Leading a Life of Consequence

Archived Information

Leading a Life of Consequence

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Fayetteville State University Winter Commencement

December 10, 2011

Thank you, Broncos 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. To our graduates here, and to their families who have supported them on this journey, congratulations.

No one is born with a college degree in their hand. You have to earn it, and it is always a journey. Congratulations to each and every one of you on this moment of passage and accomplishment. You have reached this day through hard work and talent. And 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 degree. Can every graduate who is the first in their family to graduate from college, please put their hand up? And please leave your hands up.

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

Now, almost every graduate has a hand up. Please give them 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 minute ago. But it is so important to recognize their contribution. As much as anyone, the friends, the family members—the support system—have helped our graduates realize the American Dream, and show that in America, education is still the great equalizer.

I think everyone here knows that both President Obama and the First Lady were not born to privilege. They know the power of a college degree firsthand. Neither of the First Lady's parents went to college.

In high school, Michelle Obama had teachers telling her "not to reach too high" because they said her test scores weren't good enough. She says folks made clear "with what they said—or didn't say—that success wasn't meant for a little girl" from the South Side of Chicago.

But you know what—the First Lady didn't let the doubters stop her from chasing her dreams. And it turned out that the love and support of her parents made all the difference.

She talks about her mother pushing her and her brother "to do things she'd never done herself, things she'd been afraid to do herself."

She remembers her father "getting up every day and going to work at the water filtration plant, even after he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, even after it got hard for him to button up his shirt."

She remembers her parents "sacrificing for us, pouring everything they had into us."

So sometime today, please turn to your parents, your relatives, your spouses, or the professors, coaches, and friends 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 for generations to come.

So now you're poised to ask the question, what is the next stop on my journey?

I don't need to tell anyone here that the job market today is a tough one for college grads. And I know that many of you are concerned about how you are going to pay off your student loans.

But always remember that, in the long run, a college degree is still the best investment you can make in your future. On average, students with bachelor degrees are projected to earn about one million dollars more over their lifetime than students with only a high school diploma.

And please know that help in keeping student debt manageable is on the way, through the Obama administration's Pay as You Earn proposal. We want to help people better manage student loan debt by capping monthly payments to what people can afford.

Our Pay as You Earn proposal would give 1.6 million students the ability to cap their loan payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income beginning later next year.

What does that mean for you? In practical terms, 1.6 million Americans could literally see their loan payments go down by hundreds of dollars each month.

And for those borrowers who go into lower-paying but critical public service careers—including teachers—remaining loan balances will be forgiven after 10 years of repayment.

We want people to be able to follow their heart and passion—and not just chase a big paycheck because they have to pay back loans. America can't afford to lose that talent. Please think about public service, think about teaching, and think about the impact you can have in molding the lives of the next generation.

And know, too, that Chancellor Anderson and the entire leadership of Fayetteville State have worked tirelessly to contain tuition growth while increasing both access and quality.

Fayetteville State doesn't have a giant endowment. But it has helped set an example of how universities can do more with less in these tough economic times.

It has done so through careful fiscal management, smart investments in science and technology and international education, a well-regarded business school that encourages entrepreneurship, and through creative programming.

The FSU's Cross Creek Early High School is a beautiful on-campus example of educational innovation that blends high school and college and provides an accelerated path to a degree. In fact, both the valedictorian and salutatorian of the Cross Creek Early College enrolled in FSU as first year freshmen in the fall of 2009.

Today, barely two years later, they are graduating with their bachelor degrees in criminal justice and mathematics. Could Tyshera Eggleston and Tiane Ellis both stand to be recognized? I love the early college model, and want to see those opportunities increase across the country.

Here is one more great example of innovation: FSU offers the only accelerated Masters of Social Work program in the country.

The students in that program are full-time active duty service members at Fort Sam Houston. They are paid by the Army to pursue their MSW degree six hours a day, five days a week. And through distance learning, those off-site students are completing their requirements for a master's degree in just one year instead of two. It's a less expensive path to a degree—and it gives the Army more of the social workers it needs, faster.

Now, as important as all of those cost containment measures are, they still don't really answer the question on many of your minds. You have your degree, but what are you going to do with it? What do you want to do with your life moving forward?

As I thought about how to answer that question, I had some humbling recollections of my own graduation. Two things stand out. To be honest with you, I can't remember a word of what our distinguished commencement speaker said. But more important, I really had very little idea of the twists and turns my life would take.

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

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

I also learned that, in addition to following your passion, I should strive to lead a life of consequence—to give back to society in some way, to help those who needed a helping hand.

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 25 years ago, it never crossed my mind that one day I might serve in the position I am in today. I played basketball in college—and I had a plan. My plan was to play professional basketball. So, I tried out for the Celtics, and I was promptly cut.

But guess what—it turned out that getting cut 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, 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, my coach in Australia would roll his eyes and repeat Tom's line like a parrot: "Like Larry Bird, but better with the ball."

I played 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, a ten-year old daughter and a seven-year old son.

You might think that bumping 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 to work both independently and in teams. I learned the importance of persistence, of taking responsibility, and the demands of leadership. I worked with children who were wards of the state, coached a group of urban aborigines, and my understanding of the world grew. I learned then, and in later years, how important it was to surround oneself not only with a great team but to learn from mentors.

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

Most of all, I had to 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 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 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 piece of advice I received was that as I pursued my passion, my career, and built a family, to seek to live a life of consequence.

You might ask: What does that 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 one's own concerns. There are many ways to give back.

I know that FSU prizes service learning and community service. Already, many of you are giving back.

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.

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

I recognize that most of the graduates today may not be planning to become teachers. But you can still assist the cause of elevating and transforming education in America. Tutor, join the PTA, coach, run for the school board. Help with fund-raising for special initiatives. If you are graduating with a business degree, put your managerial and financial expertise to work for the neighborhood school or local school board.

We know that, in a knowledge-based economy, education is the new game-changer that drives economic growth and combats poverty. But we also know that far too many children of color are dropping out of high school and failing to finish college. Our children, our communities, our country simply cannot win the race for the future if we let children and youth fall behind at the starting line.

To all the graduates here who are about to embark on careers as teachers, I can't thank you enough. I know you are ready! Great teachers are our nation's unsung heroes—and we know that our nation's students have too few teachers and role models of color.

HBCUs were originally created in response to Jim Crow laws that shut African American students out of higher education. Their founders understood that education meant freedom and opportunity. They understood that when a teacher opens the door of a classroom, he slams the door of a prison cell.

Nearly all HBCU's, including Fayetteville State, started out as schools that trained African American teachers. Today, your teacher preparation program is among the strongest in the state. I can't tell you proud that makes me feel. A rigorous study of UNC teacher preparation programs last year found that FSU education graduates were significantly more effective at boosting student achievement in high school science and English than teachers from other institutions.

Now, I have great faith that each and every one of you can work to advance education in America in the years ahead. Why do I say that? Because FSU graduates are already showing the way. Your opportunity is to build upon their legacy—and take it to a new level.

I am so glad that Angela McClary-Rush, class of '95, is here today. More than 750 outstanding teachers applied last year to serve as Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education. Angela is one of just 16 teachers who won that select honor. I count on her and the other teaching ambassadors for invaluable feedback and guidance.

Angela is an outstanding high school English teacher in a rural area in South Carolina and the teacher of the year in her district. But she is so much more than a master teacher.

She is the student council and senior class advisor. She has been her school's literacy coach.

She has been a Teacher Cadet instructor, providing high school students the opportunity to learn about education practices to encourage their aspirations of becoming teachers. And now she is the coordinator of English Language Arts and Social Studies for her school district. Angela, could you please stand to be recognized?

Great teachers like Angela are not born, they are made. Now, it's true that when Angela graduated from her high school in rural South Carolina, she knew she wanted to be a leader in education.

But when she headed here to Fayetteville State as a Chancellor's Scholar, she had one other conviction, too. She was absolutely determined to not return to her isolated, poverty-stricken hometown in South Carolina.

You see Angela had attended school in an area known as the "corridor of shame" for its long and sordid history of segregation and underfunded schools. She couldn't wait to leave her hometown behind.

But when she graduated from FSU, her high school principal reached out to her. And he told her: "In education, if you are not a part of the change process, oftentimes, you become part of the problem. We need you home. We need you to make a difference."

And that's just what Angela did. She went home. She went home to make a difference. She went home to those who needed her.

She heard the call. And she answered it, with amazing grace and determination.

Everyone in this arena today knows that America has too few teachers of color. Nationwide, more than 35 percent of public school students are black or Hispanic. But less than 15 percent of our teachers are black or Latino. It is especially troubling that less than two percent of our nation's teachers are African-American males. Less than one in 50! It's unacceptable.

When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, I used to go into elementary schools that did not have a single black male teacher, though all of the students were black and many grew up in single-parent homes. How can that be a good thing for children, especially for our young boys?

The under-representation of African-American men in the teaching profession is a serious problem.

And it is not a self-correcting problem. Our children need you.

That's one reason why I was so thrilled to hear about Kamal Watkins, North Carolina's Teaching Assistant of the Year and the Grand Marshal in this year's Homecoming Parade. Kamal expects to start work as a kindergarten teacher in January. Kamal, can you stand to be recognized?

Now, Kamal is a proud son of Fayetteville State, twice over. He first graduated with a bachelors' degree in English Language and Literature in 2005.

When he graduated, Kamal wasn't sure that he wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. He was a football star. As a receiver and kick returner, he helped the Broncos win the CIAA championship in both 2002 and 2003.

But Kamal was also determined to disprove the notion that black males are underachievers. He wanted to serve as a role model for younger students, especially black boys.

Not long after graduating, he went to work as a kindergarten teaching assistant at College Lakes Elementary School. There he learned how fun and rewarding it was to work with kindergarten students.

He learned that when children were young, he could make the biggest difference in their lives.

He learned that African-American men were wrong to think that teaching elementary school was somehow women's work—we must break through that myth.

And he learned, as he says, that "students don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

Before long, Kamal's family and friends started telling him that he would make a great teacher, and that he should go back to school to get an education degree and his teaching license.

Yet it was his lead teacher, Mrs. Jaime Haggerty that absolutely insisted Kamal return to FSU. Mrs. Haggerty wouldn't take no for an answer.

From the day Kamal walked into her classroom five years ago to help, Mrs. Haggerty told Kamal he had to go back to school to get his teaching degree. And she didn't stop telling him that until he came back to FSU. That's what great teachers do—they inspire, they push, they change lives. They shape the future.

Kamal and Angela McClary-Rush are just two of so many examples of FSU graduates who followed their passion—and chose to lead a life of consequence.

No one gets written up in the history books because they did something just for themselves. And no one touches lives for the better until they reach out to the world with curiosity, courage, and compassion. So Broncos, as you leave here today, commit to leading a life of consequence.

I congratulate every one of you on your wonderful accomplishment today. I know what it took to get here.

FSU's official motto is "Res Non Verba," which means "deeds, not words." Class of 2011, by your accomplishments, you show deeds, not words.

Today, I hope you celebrate your journey here. Tomorrow—and every day in the years ahead—I hope you continue that journey as lifelong learners.

Everyone here today is so proud of each and every one of you. We look forward eagerly to the next stage of your journey. Represent your families and your extended FSU family with great pride. You inspire us, and give great hope for the future. Congratulations! And good luck!