Presidential Scholars: A Milestone Year

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the U.S. Presidential Scholars Medallion Ceremony, Washington, DC

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Thank you so much, Marina, for that kind introduction. Please give her another round of applause for all of her hard work.

I am thrilled to be here. I know tonight is really about the Scholars, but before I begin, can I ask all the parents and family members to stand? Let's give them a big round of applause for everything they've done to help you to be here tonight. I think they probably have to be a little bit proud.

And secondly, if there are any teachers or principals that have been supporters of all of our Scholars here, can I ask you to please stand? Let's give them a round of applause for everything they've done for you.

2014 is a big year for anniversaries. It is the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, obviously that changed everything about education in our nation. It is the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and we know how that's helped to transform our society. And it is the 50th year of the Presidential Scholars Program, so you are the 50th class.

Fifty years ago, President Johnson said—and I quote—that "our aim must be higher; our reach must be farther; our pace must be faster. Our society and its members must aim for, and reach toward, the goals and the values of excellence."

President Johnson envisioned a world where our young people could be empowered to make rapid progress, to strive for and to achieve great things. As this year's Presidential Scholars, you have done absolutely these things: when it comes to making a mark on the world, your aim is high, your reach is far, and your pace is fast.

Scholars in this room have seen the world, as adventurers, exchange students, and members of military families. You've explored France, Nepal, Turkey, South Korea, Mexico, China, and many other countries. You've mastered languages from Spanish to Hindi, and one of you has even played Frisbee with Tibetan monks. I have to say, that's pretty cool. I have to add that to my bucket list.

You've helped our international neighbors—whether you're raising money to build a well in Uganda, or promoting sustainable farming practices right here in the United States, you're making a positive impact on the world in which we all live.

In today's increasingly interconnected, global society, it's more important than ever that we approach the world—and each other—with cultural sensitivity and with great respect.

While you've learned about and from the world around you, you have not lost your sense of community.

As Eagle Scouts and volunteers, you've spoken about how great it feels to put a smile on someone else's face—by giving free music lessons, teaching science to young girls, training guide dogs, or helping out the homeless, hearing impaired, and less fortunate.

Your dreams for the future span far and wide. Some of you aspire to provide world-class medical care in underdeveloped countries; others are pursuing careers in quantum computing, math, astrophysics, and neuroscience.

I'm so excited that several of you want to dedicate your lives to teaching—I believe there is no form of leadership more important, and few as rewarding, as being a teacher and inspiring the next generation of learners.

Whatever you choose to do in the future, I know your impact will be deep and your voice will be strong. You have experiences—as musicians, dancers, linguists, published authors, and filmmakers, as researchers and as scientists—to lead our nation where it needs to go.

You've advocated for those who need a helping hand or a supportive voice, for those who are underserved and marginalized. One among you has even battled and bested cancer. Collectively, your strength, your commitment, your leadership, and your resilience, inspires me to try and do more, and to work harder, and to try and have a great impact.

The Commission on Presidential Scholars selected a truly outstanding group—and I want to thank the Commission for all their hard work and commitment.

I am so honored to be with you here tonight, speaking to these great young men and women who will become the next generation of leaders. Despite what I'm sure are vast differences between you, you share a common goal: that the work you do, and the example you set, will make the world a better place.

Before I close—and I know we want to get to the Medallion Ceremony—I'd like to share three very quick pieces of advice.

First, continue to find your passion, find your genius, find what you would do every single day—whether you got paid or not. I've been very, very fortunate to follow my two passions, basketball and education. Since I graduated from college, those were the only two things that I've ever done. There have been times that I've made a lot of money, and times I made very little money, but frankly, it didn't matter.

Being able to do what I love—I can't tell you what a gift that's been to me, and to my family.

Secondly, continue to surround yourself with role models and mentors who will help you, who will teach you, and who will always tell you the truth. And as Marina said, I have two amazing parents. Since I was about ten years old, I've had a mentor, a man named John Rogers who was a teenager then, who took me under his wing.

I'm almost fifty now. It's been amazing, for 39 years now, every major decision in my life that I've made, I've bounced it off of John. He's always told me—not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear. I can't tell you how helpful that's been to me in so many different aspects of my life.

And then finally, while we're obviously just getting to know each other and thinking about this amazing network of alumni, please start to build relationships. Obviously, with all the technology today, it's easier than ever before. For all the huge and complex challenges we want to help solve, and eventually will help solve, none of us can do the important work by ourselves.

The collective wisdom, the collective ideas, the collective commitment, what you can learn from your peers, what you can learn from the alumni here, is so much greater than what you can do by yourselves.

Just to close, congratulations. For all the challenges we face, I'm very hopeful about where our nation will go. I've read some of your biographies, and the great work you've already done, it's absolutely stunning.

Congratulations and I wish you all the best. Keeping working hard. Thank you so much!