by Jeanne Shaheen Selinsgrove native and former governor of New Hamsphire
President Lemons, members of the faculty, honored graduates, family and friends. I'm delighted to be here this afternoon to celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2007. I'm especially proud to receive this honorary degree. Congratulations to my fellow recipients Clifford Jones and Raymond Lauver. Thank you both for your service to Susquehanna University and the people of Pennsylvania. I must also recognize fellow New Hampshirite Zach Rahn and his family. Zach, who is graduating today, has served as SU's student government president this year. You know, Zach, I also started out my career in campus politics in Pennsylvania. So, I expect you to come back to New Hampshire and get involved in politics at home!
I find commencement addresses are among the most challenging speeches to give. As the speaker, I always want to say something profound and inspirational on this momentous occasion. But, as a former student, I can tell you that I don't remember any of the speakers at my own graduations. So today I will follow the advice of Franklin Roosevelt, "Be brief, be sincere, be seated."
It's great to be back in Selinsgrove where I went to high school. Selinsgrove was a great place to be a teenager and come of age. This is the place where I learned to drive, got my first job and did numerous other things that I probably should not talk about publicly. In the early sixties when I was here, Selinsgrove, like SU, was a place where people knew each other and looked out for each other. A place where there was a real sense of community.
In 1965 when I graduated from Selinsgrove Area High School, the world was vastly different than the world you enter upon graduation.
In 1965 there were still segregated schools in this country and 18-year-olds did not have the right to vote.
In 1965 Title IX had not yet passed so college scholarships for women playing sports were virtually non-existent. In fact, competitive sports for women in most colleges were virtually non-existent.
In 1965 there were no personal computers, no cell phones, no ipods and no cable TV – let alone MTV.
And, of course, in 1965 there was no MySpace or Facebook. (Makes you wonder how we ever got along!)
One thing that hasn't changed since 1965 is the value of a college education. As you enter the professional world, technology is revolutionizing the way we live and work. You are competing in the global economy where a college degree is critical to your future success. You can rest assured that whatever your future may hold, Susquehanna University has prepared you well.
Susquehanna has consistently ranked among the best liberal arts colleges in the country according to US News & World Report. The Templeton Guide has recognized SU for leadership in the field of student character development. And Barron's Best Buys in College Education praises your student volunteer programs.
I was particularly impressed by your history of community service and your commitment to service learning. Preparing students for lives of "service" is included in Susquehanna's mission statement and I know that President Lemons is a strong advocate for community service. Your record of service here has been extraordinary.
In Central America your work through SU CASA has delivered more than $315,000 in materials and gifts and provided 9,600 hours of volunteer service since the program began in 1999. Your relief efforts to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina have been recognized nationally. And what better way for new students to get to know each other and the community than by working side by side on a day of service to the Greater Susquehanna Valley as part of the SU GIVE program. Reading the stories on your "Changing Lives" Web site makes it clear that Susquehanna University has not only changed the lives of all of you who have gone here, but also it has allowed you to change the lives of so many others in the community, in the country and around the world.
But, as important as community service is to making a difference in our world (And I do believe it makes a difference), I'm here today to urge you to take your community service to another level and to consider engaging in politics and public service.
Nationally, over 80 percent of students believe that community service is an effective way not only to address problems of the community, but also to address the country's problems. About 70 percent of young people volunteer in their communities, out-performing all previous generations.
Unfortunately, that enthusiasm has not translated to the political arena. Numerous studies in the past decade have documented the decline of civic engagement among all Americans—especially among young people. For thirty years after 18-year-olds got the right to vote in their first presidential election in 1972, we saw a steady decline in the political involvement of young people. Young people have had a negative perception of politics and political engagement. They have seen politics as too divisive and not relevant to their lives.
The implications for a free society of generations of young people turned off to politics and public service are potentially devastating. The importance of civic engagement is a responsibility we must all share and pass on to the next generation if our democracy is to remain strong.
The good news is that in the last two elections—2004 and 2006—we have seen a renewed interest in the political process on the part of young people. The events of September 11, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina have made politics relevant to your generation. The question is how we sustain and build on that increased level of interest. How do we show the very real difference the political process can make in the lives of people?
I remember, as a college student, when I first realized why political engagement is so important. It was 1969 and, like most students at the time, I was opposed to the war in Vietnam. I recall vividly the conversation with my favorite political science professor. I was expressing my frustration that President Nixon was not listening to the tens-of-thousands of people protesting in the streets against the war. My professor responded that protests and marches would not change the policies of the government. He said the government's policies would change only when a majority of voters wanted change and expressed that desire through the power of the ballot box. (He was right. When enough Americans became upset about the Vietnam War, the country's policy changed.) He also told me that if I wanted to be part of causing change, I should work through the system, not against it.
My whole life experience has shown me that involvement in electoral politics is a way to make a difference. As Governor, I have seen a little girl who got treatment for a life-threatening illness because of my state's children's health insurance program, and I saw the relief in her mother's eyes. I have seen the excited faces of five-year-olds on the first day of school at a brand-new public kindergarten. I have seen the tall timbers and the rushing rivers of a pristine wilderness that will be saved for future generations. And I can say I helped make that happen.
When I began high school in Selinsgrove, John Kennedy was President of the United States. President Kennedy inspired a whole generation of young people to get involved in public service by appealing to our idealism and our sense of civic responsibility. In 1963 at Vanderbilt University, he talked about that responsibility we have as educated citizens. He said, "All Americans must be responsible citizens. But, some must be more responsible than others . . . . Increased responsibility goes with increased ability. For those to whom much is given, much is required . . . . the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public. (You) may be a precinct worker, or a president. (You) may give ( your) talents at the courthouse, the State House, the White House. (You) may be a civil servant or a senator, a candidate or a campaign worker, a winner or a loser; but (you) must be a participant and not a spectator."
One person can make a difference. You can make a difference. Not only through service for charitable causes, but also by participating in the political process. America only works if we make it work. All Americans are blessed with the rights and responsibilities of self-government. For those like you who have had the opportunity of attending a first class college like Susquehanna University, you are called on to do even more.
So as you start the next phase of your lives, don't be afraid to get involved in politics. This country needs your passion, your energy and your idealism. If you see something that needs fixing, help fix it. Vote. Help a candidate who shares your values. Run for office. You won't win every battle, but the only way you'll truly lose is if you choose to sit out the debate.
Congratulations to you and all the people who helped you reach this day – your parents and families, your friends and your teachers. And on this Mother's Day, especially, remember to thank your mothers!
You are embarking on a great adventure. Make the most of it. I wish you the best of luck and thank you for allowing me to share this very special day.