Dean Robinson-Gardner, other distinguished deans and august faculty, parents, friends and most importantly our degree awardees:
Welcome to Jackson State University on this very special occasion! I am honored to be here today and grateful to all of you for allowing me to be a part of these commencement exercises. Thank you graduates for attending Jackson State University. By so doing you acknowledge and verify once more to the entire world that an Historically Black University can produce exemplary masters, specialists, and doctorates who can compete with those produced by majority universities.
Each of you should be proud of yourselves and proud of your achievements at Jackson State University. Seventy-five classes of Jackson State graduates have sat where you are seated this evening. You are the latest in a grand tradition of excellence. We thank you for perpetuating excellence and respecting the legacy of this fine institution.
So this is another beginning for you, whether you will be continuing in your chosen occupation perhaps at a different level or pursuing new dreams, new professions. This is a new beginning, a new chapter in your life.
Because of the University’s commitment to excellence, I have no doubt that you are well prepared academically for whatever course you pursue. But these are different times in our global society than any ever before. We have stopped Osama bin Ladin, but we haven’t stopped world hunger; through satellites we can track anything but we can’t seem to track how we can save the world’s resources; we know more about societies and civilizations than ever before but we don’t know how to effectively halt teen pregnancy or to stem the cradle to prison pipeline right in our own neighborhoods. I could go on and on.
But to summarize today: We are at a rare inflection point in the history of this country and the world at which the size and the scope of the challenges before us require that we remake our economy, we redesign our communities, we reinvent our nation and the world to enable ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ for all humans. To do this and more, permit me to paraphrase President Obama’s statement:
“The source of America’s – really the world’s – prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth but how well we educate our people.”
So it falls to you, the educated among the world’s societies, to find paths and solutions to the problems we face today, to assure that this planet prospers. You will have to find the ways to restore the free market to the world. You will find new sources of energy. You will afford future generations the opportunity you had – that of an extraordinary education. You will do all of this and more!
You will have big jobs and big paychecks, bigger opportunities and even bigger responsibilities than any who have come before you. That’s called progress. But as Dan Rather said at Duke’s commencement several years ago, “It’s relatively easy to make a buck but hard to make a difference.” The question is, will you make a difference?
You might say to yourself, “I’m just one person. What can one person do?” The answer is: one person can change the world! Through the use of your talent guided by one more knowledgeable than any of us, through love of each other, through showing that love – by giving to something larger than the individual – you too can change the world.
Think of the power of one – one individual – like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mother Teresa, the Freedom Riders, Barack Obama – each individual, each serving their fellow humans, each using their God-given talents to make the world a better place.
That’s my challenge to you – to use your talents not only in your professions but also in your life’s work – to serve others or something bigger than you.
Now that’s a worthy challenge because service can be and is at times thankless. Many say that the evidence of your service is demonstrated by your scars. Wear them proudly – you tried and that’s a lot.
There are a few other things I want you to remember. I’ll talk to you about some of the things I tell my own children about making a difference.
First, walk humbly with your God. Remember in all of your knowing there is much you don’t know, you don’t understand. I had a student in my class whom I will call “Joe”. The way he talked was hardly understandable and laced with ers, snorts, gulping and the like. The students in my class snickered whenever Joe talked.
Joe was hard working and determined; he came by my office one day while a friend from the public school system was visiting me. When he left I mentioned the way he talked to my friend. A speech pathologist at the time, my friend wrote the name and phone number on a card for me with the instructions that Joe should come by. She patiently explained to me that while most people could talk, swallow, and breathe simultaneously, Joe had never learned to do that.
I was amazed, as I had never heard of such a thing in all my then knowing and fresh doctoral knowledge. I gave the card to Joe, he went to the free clinic, and he began to improve his speech and speech patterns.
Later that term one afternoon his mother called me long distance from the small town in Georgia that was their home. She called to thank me for helping her child. She told me she knew Joe was smart and hard working but no one in their town had been able to help him and throughout his life, until meeting me, he had been laughed at and taunted all through his school years. She explained how much that hurt Joe and of course, hurt her. She thanked me. I thanked her for calling, hung up the phone and felt ashamed.
You see, my help was not intentional but accidental. Through the grace of God I listened to my friend who had been placed there in my office on that day at that time. Worst than that, I easily accepted that stereotype that because Joe spoke differently, he was different; he must be weird or ‘crazy’. I never took the time to look beyond the name of the student. And worst of all, I thought as a new Ph.D. in chemical engineering, I knew just about anything and darn near everything. That was the time I realized how little I really knew. Take away from my Joe story four things:
1. There will always be more that you don’t know than what you do know. Always take the time to learn.
2. Resist the urge – stomp on it – to accept and propagate stereotypes. They hurt people and people are the most precious capital this planet has.
3. Always look for the best in people. Had I done that earlier, I would have realized that with his intellect, determination, and focus that Joe is a fine young man with solid values, a great work ethic, fierce perseverance, and unshakable confidence and belief in God. I could have learned this half a semester early if only I had looked for it in him.
4. Last, embrace the small or not so small miracles every day and don’t be too sophisticated to believe in them. My friend was there that day – small miracle; that she happened to be a speech pathologist, small miracle; that she was generous enough to share her knowledge with me, another small miracle; that Joe was determined enough and humble enough to accept help, even from a person who had not stopped the laughing at him. Big miracle!
I think about him a lot. Joe’s story has stayed with me and reminds me that after all is said and done we’re all just children of God and his servants. That one day, through my friend, I made a difference. You can too.
One last example – another personal one – of the power of one. After a few years at Georgia Tech, I was named the Foundry Educational Foundation professor for Georgia Tech, one of 28 people in the world at universities throughout the world to have this distinction; the only African American and the only woman ever – heady stuff.
A week before the conference the Executive Director called to tell me that I was welcome at all of the meetings except the closing banquet, that the entertainment there had already been planned before they knew about my being a woman and an African American and would be offensive to me. I went to Chicago and attended the meetings.
On the night of the closing banquet I could not decide what to do – should I crash it or stay at home as requested. I called my mom and dad. My dad reminded me that I was entitled to all of the benefits of being an FEF professor; my mother said, “Say a prayer and go.” So I put on my new black suit and went.
When I walked into the room of the banquet, 40 white males were struck dumb immediately. I just stood there as the Executive Director hurried over to remind me that I was not invited and to please leave. I just stood there, couldn’t think of a thing to say, buttoned up my mouth, and looked at him.
Then something special happened: Three of the professors, one from the University of Michigan, another from the Colorado School of Mines, and one from Ohio State University told the Executive Director that if I couldn’t stay, they would leave. One by one the other 24 professors followed suit. I stayed at the banquet. There was no entertainment that night, whatever it was going to be I’ll never know, but most importantly that night the format of the organization’s activities changed permanently. From that time on, all professors enjoyed all of the privileges of professorship and the banquet was coed.
1. Prayer works; it gave me strength to go where I wasn’t wanted but where I was entitled to go.
2. By attending the banquet I made being a professor easier for other African Americans and for other women who would come after me.
3. One person’s presence can bring out the best in others.
4. Together with my three new friends we changed the organization; we made a difference.
Look for places to make a difference, say a prayer or two, and jump in. God will guide you just as He did the Freedom Riders. You will inspire others. You will make a difference.
As you go forward from this wonderful occasion and acquire great wealth and do fabulous things, remember this anonymous poem about the power of one:
“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in an obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty, and then for three years he was an itinerant teacher. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never traveled, except in his infancy, more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompanies greatness. He had no credentials but himself.
While he was still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through a mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth, his seamless robe. When he was dead, he was taken down from the cross and laid in a borrowed grave through the courtesy of a friend.
Nineteen (Twenty now) wide centuries have come and gone, and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and the leader of all human progress. I am well within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever were built, all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has this one solitary life.”
– Unknown –
Make a difference, pray often, look for the good in others, believe in miracles and remember one person can make a difference!
God bless each of you and God bless Jackson State University!