A World Without Silos

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A World Without Silos

Commencement remarks of U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at Morgan State University—Baltimore, Maryland

May 18, 2013

Thank you, Bears, for that welcome! I am so glad to join you here because today we get to do something which should happen more often in education. Today, we get to celebrate success.

It's been a year of many triumphs for Morgan's students. For the second year in a row, Morgan State's team won the HBCU Honda academic quiz challenge, besting teams from 48 HBCUs. The brilliant captain of the Honda All Stars, Craig Cornish, is heading to Princeton on a full-ride to get a Ph.D in History.

The acrobatic, gravity-defying Cheer Bears won the MEAC cheer title for the third year row—and even managed to come in third nationally.

Senior Christian Kameni became the 131st MSU student or faculty member to become a Fullbright Scholar. That cements MSU's leadership as the university that has produced more Fullbright Scholars than any HBCU in the nation.

And Professor Yacob Astatke, an MSU alum, became the first African-American and the first faculty member from an HBCU to win the National Outstanding Teacher Medal from the America Society for Engineering.

Those are just a few of the headline-grabbing triumphs of the past year. But to every one of the more than 1,200 graduates who are earning their baccalaureate, masters, or Ph.D degree today, congratulations on your triumph and personal journey to reach this day.

No one is born with a college degree in their hand. You have to earn it, and you have to work for it. Now that you have it, it can never, ever be taken away from you.

So congratulations go to each and every one of you on this moment of passage and accomplishment. You have reached this day because of your resilience, tenacity, and talent. You have reached this day by overcoming challenges and adversity.

It's doubly impressive when young people are the first in their family to earn a college degree.

Can every graduate who is the first in their family to get a bachelor's degree or graduate degree, please put your hand up? And please, keep your hands up.

Now, could every graduate who either worked while they earned a degree, or came back to MSU to complete their degree after taking a break from their education—could you also put up your hands?

I see a lot of students' hands in the air. Please give them all a round of applause.

The parents and relatives, partners, spouses, children and friends of the graduates were among the few who didn't have their hands up a moment ago. But it is so important to recognize their contribution.

As much as anyone, the friends, the family members—your support system—helped our graduates realize the American Dream. They have helped you demonstrate that, in America, education is still the great equalizer for so many people.

I was thrilled to hear that a mother and her daughter are both earning their bachelors' degrees today.

Ms. Beulah Lewis is getting a BA in Child Care and Consumer Science, and her daughter, Tiye, will be getting her degree in physical therapy. Because they will receive their degrees with their fellow majors, mom will still have the treat of seeing her daughter receive her degree—and vice-versa. When families learn together, good things can happen!

So, to all our graduates, know that your family and the MSU family—faculty, counselors, coaches, and support staff—are immensely proud of you today.

Like the Lewis mother-daughter team, all of you reached this day, not alone, but together. We may fall by ourselves, but we always rise together.

I would urge our graduates to sometime today, please turn to your parents, your relatives, your spouse, your favorite professor, coach, or friend who supported you.

Take their hands. Thank them for encouraging you to realize your dreams. Thank them for helping you reach for a life that will positively impact your family forever—not just today and tomorrow, but literally for generations to come.

Now, if commencements are a time of celebration, they are also a time to take stock of the future. It is a time to ask, what is the next stage of my journey? And now that I have my degree, what do I want to do with my life?

As I thought about how to answer those questions today, I had some humbling recollections of my own graduation.

Two things stand out. To be honest, I can't remember a word of what our distinguished commencement speaker said ... But more important, looking back I realize I really had very little idea of the twists and turns my life would take.

In the midst of that uncertainty, I did learn two valuable lessons in thinking about the future from my teachers, my family, and my mentors.

First, I learned the importance of following your passion—and that your ability to adapt and be creative, to skillfully manage the inevitable uncertainty that would come—would in large measure determine one's success in a knowledge-based, global economy.

After college, I went on to fail many times, sometimes in small ways, sometimes spectacularly. But I discovered in the process that failure can be a great teacher if you use it to grow and learn—and not as an excuse to fail again, to feel sorry for yourself, or to quit trying.

As President Obama says, you have to persevere in life. You need mental toughness, you need grit, you need determination.

The President says, and I quote, that "whether you start a business, or run for office, or devote yourself to alleviating poverty or hunger, nothing worth doing happens overnight ... We remember Michael Jordan's six championships; we don't remember his nearly 15,000 missed shots ... if you are living your life to the fullest, you will fail, you will stumble ... [But that's no reason] to grow cynical if there are twists and turns on your journey."

In addition to the importance of following your passion, I learned one other lesson: That I should strive to lead a life of consequence—to try to demonstrate my respect and my gratitude to all those who had helped me growing up by working to help others.

I'll tell my own graduation story briefly here, not because it is unique—though many of the details are—but rather because the lessons I learned are so universal in the information age.

When I graduated from college 26 years ago, it never crossed my mind that I might one day serve in the position I am in today—in fact, I'm not even sure I knew it existed.

I played basketball in college. And I had a brilliant, well-thought out plan for the future: My plan was to play professional basketball.

So, I tried out for the Boston Celtics. And I was promptly cut.

Guess what happened next?

While it broke my heart at the time, it turned out that getting cut from the NBA was a great stroke of luck. One of my college coaches, Tom Thibodeau—who today coaches the Chicago Bulls—took pity on me.

To get a coach in Australia to look at me, Tom told him that I was like the superstar Larry Bird but that I was, quote, "better with the ball."

So, I landed on a pro basketball team in Australia, on the other side of the world. And every time I made a mistake on the court, my coach in Australia would roll his eyes and repeat Coach Thibodeau's line like a parrot: "Like Larry Bird, but better with the ball"...

I ended up playing four years in Australia. And the truth is that those four years changed the course of my life. I met my wife there, and we are now blessed with two wonderful children, an eleven-year old daughter and a nine-year old son.

You might think that bouncing around in Australia, playing basketball, was not good preparation for the competitive rigors of the global economy. But that was not my experience.

In fact, on and off the court I had to learn work both independently and in teams. I learned the importance of persistence, of taking responsibility, and the demands of leadership. I learned how to adapt to and thrive in a different culture.

I worked with children who were wards of the state and coached a group of urban aborigines—and my understanding of the world grew.

I learned then, and in later years, how critically important it was to surround oneself not only with a great team but to learn from great mentors—mentors who would always tell me the truth: Not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear.

In short, I had to learn many of the exact same twenty-first century skills that Morgan State seeks to instill in its graduates today to prepare all of you for success in the global job market.

Most of all, I had the chance to pursue my passion—and experience the life-altering opportunity to find what you love and stick to it.

In 1992, we moved back to the South Side of Chicago, where I got to pursue a second life passion in a totally different arena. I joined my sister in working at a non-profit foundation that provided the sixth-grade class at a struggling inner-city school with the promise of a college scholarship for students who stayed in school.

For the next six years, our job was to work with those children and their families to help them stay in school and beat the odds.

I was so lucky to have the opportunity to work to advance the cause of educational opportunity. I know that with real opportunity, coupled with support and guidance, we can literally transform the life chances of children from the toughest of backgrounds. Don't let anyone tell you what children can't do if we just give them the chance.

I learned the value of finding your calling—of finding what you would get up and do every day, even if you weren't getting a paycheck.

The second, invaluable lesson I learned as I pursued my passion, my career, and built our family, was to strive to live a life of consequence.

You might ask: What does that really mean?

There are, in fact, many ways to lead a life of consequence, to lead a life that is larger than one's self and larger than one's own concerns. There are many ways to give back.

I know that Morgan State prizes service learning and community service—so many of you are already giving back. That can't stop today—you are building habits that should last a lifetime.

When you leave here, I hope that one day you will go on to run for office, help an abused child, or aid a struggling serviceman.

I hope that every graduate comes to feel an obligation to be involved in some way in transforming education, so that the young students following in your footsteps go to college and earn their degrees too. Take your education and pay it forward.

I recognize that most of the graduates today are not planning to become classroom teachers. But you can still play an invaluable role in creating real opportunity. Please tutor, join the PTA, coach, run for the school board.

If you are graduating with a business degree, put your managerial and financial expertise to work for the neighborhood school, local non-profit, or a social service agency.

If you are graduating with an architecture degree, put your expertise to work to modernize schools and design classrooms to better support learning and make schools greener.

Now, all of our graduates here today got an MSU education. I know the significance of that, you know the significance, and the world understands it as well. And frankly, I don't think any of you will be surprised by my advice to follow your passion and lead a life of consequence.

In fact, from the day you first stepped foot on campus, your professors, your advisors, your coaches, and President Wilson have all drummed into you those twin messages of commitment and caring.

And they haven't just preached the virtues of commitment and caring—they have practiced them. They have walked the walk.

How many of you were surprised the first time when President Wilson sat down beside you in the dining hall to ask about your experience at Morgan State?

How many of you remember seeing President Wilson stooping down on the campus to pick up papers, bottles, or cans and depositing litter in the trash? Dr. Wilson never lets his hard-earned Ph.D get in the way of modeling small acts of kindness and respect. In fact, they help define who he is as a man.

At MSU, the president, the faculty, and the support staff are almost like a second family to many students. They provide the unique, personalized support that only HBCUs provide for students of color.

MSU tracks students' progress from the moment they set foot on campus. If a student doesn't do well on a quiz or test, a counselor calls to make sure they are taking advantage of all the support services that MSU provides. President Wilson unapologetically calls it "intrusive intervention," coupled with care and support.

I love that phrase—and more important, I love the work and commitment it speaks to. It is a key strategy for boosting graduation and retention rates.

In fact, in the most recent year of data, the one-year retention rate of MSU freshmen in 2010 increased five percentage points to 72 percent—or nearly three-quarters of incoming students.

The Morgan Mile is another fantastic example of a community-based partnership that gives faculty and students an opportunity to take book learning and transform it into hands-on learning and public service.

Within a one mile radius of the campus in northeast Baltimore, MSU has committed to a partnership with the business community, the faith-based community, and local schools to apply its research and resources to local challenges.

That's the right role for a public, urban research university. You must be engaged with, and not isolated from, your community. You have so much to offer—and so much to learn.

The urgency of those local challenges are great, but so are the opportunities to help—whether it is reducing diabetes, stopping the insidious gun violence that plagues our communities, or working in the schools to improve our children's college- and career-readiness.

And last but not least, MSU very much teaches you to be world citizens—to apply those 21st century skills of adaptation, cultural awareness, and teamwork that I referred to earlier, not just in your neighborhood but in the world at large.

Morgan State, for example, is the national leader in promoting exchange programs with Brazil in the new White House Initiatives on HBCUs and Educational Excellence for African Americans.

As President Wilson puts it, "Students today are waist-high in the water of globalization... To be the leaders [our] nation demands, they will need to speak the critical languages and understand the history of cultures and nations different from their own ... We do not live in silos anymore."

I couldn't agree more. We do not live in silos anymore. And if you try to—if you try to hide and insulate yourself from the larger world—you will only succeed in limiting your own life chances.

The education you earned here, the values you learned here, the sense of purpose you gained here—that is why President Obama and our entire administration have recognized and supported the unique and vital role of HBCUs.

HBCUs must not merely survive they must thrive, as we move ahead. We can only lead the world again in college graduation rates, as the President has challenged us to do, with the leadership and success of HBCUs. If we want a strong black community, we must have strong HBCUs.

In 2007, before the Administration took office, HBCUs received a little over $3.6 billion in federal funding. Today, HBCUs receive $5.2 billion in federal funds. That is an increase of 43 percent.

Most of the increase in funding supported greater access to HBCUs, including the Pell Grant scholarships that have gone to so many of our Morgan graduates today.

In 2007, Pell Grant funding for HBCU students was at $523 million; by 2011, that figure had jumped 77 percent, to $929 million.

During the same time period, the Department's support for HBCUs, including Federal Student Aid, increased 40 percent, from $3 billion in 2007 to more than $4 billion in 2011.

And I am pleased to say that Morgan State received its largest federal contract in history, in partnership with the Universities Space and Research Alliance. Over the next four years that $28 million contract will enable MSU to develop critical, cutting-edge expertise on climate issues and atmospheric science.

My point is that none of you got here today by yourself. None of us makes this journey alone. Along the way, there was someone—and often some program—that gave you a helping hand. And to help with the inevitable bumps on the road in the journey ahead, you will need help, from time to time, when you stumble.

No one plans, for example, to get sick or hurt. But thanks to the new healthcare law, you'll never have to choose between saving for a home or using your savings to cover a health emergency.

All of you who don't get jobs right away after graduation that offer health coverage can now stay on your parents' plan until you turn 26. And if that's not an option, starting this fall there's going to be a new health insurance marketplace in your state where you'll be able to visit a single website and choose from a range of affordable private plans.

When you leave Morgan State, each of you will carry with you vivid memories of your time here.

Maybe it's that quiet moment on the footbridge that connects the Quad to the Library, or watching a crisp spring day unfold from a bench in the Quad. Perhaps it's the boisterous fun of Homecoming—or the stepping and singing at fraternities and sororities.

Many of you will remember your favorite professor and the class that stirred your curiosity and fired your imagination. Maybe you were lucky enough to take a class with M.K. Asante, the master storyteller and best-selling author. Or maybe you will think of the friends you met here and who you have bonded with for life.

But whatever else you may remember about your time here, I have great faith that when you leave Morgan State, you will also remember those essential ingredients of an MSU education—the call to lead a life of consequence, to pursue your passion, and to be a world citizen.

I have great faith because Morgan State graduates have demonstrated, time and time again, that commitment, that caring, that citizenship.

Just ask the proud graduates of Morgan, a number of who are here today. Take the time to understand the history of this place and the story of alumni—and how your lives are inextricably linked to theirs.

Ask retired 4-star General Larry Ellis. He is just one of ten MSU graduates who became a General in the military and now sits on your board of regents.

Ask my friend Earl Graves, who founded an empire in black publishing, and who generously helped endow Morgan's School of Business and Management. His son, Butch and I, played a lot of basketball against each other in college. I won't tell you who usually won!

Ask Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, the first African-American to play middle linebacker in pro football.

Long before he achieved fame playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, Willie Lanier was a prized high school recruit in Richmond, Virginia who was supposed to go to Virginia State University.

But Willie Lanier had no thoughts of becoming a professional football player. He wanted to study business—and he wanted to get his business degree here at Morgan.

So after he graduated from high school, 17-year old Willie Lanier boarded a Greyhound bus in Richmond to Baltimore, came to campus and took an entrance exam—even though Morgan's legendary coach, Earl Banks, told him he had no football scholarships left.

Lanier came to Morgan anyway. And he got his degree in business. And after his NFL career ended, Willie Lanier went on to become a successful stock broker and CEO of a minority venture firm.

Ask Kweisi Mfume, a man I have studied closely and learned much from. He is not only a five-term congressman and former president and CEO of the NAACP, he's about to become the chair of the Board of Regents for Morgan. I greatly appreciate that leadership and commitment.

And finally, don't forget to ask Robert Bell. In 1960, when he was a 16-year old at Dunbar High, he and a group of 12 students entered Hooper's Restaurant in downtown Baltimore and waited to be served.

Instead, because of the color of their skin, the students were arrested for criminal trespassing. Their arrest led to the landmark Supreme Court case of Bell v. Maryland.

After graduating from Morgan, Robert Bell went to Harvard Law School. Eventually he became the chief justice of Maryland's highest court.

He saw an injustice—and fought it with courage. But he never despaired about the capacity of the justice system to right a wrong. And today, MSU has a Robert M. Bell Center for Civil Rights in Education.

Now, not every Morgan graduate can be a Robert Bell or an Earl Graves. Not every graduate will go on to be famous. That's not ever the goal. But everyone can lead a life of consequence. As Dr. King famously said, "Everybody can be great ... because anybody can serve."

So today, I hope you celebrate your journey here. Tomorrow—and every day in all your years ahead—I hope you continue that journey as citizens of the world and lifelong learners.

All of here today are so proud of each and every one of you. We look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of your journey and the contributions you will make to society.

Represent your families and your extended MSU family with great pride. You inspire us, and give us great hope for the future. Congratulations! And good luck!