Boston University Commencement Address 2009

in Commencement, News Releases
May 17th, 2009

Contact: Phil Gloudemans, 617-353-6546 | philipg@bu.edu

BOSTON — U.S. Representative Michael E. Capuano (D-Mass.) today delivered the 136th Boston University Commencement address. Below is a transcript:

At least it’s not raining. Because of the weather, I am going to try to keep this a little short and do my best to minimize the generic platitudes that you usually hear at these things. And I will also try to confront some of the frustrations that many of you are experiencing right now.

In the last few days it seems students at Arizona State expressed their unhappiness that President Obama did not receive an honorary degree. Today we see some of the students in Notre Dame unhappy that President Obama is even speaking to them.

Here at Boston University, I know a few of you are a little less than thrilled at having me, a congressman, who gets to speak to you.

But the truth is, if this is the biggest disappointment of your life, you are the luckiest people in the world.

Life is full of disappointments. Some of them are big and some are small. You will have to make your own decisions which one this is.

You know, sometimes the best messenger is somebody who has walked in your shoes, and walks in them currently. Someone who faces the same uncertain upheaval that each one of you are looking into today. I know that I am not Bono, Tom Cruise, but my daily life is more like yours than you can imagine.

The very fact that this incredibly average person is now a member of Congress and is your commencement speaker, it actually screams my message to you. My message is very simple, I think, that you do not have to be extraordinary, you do not have to be rich or famous to change this world. Anyone and everyone can make a difference.

As graduates of Boston University, it is clear that you are now very well prepared to do just that. You will and can make a difference in this life.

But some of you may think I am talking about making a lot of money and becoming wealthy. And that is all well and good, everybody wants to have some degree of comfort and that is reasonable.

But if that is all there is, if it is just about making money, explain to me why Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros, and so many billionaires have taken so much time to give away the money they have accumulated?

It is more than just making money.

Tell me why so many of you — students right here at BU — have been so active in volunteering in so many causes? The one that is nearest and dearest to my heart is the effort to stop the genocide in Darfur.

How come so many of you have given so much, when you could have been out making money?

Tell me why so many of you worked so hard to elect the president of these United States just last year?

You already know. You already know there is more to life than making money.

Most of you are now well prepared to succeed in life. You are intelligent. You are energetic and enthusiastic and strong, and you’ll soon have a diploma that will prove just that.

Now I know that this graduating class is facing more obstacles than most. I know that. But most of you will find ways to succeed, and we all know that. But I am not here to talk about that.

I am here to ask a couple of very simple questions.

What else will you do with your life?

Did God give you a brain just to go out and make money, or did he give you a brain so you could go out and find ways to improve the world.

Do you have a heart just to pump blood through your body or the heart to feel the pain and suffering of others, and to commiserate with them and empathize with them and work on their behalf?

Your lives will be easy if you ignore the rest of the world, just put your head down, close your eyes, put your shoulder to the wheel and go to work in your routine, mundane lives every day. That’s an easy life.

You can get a job. You can climb that ladder of success. You can make money and you can build a very comfortable life for yourself. But if that’s all you do, with the gifts God has given you, you will never feel fulfillment.

You will always know in your heart that you didn’t challenge yourselves to something greater, something bigger than yourselves. You didn’t use y our voice to protest injustice. You will pass through this life without leaving much of a wake behind you.

That is not to say those who stand up to fight to make this world better will win every fight. You will not.

All I am saying is that life is a struggle, each and every day. And, yes, that includes the struggle to accumulate wealth. But is also means helping your neighbor, it means fighting injustice, it means building a playground, it means helping the sick and feeling the poor.

You have been given great gifts and great talents, and you have proved you can use them successfully just by being here today. But I can on you to use some of that ability, some of those talents, and some of that drive to improve this world.

Nothing I say today or any other day can improve the job market. Nothing I say can really calm your anxieties. But it shouldn’t. Life is anxiety from now on.

As with all challenges, there are lots of amazing, wonderful and fantastic opportunities, if you face life with zest and a small degree of confidence. I know this because your generation and I agree with your student speaker – I do believe you represent a generational change.

You don’t have to look any further than the presidency itself to prove that. I do believe your generation will make the difference. But you are not the first to face challenges. For example, in your grandparent’s generation, very, very few of them ever dreamed of attending college.

My own mother grew up two blocks away at Number 16 Ashford Street. I think it is now owned by BU. When she lived there it was a cold-water, three-floor walkup. She did not own the house. Her family never owned a home, only rented.

The best night of the week for her was when she could get into this very field on Ladies’ Night to watch the Boston Braves. Like so many of her generation, her family had a limited education, no material wealth, and faced a deep economic depression at the same age you are right now.

The horizon seemed, indeed, limited. Yet they saved the world from Nazism, split the atom, rebuilt Europe and Asia, and conquered outer space, and built America into the envy of the world. And they created the middle class.

And, more importantly for me … they gave my generation a chance to be the first in history to enjoy a higher level of education, to go further than they had gone, and to learn more than had learned.

My generation took advantage of it.

We went to colleges in droves all around this country. We used computers and the internet to make our lives better, and we unlocked the genetic code, and created cell phones. They didn’t have cell phones when I was in college and they made them a necessity, not a luxury … And we started the environmental movement.

We faced our challenges, too, Vietnam, the threat of nuclear annihilation, global economic competition, widespread divorce, Communism, the struggle for gay rights, and the struggle against chauvinism and racism.

We met some of those challenges successfully. Many of them are still here today.

Our Vietnam might be your Iraq. Globalization faces you every day, and climate change is real. All I can tell you is that most of us made life work with our challenges. We build a better world than we found. By no means perfect, but it is wealthier, more equitable, more just and moral than the one we inherited.

And now it is your turn. We are almost done. Not quite, but we are almost done.

I do not want you to simply follow the path that has been laid out for you. I want you, I hope, I pray to God that you create your own path with knowledge of the past but with your eyes fixed firmly on the future.

Your education level and knowledge right now is the best the world has ever witnessed. You will live longer and healthier lives than anyone ever has before you. Your student body is more diverse than ever. The pay gap between men and women is narrowing. Society is slowly embracing our gay brothers and sisters. And we have elected our first African-American president in history.

Our world isn’t perfect. But our pursuit for human equality of opportunity is closer than Martin Luther King ever witnessed.

Your generation will discover ways to power our automobiles and our businesses in ways I can’t imagine.

You will invent new ways to improve crop yields to feel the hungry around the world. You will discover new cures for common human diseases.

By the way, you already started. You forced me to learn something about Facebook and Twitter – whatever that is. I still haven’t done it yet, but I will.

More importantly to me, as I stated earlier, your generation amazed me with your commitment to poor black people halfway across the world who you will never meet, who have no TVs, and who will never know in your commitment to end the genocide in Darfur.

That is an amazing statement about the kind of people you are, working to end the genocide in Darfur. Thank you. You are earning my respect and admiration for that alone.

And your generation turned out to vote in record numbers to elect our first African-American president. That’s an incredible thing. My generation talked about it; you did it.

It is just the beginning. The journey won’t be easy, you know that. Life is a constant challenge. The most obvious and immediate one is your challenge facing the economy.

I know that many of you don’t have jobs. I know that some of you that have jobs don’t have the jobs that you want. I know that some of your parents have lost their jobs. And I know that some of you will probably have to defer graduate school because you can’t afford to go.

These challenges are real, and they are difficult. But you are well prepared to face them, and over time you will.

The question I have for you is not whether you will succeed or how you will do it. There is no doubt in my mind that you will. The question I have for you is what type of person will you be?

What type of society will you build when this economic storm is over and the economy recovers? Will you focus so much on your own financial well-being that you become the greediest generation?

Will you make college more expensive for the next generation of middle-income people? Will you close our borders to future immigrants? Will you stay committed to a cleaner environment?

Some of you will succumb. You will pull that ladder of opportunity up behind you. Some of you, rather than confront the horrors of the world, would turn your back on the next genocide or the next natural disaster.

Some of you will consider yourselves superior to those of people that work as our waiters and janitors. But most of you won’t.

Most of you will emerge from the challenges that you face today more humble, more tolerant, more open to new ideas, more generous, and more humane, more willing to help build this country and this world into the place that you dreamed about while you were in college.

We have to stabilize the economy as quickly as possible, and then keep it strong. We need a strong economy.

We need wealthy individuals. We need doctors, lawyers, business people, sports phenoms, and famous entertainers – and maybe one or two politicians. We also need teachers, nurses, artists, ministers, soldiers, and social workers.

This society needs every one of you, rich and poor, no matter what course you follow in life, to engage in societies beyond your career. We need soccer coaches, community activists, Sunday school teachers, Girl Scout leaders, PTA members, and environmentalists.

There are lots of ways to make a difference in the world. Some of you will make it rich and famous, but most of us, most of us will toil in obscurity every day – just as most of your parents and grandparents have done before you. That obscurity does not make us less important.

I realize in today’s pop culture world it seems that fame is all that matters. But with American Idol and the Bachelorette, and all of the other so-called reality shows, I ask each and every one of you: In your life, who has made more of a difference?

And who has made the bigger impact, the person who created Grand Theft Auto or a high school teacher and college professor who might have opened up your mind? The high school classmate who died from a drug overdose? The Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime show, or your parents as they trudged to work every single day … to make your life and this college graduation possible for you?

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with fame and fortune and pop culture as long as we do not undervalue the vast majority of us who live and work in obscurity. Most of us will never be chased down the street by the paparazzi or microphones stuck in our face from the media.

The most important question every one of us will face, the question you will ask each other every single week, is how can you make the best out of your routine life? How can you use the talents that God gave you to make your lives and the lives of people you love better? How can you make your own lives matter?

The answer, I can’t give you. You have to answer those questions yourselves.

If you choose to go through life selfishly and narrowly, you will not matter.

If you choose to open your hearts and your minds, if you choose to stand up and fight for justice and equality, if you seek to improve the things that you can, you will matter more than you can imagine – not to me; you will matter to yourselves and you will matter to the next generation behind you.

And to wrap it all up, to Boston University I want to thank you for this incredible honor ad opportunity. I am proud to represent you in Congress and humbled you even considered me worthy of this recognition.

To the other honorary degree recipients, congratulations. Your achievements are worthy of note. And, by the way, to my coach, my friend, Coach Jackie Parker, a Somerville boy, and championship hockey team, congratulations on another great season.

I have heard Jackie say he came from the toughest end of the toughest street in the toughest neighborhood in the toughest city in the world. Well, that is not true – I did!

To the class of 2009, you face some obvious challenges, but you are well prepared to face them. I have faith in you. Your parents have faith in you. My entire generation has faith in you. In fact, we envy you. You are going to change the world. You are going to change it in ways we can’t even imagine.

But please remember, while you re doing that, with all of these successes you are going to have in life, you enjoy some responsibility as well — for your neighbor, for your country, for your environment, and for your children.

I hope you will improve the world that we are handing off to you much better than we ever did. God bless you and good luck.

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