Make the World a Better Place

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Make the World a Better Place

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Georgia Tech Commencement Address

May 2, 2015

Thank you, Dr. Peterson, for that very kind introduction—and for your unwavering stewardship of this important institution. Both here and throughout your remarkable career, you have brought a visionary approach to an ever-changing educational landscape.

It's a real honor to be with you and everyone assembled today as we celebrate this momentous occasion—especially the members of the Georgia Tech Class of 2015! Congratulations to all of you!

I'm especially excited, because I heard that George P. Burdell is joining us today. The man is a living legend and I can't wait to finally meet him in person.

Now, I understand I'm not the only government official who has spoken at Georgia Tech this year. Apparently the President was here a couple of months ago. He's a pretty tough act to follow when it comes to giving a speech; in my defense I'll just say that, on a good day, I can still outshoot him on the basketball court.

But let's be honest—even if you give speeches a lot, and in the last six years, I have given a lot of speeches—that fact remains that delivering Commencement remarks is a pretty daunting task. It's a tradition for Commencement speakers to offer some parting words of wisdom, inspiration, and humor to the graduating class as you embark on life's new adventures, and to honor university leaders and faculty, along with all the wonderful people who have supported you along the way—parents, family members and friends.

To do that I thought I'd seek some inspiration for today's remarks. And I keep returning to a TED talk that New York Times Columnist David Brooks gave last year that really struck a chord. Maybe some of you have seen it. Brooks examined the difference between what he called "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." And he posed an interesting question: "Should you live for your resume, or should you live for your eulogy?" Resume virtues are the skills a person brings to the marketplace. Many of you here - thanks to the world-class education you have received at Georgia Tech - are equipped with valuable resume skills and are prepared to join the workforce. The median starting salary of Georgia Tech graduates last year was $64,000.

Many of you will earn a higher salary straight out of college than millions of hard-working Americans will ever earn after years of employment. Think about that for a moment. It speaks volumes about the high demand for the skills you bring to the table. Of course it's also a tribute to Georgia Tech's emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving. I like that right on the Tech website it says that "Professors will help you discover answers, not just learn them." While critical thinking and problem solving skills build up a resume, the ability to question, the desire to be curious, and having an open mind are what David Brooks might call "eulogy skills." These are the skills, or learnable traits, that help to describe the essence of who you are as a person. They help to show your character, and the nature of your relationships with friends, family, co-workers -- and even complete strangers. Are you kind? Are you generous? And when, at the end, you look back at your life, will you be able to say you've made a positive difference in the lives of others? These are the things that will define your legacy—not the ability to write complex algorithms or multi-task in a fast-paced environment. The conclusion that Brooks draws in a refreshingly frank admission is that, even though the eulogy virtues are ultimately the more important of the two, they are not the ones we should be focusing on the most. And I think many of us here today—if we're completely honest with ourselves - are often driven more by ambition and worldly success than by how we can improve the lives of those around us. So, what is my charge for all of you today? Well, I'm definitely not here to tell you to abandon your dreams of becoming successful engineers, architects or leaders in a number of other fields. Surely you have earned the right, after years of hard work, and sacrifice, to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Your accomplishments are also a good way to thank your families for their incredible support and sacrifice, and to reward your professors for the remarkable skills they've helped you acquire.

So, I'm absolutely here to say: pursue your dreams, with everything you've got. Today, more than ever, our country, and the world, at large, need the brightest engineers, mathematicians and scientists to tackle challenges of unprecedented scope and complexity. Your generation is faced with a tremendous responsibility, and it's one that I have confidence you are capable of successfully meeting head-on.

But there's more to my message than congratulations and best wishes for a bright future. You've spent precious years developing valuable leadership skills, effective communication, quantitative literacy, global and ethical understanding, and the ability to work successfully with others across cultures and disciplines. I urge you to use your considerable talents and skills not just to climb the ladder of personal advancement but to make the world a better place—whether in your local community, on the national stage, or in some faraway location where the struggle for survival is a daily reality. It may sound idealistic, but it is a worthy goal and one that is truly within your grasp - especially for graduates from an institution like Georgia Tech that stands on the cutting-edge of innovation and technology. There are countless ways you all can make a difference.

Many of you already have, and I'd like to share a few of those stories with the Class of 2015.

Brandie Banner and Sam Healy, for example, are planning to teach science in the Atlanta Public School System. They'll be helping to educate a very diverse group of students, many of whom will overcome tough challenges to succeed in college, careers and life.

And, both women will be serving as powerful role models to girls in the classroom, who might not otherwise consider a STEM career. By taking this important step and launching their career in public service, they can bring inspiration to their classrooms and literally change the lives of young children in need of someone who believes in them.

There's also Nikhil George, who came from India to get his mechanical engineering degree here at Tech. Nikhil was the President of the Alternative Spring Break program, that engages students in service projects.

This year, they traveled to Guatemala, among other places in need, with Community Collaborations International to explore the impact of Fair Trade policies on local farmers and artisans.

And, there's Rob Mannino, who is graduating with a degree in Biomedical Engineering. Rob has a rare blood disorder that has required him to get a blood transfusion every three weeks, since he was a baby. But Rob has turned his medical challenges into his life's passion. Right now, he's conducting research on blood disorders, including his own condition. His findings could ultimately save lives, and have an impact on a global scale.

Those are just a few examples of the incredible talent, and drive, represented by this extraordinary group of graduates. These students are a tribute to the outstanding institution that has helped all of you to hone your skills. From the student-led Invention Studio, to the InVenture Prize competition to the enormous Capstone Design Expo, the Institute is leading the way in reshaping STEM education through project-based learning and entrepreneurial experiences.

And the Ideas to Serve program allows current students, and recent alumni who have early-stage product ideas or venture concepts, to launch projects with transformative potential.

And then there's the First In The World grant the University received from our U.S. Department of Education in 2014. The grant will pilot new approaches, that increase college completion and improve employment opportunities, to support the neediest students. Georgia Tech is using the money to create the Center for Accessible Materials Innovation, that will expand access to digital content for students with disabilities at Minority Serving Institutions, in an effort to improve retention and graduation rates for students facing some of the toughest odds.

Tech is just one of many Universities that are using these First in the World grants to create innovative solutions that not only improve access to higher education, but make it more affordable, with support to help students all the way to completion.

It's no coincidence that a great number of students assembled here today have used their education as a springboard to make a difference in the lives of others. Many of you made a strategic choice to attend Georgia Tech, not only because its culture focuses on academic rigor and innovation, but because you wanted the opportunities for personal growth and leadership, and the many avenues to help and support others, through service projects.

Today is a celebration of your hard work. The tough choices you've made, and the challenges you've overcome, have paid off. In the next few years, you will be faced with decisions big and small that will alter the course of not just your career, but of your life.

Now is the time to decide whether your life will be motivated purely by personal gain, or by a passion for serving others. This decision will not be an easy one to make. The allure of enriching ourselves is powerful. They key is to strike a balance between the two choices.

When I look back at the people I've met during my own life, I realize that the most influential and happiest, people I know are the people who dedicated themselves to causes larger than themselves. This started early in my life, with two incredible parents.

My mom spent 50 years tutoring inner-city children in Chicago, and my dad was at the University of Chicago for 47 years. I saw early on how dedicating your life to your passion can inspire, and change lives. Every day I have the privilege of working with, and meeting, many men and women who have devoted their lives to serving others. Whether it's the attorney who passed on working at one of New York City's largest firms, to take an entry-level legal position defending the civil rights of students across the country, or the third grade teacher who chose the classroom over Wall Street, these are people who made the tough decision to make a difference, and live a eulogy-focused life rather than living for a resume.

To me, Tech's motto, "Progress and Service" embodies this idea. If you -- as Tech grads, and soon-to-be alumni -- devote your time, energy and talents to the goal of making moral progress, and to serving the needs of others, then I assure you: you will lead exciting, successful and fulfilling lives.

Your efforts will contribute to humanity's progress, and help equip and inspire others to serve. I call on each of you to embody those values—to live that motto of progress and service—every day.

Thank you for your warm hospitality and for letting me spend some time with you on this special day. You inspire me, and for all the very real challenges we face, you give me great hope for the future. I can't wait to see the difference you will make. I wish you all the best in life. Congratulations!