Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter's Remarks at the Excelsior College Commencement

Archived Information

Under Secretary Martha J. Kanter's Remarks at the Excelsior College Commencement

July 9, 2010

President Ebersole, Chairman Yepp, distinguished guests, faculty, families, friends, and, most especially, the Excelsior Class of 2010, students, thank you for inviting me to speak at your commencement. I am deeply appreciative of receiving your honorary degree in the company of such eminent colleagues and I am thrilled to join you this afternoon to celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2010.

Graduates, whether you were able to be here in person or participate via distance education, it is evident that you are graduating from an exceptional institution. Excelsior is a technologically innovative, progressive model for higher education. I am sure many of you chose Excelsior because of its quality, its flexibility, its responsiveness to student needs, and the innovative learning opportunities you enjoyed.

These characteristics allow adult learners to earn their degrees as they fulfill the full set of responsibilities in their lives, whether completing military service, raising families, or working full or part-time. The independent learning opportunities are abundant and Excelsior is well-known for its distance learning programs here in the U.S. and globally.

For the third year in a row, Excelsior has been named as a top choice for members of the military— and I know that many students in the armed forces complete their Excelsior degrees while stationed overseas or here at home. Let me give a special shout out to graduates who are receiving their degrees today stationed in war zones. Your bravery and commitment in service to your country is unparalleled and we thank you. Let's give them a hand.

Let me provide another recognition to those of you who are earning your degrees in nursing today — Excelsior is ranked as the nation's largest nursing school, as well as one of our best. Entering the health care profession is a tremendous opportunity for service. Thank you.

Before coming here, I was privileged to read some stories about several of today's graduates, and I was deeply moved by the accounts of courage and determination that each and every one of them showed.

Last night, many of you had the opportunity to hear about Sergeant First Class Dan Tulip who survived cancer and three-and-a-half years in combat, yet never losing sight of his goal to complete his college degree which he is receiving today — and his remarkable wife, Marcie, who supported him while raising their family. Dan plans to enter the teaching profession and he will be a role model for hundreds of student in his classroom.

And there are people like Magda Roberts of Great Falls, Montana, who immigrated from Romania in 1980. She has been working as a public health nurse in maternal and child health since 2001. But she wanted more leadership and responsibility in her field, so she enrolled to earn the Masters of Science degree in Nursing that she is receiving today.

Let me also recognize Syma Mittelman of Brooklyn who earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts in February of this year. Syma suffers from a severe hearing loss and found that the Excelsior path enabled her to earn her degree and move on to a master's program in special education. She intends to work with special needs children and her education and personal experience will be an inspiration to her students.

I would also like to acknowledge Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Richard T. Curtis, stationed at Portsmouth, Virginia, who, like Syma, earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Liberal Arts with a concentration in Criminal Justice and Homeland Security. He garnered an overall grade point average of 3.8 and prepared for his degree while being highly involved in day-to-day security operations in the Portsmouth region and maintaining close working relationships with local government authorities. While doing all of this, he also won awards four years in a row for the gunnery training he provides to crews aboard Coast Guard cutters.

These are just a few of the men and women seated in our audience today. And they represent every graduate in the Class of 2010 who has worked hard, overcoming the unexpected hurdles of life, and exemplifying the dedication it takes to receive a degree. Many of you are first in your families to attend and finish college. Many of you are adult learners, who have already served our nation in the military or served your community in some other way. Many of you have raised a family, helped a sick parent, or provided for a child.

All of these descriptions remind me of the vast diversity of students who attend Excelsior, and are already or will become the leaders and role models for our country. I say this because President Obama has asked all of our 6000 college and universities in America to increase by 50% the proportion of college graduates by the year 2020. He has asked this of our students because he wants the United States, once again, "to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world." I have called each of you a role model and a leader because today you will join the 40% of Americans who are college graduates and you have moved us toward our 60% goal by 2020. Let's take a moment to think about the parents, spouses, siblings, children, relatives, and friends of the members of the 2010 graduates who were there to help you achieve the educational goals that led you to this day. Join me in thanking them for their support.

Class of 2010, you have had to overcome obstacles that more traditional students at conventional institutions didn't face, and I applaud you for setting your sights on lofty goals and for achieving them.

Now I want to talk to you about three important ingredients that together have helped America become the great democracy that it is.

First, in America earning a college degree has always meant so much, and today, in spite of the fact that we are facing tough economic times, in spite of the disastrous oil spill threatening our shores, despite being worried about our troops, and our tight job market, graduation from college is a truly remarkable achievement and one that gives you the special responsibility to lead the next generation of graduates that will strengthen our democracy.

In May, President Obama wrote an open letter to the Class of 2010 in Parade magazine. He said: "At times like these, when the future seems unsettled and uncertain, it can be easy to lose heart. When you turn on the television or read newspapers or blogs, the voices of cynicism and pessimism always seem to be the loudest. Don't believe them."

The President knows that many Americans are facing tough times, but he also recognizes that negative thinking and pessimism are not the ingredients that made America great. He understands that the pessimistic voices of the chorus in the background will want to bring you down and discourage you from being optimistic, from losing your sense of what's possible to accomplish. But he knows, and we know, that in times like this, you can't listen to the voices of doom and gloom. You are here to embrace the innovation, drive and confidence that have moved America forward and characterizes what you have learned at Excelsior and all that you plan to undertake.

Innovation, drive and confidence - these are the elements that have spurred and strengthened our democracy.

Second, education is the key to our country's economic and social prosperity. Earning your degree will bring you new opportunities, especially as you join the 40% of Americans who have earned their degrees.

As leaders of the next generation, it's up to you to assume some of the responsibility for changing that statistic and moving our country to 60% of Americans who are college graduates. We need a far greater number of graduates so that our country can make the changes that are necessary for us to prosper in the knowledge economy, to make the changes that will increase opportunity for everyone in our country. President Obama has taken significant steps to help the top 100% of Americans have the chance to go to college, regardless of income or circumstance.

Setting our country's 2020 goal for higher education and the workforce, he said that "our leadership in the world relies upon citizens who are not only well-educated, but also driven by their humanity and civic virtue." To reach the President's goal, we will need to bring more than 8 million more students into and through American higher education over the next decade beyond the number of graduates we would expect from only population growth. That's equal to graduating just about every person in New York City! To do this, we must cut the high school drop out rate in half and significantly increase our country's college completion rate.

Graduates, you can help America meet this goal. If you encourage a friend, fellow family or service member, or a neighbor, to move to the next level in his or her education, if you encourage someone to do the hard work that it takes to enter and complete college, you will be an inspiration and role model, and you will not only make a difference in someone else's life, but you will also be helping your country.

The third ingredient of a vibrant democracy is service. I am proud to be here with so many of you who have already expressed the commitment to service in your lives. Through your actions, you have helped your neighbors, strengthened your communities and met the challenges we face here at home and throughout the world. Those of you who are active in our armed forces are serving our country at a crucial time in our history. I am asking every graduate to make service an ongoing part of your life, beyond what you have already done.

Our first Lady Michelle Obama recognizes that for many of you, giving back is already part of your composition. In June, the First lady met with families at Camp Pendleton in California. She said, "It's become one of my defining missions as First Lady to help the rest of our country better understand and appreciate the incredible service of you and your families, and to make sure that your voices are heard back in Washington and that your needs are met, and to make sure that we realize our vision of an America that truly supports and engages our military families."

I know that many of the students who are graduating today, those who are in the military --and those who aren't -- participate in the life of their communities and society and support the activities that help others—and they attended college at the same time. I commend you for your service to America and to the wide diversity of communities that make up our great country.

By serving America, by being engaged in the civic life of our country, you are opening the door to opportunity to others. You are showing someone else the way. You are being the inspiration that a child needs to learn to play softball, or the coach for someone who wants to learn to score a goal. Or you are helping someone learn to read so he or she will have the educational opportunities like you had. Or you are helping provide shelter or comfort for someone affected by a disaster. Community service is among the most important gifts we can give to others and to our country.

Finally, I would like to talk about the future, the next step in your lives. I know many of you have tours of duty to complete and some already are working in jobs you are proud to have. But in the back of every graduates' mind there is often the dream or desire to try something new or go in a different direction. I think it's like the pupa stage in metamorphosis.

This is the stage that is part of growing to maturity. When a caterpillar has finished growing, it forms a pupa. From the outside, the pupa looks as if it is resting. But inside, every single part of the caterpillar is changing. Most of its organs and other body parts dissolve and re-form into the organs, tissues, limbs and wings of the adult.

When the pupa has finished changing, it molts one last time and emerges as an adult butterfly or moth. The butterfly appears and has to work very hard to pump blood into its wings so it can take flight. That is what you are facing.

Graduates, every one of you is changing, and whether it is inside or outside, with this degree, you will have new opportunities. You will, of course, have to work hard like you did at Excelsior, make new commitments and use the knowledge and experience you've gained here to best advantage, but you will emerge stronger and in a new form with new possibilities. Embrace them!

Graduates, you have now become part of meeting the 2020 goal that President Obama has set for our nation. In his words to the class of 2010, he said: "no matter what you choose to do, know that you have the ability — each one of you — to write the next chapter in America's story." What fantastic opportunities you have ahead of you!

Thank you for allowing me to share this momentous occasion with you. Congratulations!