only took five words for Elizabeth to put me, and this debate, in its proper place. She said, “Because daddy, we’re still here.”
In that moment, we realized that our intellectually curious nine-year-old fundamentally understood the idea that our nation was constructed because of people like Hamilton, and that we are still living the dreams of our founders because we are, indeed, still here as a nation. It was a humbling, amazing moment about the power of learning.
The fact is, education – no matter when or where it takes place – changes people in remarkable and surprising ways. It sparks a fire. It makes us more open to experiences and ideas… more tolerant and understanding of others. It instills a desire to keep learning. It makes us better parents… employers… neighbors… and global citizens.
So, as Lin-Manuel’s version of Hamilton might say, be a Non-Stop learner. Don’t throw away your shot. Find the time and inspiration to read, to study, to create, and, ultimately, to lead us. This is more than self-improvement; it’s self-preservation. Because to survive and thrive in our knowledge economy, you must continually sharpen your skills and learn new ones.
You can do it, because you already have. Your diploma shows the world not only what you know—but who you are. In the end, through the power of learning, your lives are very much improved. And so are all of our lives, forever changed because of your accomplishments.
So again, congratulations on this memorable day. And thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.