The Protean Career: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Foothill College Commencement

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The Protean Career: Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the Foothill College Commencement

June 25, 2010

Thank you, President Miner, for that very generous introduction and for your extraordinary leadership. It's an honor to be here this evening, and to join in celebrating the class of 2010's success.

I am thrilled to be here to offer my congratulations to each and every one of you, to your parents, friends, spouses, and children, and to the faculty and staff on this moment of passage and great accomplishment. I have often said that we don't celebrate success enough in education. And today is a day to celebrate.

It's a special pleasure to be here to help mark the anniversary of Foothill College's 50th graduation. I understand we have several graduates and founding faculty members from the Class of 1960 here today. Can we ask them to stand and give them a round of applause?

It's no secret that President Obama and I are huge fans of community colleges—and Foothill ranks among the best and most innovative community colleges in the nation. Community colleges are central to building a vibrant economy and resilient work force. And they are absolutely critical to meeting President Obama's goal of America once again having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Since Foothill began more than a half century ago, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District has educated more than one million students. What an incredible record to which you add your legacy today. Think of the countless stories of Foothill students whose lives were irrevocably changed by their college experience here.

Every student who has earned a Foothill degree today should feel proud. I know your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, spouses and partners, and even your children, for those of you who are parents, feel that way--OK, maybe they feel just a little bit relieved, too.

It takes hard work and tenacity to earn a degree or certificate. This beautiful campus is perched high on a hill. And to move from class to class, you've had to climb steps, time and time again.

But the truth is that, in many respects the class of 2010 has had to climb steps and overcome obstacles that younger students at four-year residential colleges typically don't face.

Let me give a quick demonstration of why I say that. This may be a little unorthodox for a commencement speech. But could I ask every graduate in the audience who is the first in their family to attend college this evening to raise their hand? And please keep your hands raised.

Now, every graduate who came to the U.S. from another country, could you please put your hand up?

And if you are raising a family while in school, could you please raise your hand?

Last, if you worked while earning your degree, or came back to Foothill after a break, please raise your hand.

Now, almost every graduate has a hand up. Please give yourselves a round of applause. Your tremendous commitment to your own education inspires all of us.

The parents and relatives, partners, spouses, children and friends of the members of the class of 2010 were about the only people not raising their hands a moment ago, and it's important to recognize their contribution-- especially those in our audience who never got to attend college themselves. As much as anyone, you have helped our graduates recognize the American Dream--proving again, that in America, education is the great equalizer.

President Obama and the First Lady were not born to privilege. They know the power of a college degree firsthand. The First Lady has talked openly about the fact that neither of her parents went to college. She remembers that her parents didn't have "any idea how to support" Michelle and her brother, Craig, with their college assignments. In high school, Michelle Obama had teachers telling her "not to reach too high because my test scores weren't good enough. Folks [were] making it clear with what they said—or didn't say—that success wasn't meant for a little girl like me 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 me and my 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, being there for us, encouraging us to reach for a life they never knew."

So sometime today, please turn to your parents, or your spouses, or those who supported you. Hold their hands and 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.

Since coming to Washington, I've been fortunate to get a tutorial on the vital role of community colleges and the history of Foothill College from my extraordinary partner, Under Secretary Martha Kanter. As President Miner mentioned, Martha is with me here today, and she oversees the Department of Education's policymaking in higher education. She and her staff are doing a remarkable job. No one is more committed to increasing access to higher education and boosting completion rates than Martha.

What you may not know is that Martha is the first Under Secretary in the history of the department with experience as a community college leader. We knew we needed someone with her expertise and passion leading our team.

The Obama administration has provided unprecedented support for community colleges, though state budget cutbacks are making for hard times in higher education, and nowhere more so than in California. But for America to succeed in the global economy, community colleges must not merely survive, but thrive.

Under President Obama's leadership, preserving and strengthening community colleges has become a core mission of the department. Hal Plotkin, a senior policy advisor in our department, is a graduate of Foothill and is the first Foothill grad to ever serve on its governing board. I love the way Hal sums up what we are doing: As he put it, "We are working together to transform higher education from a system that weeds people out to one that lifts people up."

Foothill College has embodied that sense of uplift ever since it began more than half-a century ago, never losing sight of its community roots. Robert Smithwick, the outstanding president of Foothill's first board of trustees--who is being honored today--was not an educator by training but a dentist who believed in the power of learning. You are an institution of so many firsts—the first community college to seek and receive accreditation in its first year, and the first community college to be master-planned and built in one piece.

You've continued your tradition of innovation in more recent years when the district created the first official board policy to provide support to faculty members who want to create, use or improve open educational resources as substitutes for costly college textbooks. That policy is helping to shape the national conversation today. Students at Foothill have already saved money using those free textbooks--plus you get to keep them afterwards instead of having to sell them back to the bookstore. And you had an internationally renowned visitor this year. I'm talking of course about Bill Gates--who came to campus in April to sit in on a Math My Way class, Foothill's innovative program for teaching developmental math.

After you are done savoring your degree or certificate, I'm sure many of you are now asking yourselves, what comes next? Foothill has one of the highest transfer rates in the state--and more than 600 members of the class of 2010 are expected to transfer either to the University of California or the Cal State systems and more of you to the wide range of other public and private institutions here and across the nation.

We also know that many of you came to Foothill to get into, or advance, in the job market. You are focused intently on how you are going to enter the workforce given the economic downturn. Or thinking about how you are going to land that first or second or third full-time job in a tough job market. You'll be looking for work in a range of fields, from biology and the allied health professions, to business, and computer science, to the arts or the many other career-technical fields like Vet Tech or Environmental Horticulture which have long characterized excellence at Foothill.

You are also probably asking yourself--how I am going to pay the rent, take care of my family--and still find time to balance work, study, and my personal life?

If you stop to think about it, all of those questions have a common thread. They are all about your ability to skillfully manage uncertainty. They are about your capacity to adapt, innovate—and to become a powerful influence for good in our greater society.

These skills—managing uncertainty, adaptation, innovation and influence—are the defining elements of a 21st century education. And they are at the heart of Foothill's mission and curriculum. The range and extraordinary talents of Foothill's alumni are testament to that flexibility and the entrepreneurial instinct nurtured here, from Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields Bakeries, to UCLA chancellor Gene Block.

The days when you graduated from college and went on to work for one employer are over. The Class of 2010 will work for multiple employers, start your own businesses, and many of you will have more than one career. In the global economy, it is not just knowledge and subject mastery that are going to count, as important as they are. Your ability to adapt, to be creative, and pursue your passion are, in large measure, going to determine how you fare in the job market and in life.

I think a great metaphor for the job market of the future is the Protean Career. The idea of the Protean Career-- one where your jobs, employers, and careers take many forms over the course of a lifetime-- was first advanced in 1976 by business professor Douglas Hall. At the time, Hall thought the idea of a Protean Career was just an emerging concept. Today, it is reality.

The concept of the Protean Career is based on the myth of the Greek sea god, Proteus. Proteus had two distinct abilities. First, he could change shapes with relative ease, from a wild boar to a lion, or from fire to a flood. This ability to shape-shift is the source of the popular meaning of the word "protean"--it refers to the ability to adapt to change and meet new challenges.

But Proteus's second, lesser-known ability was the gift of prophecy. He was able to foresee the future--and answer any questions put to him about what the future held. And here, too, I think your ability to anticipate change and foresee job opportunities will help determine your success in the job market.

One final point about the Proteus myth is worth noting. Despite his ability to shift shapes, Proteus never loses his essential self. So when you leave here, be true to your essential self and follow your passion. Run for office. Volunteer at a local school. Tutor or coach--even if it sometimes seems the tougher path to take. Find what you love, find your genius. Find what would you get up and do every day, even if you weren't getting a paycheck. And whatever that calling is, pursue it with all your heart.

I join with everyone here in celebrating your great accomplishments. I encourage you to reflect on your achievements today, but also to harness the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Let me close with the words of John Heider who wrote the Tao of Leadership and talked about the ripple effect on our global society.

He said: If your life works, you influence your family. If your family works, your family influences the community. If your community works, your community influences the nation. If your nation works, your nation influences the world. If your world works, the ripple effect spreads throughout the cosmos.

Foothill has absolutely prepared you to be a person of influence for good in the world and I wish you all the best. I could not be more proud of you.

Congratulations—and thank you for allowing me to join in this wonderful celebration.