It's Your Time to Soar

Archived Information

It's Your Time to Soar

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Commencement Address at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.
May 9, 2015

I. Intro

Thank you so much, and good morning.

I'm so honored to be with you today, and to join in celebrating the class of 2015's success.

We're all living in a moment when so many aspects of our society and the world are in the midst of being reimagined, and redefined. Astounding changes have taken place since the year of this great university's founding—1909—from the end of Jim Crow segregation to the election of America's first black president.

These advancements have led some to suggest, foolishly, that we are living in a post-racial society, or, that HBCUs are no longer as vital to our nation's interests as they once were. But I think we can all agree with President Obama when he says that even though we've come a long way, we still have a long, long way to go.

Colleges like North Carolina Central play a critical role in serving students, some who may have not thought college was ever a possibility before. Students are now getting the support they need to not only complete college, but also be prepared for a career and life beyond campus.

Can I ask you to raise your hands? How many of you today, who are graduating, are the first in your families to graduate from college? Please raise your hands and give them a loud round of applause.

Take a moment, and think about the significance of this collective success. What's happening here today deserves a level of celebration that few other universities across the country can match.

I can only imagine the pride and joy your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings feel as they savor the opportunity to witness to your accomplishments here this morning.

And while I can't begin to approach the depth of love the adults here feel for their children's accomplishments, I can say that, on days like this, the stories of all our graduates touch all of us and inspire us as adults, to work even harder to increase educational opportunity here and across the country.

They are your sons and daughters. But in a very real way they are our kids, as well. And so I am honored to be here among you all, celebrating their hard work and success, and paying respect to everything your families have done to support our graduates along the way.

Now that the members of the Class of 2015 have made it to the end of this path, I have some good news to share before the next journey begins.

The truth is there has never been a more valuable time in American history to be a college graduate.

In the past fifteen years alone, the average net worth of a college-educated household has risen by almost 50%. And whereas a college degree would help you earn 50% more than a high school diploma back in 1980, it now returns about 100%.

But more importantly, we are in the midst of redefining what is "valuable." As the industrial age gives way to the information age, one's value in society will be determined less by what you know, and more by what you do with that knowledge, and what values you come to embody in the way you choose to live your life.

This leaves each of you with the very real challenge and the amazing opportunity of asking yourselves an age-old question, at a unique moment in history:

Of all the things I can do, what must I do?

II. A Challenge, and a Call

The question is not new, but I believe the ways in which your generation is poised to answer it are.

There's a new book that frames this challenge particularly well. It's by Robert Putnam, the longtime professor of public policy at Harvard, and the author of the well-known book Bowling Alone. And, fittingly, in this era of interconnection, his book is called Our Kids.

What Putnam did was go back and look at his own high school graduating class from Port Clinton, Ohio, in 1959. He tracked down his classmates to learn more about how their lives unfolded, and he interviewed a cross-section of young people growing up in that community today, to see if our historic promise of equal opportunity had become more or less true over the years.

What he found was something we all need to hear loud and clear, and it was the painful truth that the opportunity gap is widening.

While your life chances as college graduates have just gone way up, the prospects for non-college graduates are headed in the opposite direction.

Income inequality, both across and within racial groups, is rising at a pretty fast rate.

Our neighborhoods are becoming more segregated along both racial and class lines. Our rates of cross-class marriage are in rapid decline. And the achievement gap between kids from high- and low-income families born in 2001 is almost 40% higher than it was for those kids born a generation ago, 25 years earlier. None of this should be acceptable to any of us.

"Because of growing class segregation," Putnam says, "fewer and fewer successful people have much idea how the other half lives." This has made us less empathetic to one another's plight than before.

What's the end result of having so much inequality, and so many children raised in poverty? A loss of more than $500 billion a year—and that's not because of the cost of social welfare programs. Instead, it's because of lost potential—a sea of talented artists and teachers, business owners and problem-solvers, their lives stunted and squandered while our lives improved, and their hardships increasingly invisible to many of us who are fortunate enough to acquire the visible trappings of a college degree.

None of us here today wanted, or created this problem. But, we cannot escape this brutal reality—we must address it head on. In fact, I'm convinced that this is the central problem all of us have to solve, together.

I know that all of you already know this, because your alma mater understands that at such a visceral level. That's why they've worked so hard to instill in all of you not just a commitment to truth and service, but to adopting an entrepreneurial mindset in whatever path you choose to follow.

Our communities and our country need your best entrepreneurial thinking. And if there's one aspect of the Eagle mindset that I hope you take to heart, it's the one that one of the world's leading thinkers on social entrepreneurship believes is actually the key to having impact and making a difference in our world and that's empathy.

III. The Importance of Empathy

Some of you may have heard of a man named Bill Drayton.

As a young man, he passed through the world's most prestigious institutions of higher education.

When he graduated, he did what he felt was expected of him, and went to work at a prestigious management consulting firm.

But the more he thought about the world and what it needed, the more he realized his life was pulling him in a very different direction. So in 1980 he founded Ashoka, an organization named after an ancient warrior who unified the Indian subcontinent by renouncing violence and dedicating his life to social welfare and economic development.

In that spirit, Drayton said, Ashoka would identify and support social entrepreneurs all over the globe—people who have innovative ideas about how to solve our most intractable problems, and whose lives are a testament to the notion that we are, absolutely, our Brother's Keeper.

The result, 35 years later? A network of almost 3,000 Fellows, each of them actively engaged in making the world a better place. There are young men and women figuring out how to bring electricity to rural pockets of the developing world, and innovators who have dedicated their lives to teaching the homeless children in Rio de Janeiro how to read. There are fellows who have established a Peace Prize for young people, and others who find ways to make recess a great place for them to learn social skills.

What's interesting is that when you take them together, and look for the patterns in where they focus their attention and how they choose to live their lives, Ashoka Fellows provide insight not just into our worlds' challenges, but also how we can go about solving them, together.

And what they've showed Drayton, and anyone else who's willing to look, is that of all the skills a person can have today, no matter what their passion or profession might be, the one that is most vital toward becoming a true social entrepreneur is empathy.

Let me try and say that another way. The most valuable attribute in the world you are about to enter is not critical thinking, or fluency in another language, or an amazing understanding of U.S. history or chemistry or math as important -- as important as every single one of those skills are. It's not about learning how to "play the game," or even primarily about what—or who—you know; it's about whether you are capable of truly seeing the world through another's eyes or willing to walk a mile in their shoes.

"You cannot be a good person simply by following the rules anymore," Drayton says. "It's no longer possible. The key factor of success for any society going forward is what percentage of its people are changemakers. It's the new literacy. And empathy is the foundation of that new way of being."

I think there's a lot of truth, a lot of wisdom in that statement. And what gives me so much hope in celebrations like this one is my passionate belief that I'm looking out at 680 changemakers right here, in Durham. All of your will go on to make a difference.

That spirit of what Bill Drayton describes is the spirit at the heart of this campus.

Your chancellor and my good friend, Dr. Saunders-White, is a living embodiment of that spirit—a first-generation college graduate, the daughter of a sharecropper and a used-car salesman, and now the leader of this remarkable school. I know she understands both this community—and the broader world you'll be entering—when she says that Eagles don't ask what they require from life. They ask what the world requires from them.

The young man Dr. Saunders-White chose to honor a little bit ago—Darryl Lewis—he embodies that spirit.

The young woman this community tragically lost just a month ago—Chekeria Reid—she embodied that spirit, as does her brother, Joshua, who is walking in her stead to accept her diploma.

And the two adoptive sisters who are both graduating here today—Jessica and Caitlyn Dunlap—they represent that spirit, as well.

There are 13 Dunlap siblings in all, some of whom happen to be white and some whom happen to be black, and many of whom are adopted. The Dunlaps are a living embodiment of what Robert Putnam wants all of us to reclaim—the notion that every child is "our child," and that our fates and fortunes are shaped first and foremost by how we treat one another and how we care for one another.

Please join me in thanking their parents, Norman & Rowen, for their example of compassion and caring that they set for all of us!

The love and commitment they have modeled have clearly been passed on to Caitlyn and Jessica. We all teach best through our deeds and not through our words.

As Jessica put it in her senior Capstone essay, she first realized she wanted to be a certain kind of person when, as a six-year-old girl living in her second foster home, she found a stray kitten, badly hurt, in her backyard.

"I didn't know much about medicine," she explained, "but I did know that I wanted to help that kitten, and it was from that time on that I vowed to help others. To this day that is my number one goal. I have had the mentality throughout foster care and my adoption that I want to be someone who makes a difference in others' lives." And now, as she prepares to graduate with a degree in biology, Jessica Dunlap will begin working as an EMS. "What started out over fifteen years ago patching up a kitten," she wrote, has become a passion to "patch up humans." That is empathy in action. That is truth and service in action. That is the Eagle way.

After all, as your founder Dr. Shepard famously said, the eagle is "no . . . common ordinary barnyard fowl."

And imagine what Dr. Shepard would say if he were alive today and we told him the fact that for the first time in our nation's history, the majority of America's public school students will now come from our minority communities.

I know what he would not say—that HBCUs no longer have an essential role to play in getting us closer to a society with real opportunity. President Obama has been absolutely clear about this: he wants America to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

We simply cannot achieve that goal without colleges like North Carolina Central leading the way. We need this University and all HBCUs not just to survive, but to thrive going forward, if we hope to have both stronger communities and a stronger nation.

If we want to have any hope of exponentially increasing the number of college graduates, we need to strengthen, not weaken, our commitment to the colleges and universities that have the deepest experience at educating students of color. After all, even though so much changed since 1909, this much remains absolutely true: the surest path to a middle class life is through a college diploma.

Class of 2015, we are all so proud of you! It's your time to soar and you are absolutely ready.

Please know that you carry the hopes and dreams of the President and First Lady and of so many of us as you move forward! I know you will continue to make us proud, and inspire us both with your actions and with your empathy.

I wish you all the best. Congratulations and thank you so much for having me this morning.

Thank you.