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2009 Commencement Address

Commencement Remarks by Cynthia A. Baldwin
Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice

It is my pleasure to be with you this afternoon to celebrate another new beginning. Life is a series of new beginnings if we are truly living and not just existing.

One hundred fifty years ago, Charles Dickens began publishing arguably his most famous novel in weekly parts.  The book began:

  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. 
    – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The U.S. Census Bureau says 1.6 million college degrees will be awarded this year. Economists are calling this the worst economic downturn since the great depression.  Burdened with debt and looking at an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, some students are calling it the worst year to graduate ever.

Graduation is traditionally a time to look to the future while waxing nostalgically about the past. We must remember, however, that the past and the present form the foundation of the future.  Robert F. Kennedy once said, “The future does not belong to those who are content with today.  Rather, it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment.” We must make a personal commitment of resources—time, talent, skill and money—to have a future.  Sure, we want to be successful and happy, but life demands more. Someone once said, success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get, and experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. Many of us have had more than our share of experience from life. This afternoon, I will speak to you briefly about experiencing life, sacrifices and contributions.

A few years ago, some farm animals got together to discuss what they could do for the farmer since he was so good to them. The cow suggested a new truck and the horse, a vacation to the islands, but alas, none of them had any money. Finally, the chicken suggested they fix him a breakfast of ham and eggs, toast and milk. All the animals eagerly agreed, except the pig.  "Look," he said to the chicken, "for you, this is only a contribution. For me, it is a sacrifice." Every person must decide in each situation whether a contribution or a sacrifice is necessary. If we are not doing either, we are emulating life, not experiencing it.

George Bernard Shaw said it this way in his dedicatory letter to man and superman:

    "This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose, recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

    "I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

    "I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for it is a splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

We must invest time, commitment and money in our society in order for our societal Dow Jones to soar. A full life demands total commitment, and commitment is as apt to bring pain as accomplishment. No, it is not easy to invest, and the rewards are not instantaneous, but we will be part of the beginnings of a world that has hope for the future, with peaceful countries, clean air and water, and an educated and concerned people.

But exactly what kind of world are we facing in the 21st century? While there are very exciting statistics about you, our college students, there are the good, the bad and the ugly.  Here are some disturbing ones:

  1. In America, students spend $5.5 billion annually on alcohol.
  2. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students.  Alcohol is involved in two-thirds of college student suicides and 95 percent of violent crime.
  3. Two out of five college students are binge drinkers.
  4. There are 1,700 student deaths annually because of drinking.

We must reverse this trend, or colleges will be producing graduates unable to face or resolve the challenges waiting for us.

Many of the demographic trends favor women. Women are now becoming better educated than men, getting one half of the master’s degrees and 38 percent of the doctorates. Still, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn. In the past decade, the number of men with bachelor degrees declined by 35,000, while the number of women with bachelor degrees increased by 80,000. Not surprisingly, women still carry 75 percent of the burden for grocery shopping, cooking, laundry and dishwashing.  Women head 27 percent of families with children, but 39 percent of female-headed families live in poverty.

  • Demographic statistics from the United States also show:
  • Seventeen percent of people under 18 live in poverty (over 12.2 million).
  • Forty-four percent of all births are to unmarried mothers; 42 percent of those births are to teenage mothers.
  • The world is only 30 percent white. 
  • Seventy-two thousand people in the U.S. are over 100—and I’m not one of them, in spite of what I said about age.
  • Almost two times as many whites have bachelor’s or advance degrees as blacks ( 24.3 percent – 13.6 percent). 
  • Twenty-three million Americans under 30 voted in the 2008 elections, an increase of 3.4 million from 2004. 
  • People in this same age category are more likely to vote if college educated.
  • We spend a lot and waste a lot.  Three billion people worldwide live on the equivalent of $2 a day, while Americans average $90 daily and throw away between 1.5 and four pounds of trash daily.

This is the world that you are facing. Yes, the future is a challenge, and we all must learn to face challenges and make the necessary choices.

Dealing with challenges requires both vision and preparation. Wishing to be a surgeon is no good unless you have studied and know the anatomy. It is difficult to be an astronaut if you do not first learn to fly a plane. We all have free will and the ability to balance alternatives so we can make choices. Sure, we will make mistakes, but we can be forgiven. Our true mistake, however, is to make no choices; to face no challenges; to not prepare for the future. We cannot afford to stand on the sidelines and watch the game of life without ever playing. So if your life is going smoothly, if your ocean has no waves and your road has no bumps, watch out; you may be going nowhere.

Ours is a world characterized, as someone once said, by the globalization of corporations, the robotization of economics and the polarization of income. You are facing a world in need of conscience, compassion and control.

We are living in a world requiring our competence, our clear-headed thinking, our input in order to make some hard decisions. We are residents of a global community, and decisions made in Washington, D.C., affect Warsaw, those made in Cancun may affect Chicago and those in Beijing may affect Boston. Unfortunately, many international leaders have lost sight of the doughnut and been concentrating on the hole.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true potential.” Deeds uninformed by educated thought can take false directions.  But please remember that education is more than thick books, ivy-covered buildings and people burdened with letters like M.A. and Ph.D. Education is watching the Sams and Susans with whom you went to school binge on alcohol, snort cocaine or pop pills to avoid facing reality.  Education is making choices, and if wrong, using that mistake as a character-builder instead of an excuse-maker. Education is discovering that sacrifice is just another word for investment.

You are the pool from which our leaders will emerge. Martin Luther King also said, “We shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect, who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with an enthusiasm that enables us to rally support for them based on confidence and trust. We will have to demand high standards and give consistent loyal support to those who merit it.” In other words, we have to do the right thing.

We call this ethics. Knowing what the right thing is and doing it. It means choosing principle over power and morals over money. It means giving a full day's work for a full day's pay without complaint. It means doing your best even when no one is watching or giving you accolades. It means choosing to do the correct thing even when everyone else is doing the wrong thing and getting wealthy.

Today there are words which are not used as much anymore, like character and integrity and responsibility and reputation. Today we believe character, integrity and reputation can be bought. However, these are words that leaders not only use but understand.  So I say to you, graduates, don’t ever give up on this world.  You are its leaders. Make all of the contributions and sacrifices necessary to build a better future. Experience life, don’t emulate it. In conclusion, I will share a poem which I read regularly. It helps me, I hope it will help you.

The title is Anyway, and the author is unknown to me. I did not write the poem. I’m only reading it.

    People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway.
    If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives. Love them anyway.
    If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Love them anyway.
    The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
    People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for some underdogs anyway.
    What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
    People really need help but may attack you if you help them. Help people anyway.
    Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
    Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

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