Commencement 2007/Address by Tom Ridge

Issue Date: 
May 14, 2007

The following is the text of the address delivered April 29 at Pitt’s 2007 Commencement by Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and the first Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

I appreciate Chancellor Nordenberg [in his introduction] referring to my experience in high school, academic and debate—actually I was the last guy cut from the basketball team. I know I was better than the last guy they kept. But I always wanted to be on the floor of a major basketball arena. I finally made it. Thank you very much.

Again to my dear friend Chancellor Nordenberg, Provost Maher, the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, family and friends, and, of course and especially, graduates—thank you for including me in this very special celebration.

I certainly know that a great deal of effort goes into making graduation ceremonies memorable and fun, so my thanks also to those who worked so hard to make this a great day. As I look around, I don’t see too many pairs of sunglasses. Normally…oh, I see a couple. Had a great night, apparently.

What a wonderful honor you have bestowed upon me with this honorary doctorate. And I am truly grateful.

A special word to all the doctoral graduates out there today: I am touched by the obvious joy you are feeling for me at this very moment.

I received my doctorate in less than three minutes and yet you, who have endured intensive study and sat before review boards—you know, I saw you, lowering your eyes, no doubt overcome with joy and happiness as you saw a doctorate just simply handed over to me.

But what you don’t know is that, before we all came on stage, Chancellor Nordenberg and the faculty really put me through the third degree. They asked for the thesis. I anticipated, so I came up with a novel response, “My dog ate it.” The chancellor said that’s a pretty lame excuse. But lucky for me, we’re on a tight schedule…so I’m here and I’m honored to accept the honorary degree.

The graduates and well-wishers, I will not make you suffer through a long commencement address, any more than is necessary. Someone once said that no graduating class should be introduced into the world without being properly sedated, and so began the ancient tradition of the commencement speaker, whose job has long been to put the class to sleep.

Now, some believe that a commencement speaker’s job is to offer prophetic advice about how to go forth into the world. You know, “Go forth and conquer! And here’s how to do it right, and here’s how to not mess up.”

But the thing is, I’ve heard some rather remarkable and tremendous things about you, the Class of 2007. We did a little research before we decided to appear before you. We read about your achievements, your insight, your intellect, your plans and your perspectives…and frankly, I’m kind of blown away by the quality of this class. So I’m thrilled and honored and proud to be with you.

And so, I’m not here this afternoon to talk you out of anything or talk you into anything. I’m not here to advise or direct or try to persuade.
Actually, I decided for this commencement class, I’d like to be here to applaud and thank you. Applaud what you’ve already done and are already doing and what you already know.

This is a commencement ceremony. But in many ways, I think this class has already commenced its journey…and you are far further, far stronger, far wiser than previous generations who once sat in cap and gown. And frankly, I think that’s how it should be. And all those in attendance here today who are rooting for you couldn’t be happier, more impressed, or more comforted by what you have done.

Now, normally we would advise you on this day to be compassionate toward others throughout your life. But this community, this region, and this country have already witnessed your compassion, because volunteerism is very high on the student body agenda here at the University of Pittsburgh.

You’ve helped tsunami victims and hurricane victims. You’ve raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for the school’s cancer research institute.

And on your own, you’ve held vigils and memorials, public and private, to honor the lives of the students and faculty tragically lost at Virginia Tech.

By your extraordinary empathy and commitment to service, you have shown that you already know that the world spans wider than the width of your own shoulders. You’ve shown that you already know that, now more than ever, our responsibilities to one another as citizens must reach from a world crisis to an individual need. They truly must extend neighbor to neighbor, campus to campus, community to community in the United States, which is clearly the greatest community ever formed.

So, I thank you and applaud you for embracing such compassion.

Now, on such a day as this, many of us here might otherwise suggest to you that there’s more to life than voting for the next “American Idol.” Anybody who watches that show is beyond me anyhow, but that’s all right.

We might otherwise suggest that you focus on shaping the next America. But you’re already doing that. I understand that you’ve held campus debates and discussions.

You’ve led efforts to increase voter registration.

But I think this class has shown to your classmates, not only here but in the region and the rest of the country, that you understand that patriotism is not an ideal; patriotism really is a way of life. And that while some of you may not agree on a war, you have nevertheless rallied around our troops—young men and women, our young soldiers, your fellow citizens, who at this very hour draw strength from support from groups and individuals such as you, and draw comfort from your prayers for safekeeping.

You’ve made sure that the many voices you have brought to the campus are heard. Because you are not afraid of opposing points of view. You are strong-willed, but you are tolerant.

I think this class understands, and I hope you take this with you, that unity does not mean unanimity and that disagreement does not mean disloyalty. And so you have kept your campus discussions and debates civil, not personal. Productive, not destructive. My sense is that most of you don’t look at a map of the country and think in terms of red and blue, which is unfortunately the prevailing political view of the world. My sense is that you think of your country more in terms of red, white, and blue. And that’s exactly the way that it should be. You know that, particularly in this country, freedom-loving people are individual—yet indivisible.

So, I thank you and applaud you for embracing such patriotism.

Now, many commencement speakers yearn to deliver a big scoop—the real news. Headlines. “This is a global world!” I can’t do that. Because you already know it. Some 25 percent of Pitt students study abroad each year. Many of you have already decided that you want to live and perhaps even work internationally. Now, I hope that wasn’t a secret. I can see moms and dads in the audience looking at each other saying—“Did he tell you that?” “Did she tell you that?” No. Leave it to a security guy to let the cat out of the bag.

But, I’ll tell you what. Your mothers and fathers—we all know deep down that the world is calling this class forward. We live in a global community, and we thrive and must thrive on a global economy. And whether the world is flat, whether all the world’s a stage, whether the world is your oyster—our graduates know that their salvation is their solidarity, that America’s opportunities and challenges are inextricably linked to our common bonds with other nations and on the understanding that we are all citizens of the world.

Political, social, economic, and security issues are no longer plausibly shaped from the land of one superpower.

No one country has a monopoly on democracy. Democracy is not an export. Democracy is a verb. And the language of freedom has its own brave, boundless vocabulary for all those who want it. And the advancement of that language—the vocabulary of peace, stability, prosperity, and human rights—relies on graduates who sit before us today.

But you, graduates, you know that. You’ve shown through your studies, travels and activities on campus that that you are already engaging with others internationally.

And you know and indeed relish the fact that there are many more graduating classes around the world today who share your global point of view.

I love it. Just think: What you, as a global community, might be able to achieve together. What you, as global citizens, might be able to solve together.

That’s why I thank you and applaud you for embracing a global view. It will get you far. It will get you far, particularly given the digital reach of a high-tech world in which you are all very, very comfortable.

There’s no reason for me to advise this graduating class to stay “plugged in” to the rapid pace of technology. After all, I’m talking to the iPod generation. You download, upload, chat, surf, text, Facebook, IM, Skype, YouTube. And what amazes me is that you do it all at the same time! I asked my daughter about that. She said, “Oh, dad—I’m multitasking.”

So—you already value technology for all it offers—for the way in which it helps us manage our day-to-day lives, conduct trade and travel, secure the country, carry out our jobs, and stay connected in a truly global world.

And you’ve already seen people of your own generation innovate and push the technology envelope forward. And I have no doubt that some of you are already at work on the next big thing, whatever that might be. Because more than any other generation, you already know it’s the combination of people and technology that’s important.

That’s why you have made this technological world your own—and you’ve immersed yourself in it. For you know that only a commitment to rapid change, to innovation, can advance the opportunities of a digital, global world.

So I thank you and applaud you for embracing technology and innovation.

You know, for a class that has shown itself to be compassionate toward others, actively engaged as citizens, globally minded, and digitally linked, you don’t need anyone to tell you about the importance of staying connected to your families, your friends, communities, nation, world, even yourselves.

If I advised that to this class, I’d get a whopping “Duh…what’s he talking about?” So I got it—and you got it.

I had my own epiphany about this not too long after my own graduation from college in 1967, after I found myself in Vietnam.

Every single day during that time—every single day during that time—my dad wrote me a letter. By the way, we didn’t have daily postal service where I was located, but I got them. Sometimes it was just a couple lines—“Dear Son, your brother and sister are doing fine. Your mom and I love you. Take care. Be well. Love, Dad.” And sometimes—once it was a full play-by-play version of the Super Bowl that year. By the way, he’d also send me fruit-flavored jelly beans, but I think most of those ended up in the rear.

My dad was the thinking man and the everyman. He taught me many things, and one was the value of connectedness, of the sustenance to be found in family, in lifelong friendships, in nurturing bonds with those who help you along life’s way.

I’ve heard it said that we’re not here to see through one another; actually, we’re here rather to see one another through. Over the last several generations, and certainly over the past six years, we have seen one another through many things—some have been very uplifting, some have been very challenging. But, our ability to see one another through has been incumbent upon the common bond and must be sustained.

So, today, at this 220th anniversary commencement ceremony, hold tight to your friends and your family. You’ll soon be high-fiving each other and maybe you’ll throw a cap or two into the air. You’ll be embracing your family members. Maybe you’ll give a “thumbs up” to that professor who gave you one last make-up test just to make sure you got here to this moment.

Those of us who are about to witness those moments will see that you do indeed already know the emotional pull, and the great depth and the sheer joy of the common bond.

So, I thank you and applaud you for today and hopefully tomorrow embracing connections with people who care about you, and about whom you care.

Now, giving advice to new graduates is not easy. And so my thanks to all of you in the Pitt Class of 2007 who have made this effort so easy by, frankly, making it so unnecessary. You blink brilliance. Your impact on your campus, your communities, and your country has already been indelible. And as much as you already know—and as much as you’ve already done—what’s even more impressive to me is that you know that you have more to learn and more to do. And that foresight should be applauded as well.

And, finally, there is something that I’m not sure you do know—most of us never will. And that’s the way in which your lives will impact others well into the future. Years from now, future generations, people who will never know you personally, will look back on the contributions you and your generation have made.

They will feel a collective pride for the way in which you kept life forward amid challenging times—the commitment and compassion and hard work that you gave to it all—and the degree to which your lives inevitably bettered their own.

So I do want to advise one thing: just one. Revel in your accomplishments today; and it’s okay to marvel at yourselves for all you will do tomorrow. Believe me, those who love you already are.

As for now, graduates, congratulations. Have faith, have fun, and have hope. And know that your country is safe, free, and blessed, and that you do truly have a wonderful future ahead.

Thank you for the invitation to join you at this celebration, and may God bless you as you go forward. Thank you very much.