Secretary Arne Duncan's Remarks at the University of Richmond Commencement

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To our graduates and to their families who supported them every step of the way, congratulations, I am honored to be with you today.

One of the pleasures about being Secretary of Education is I have the chance to visit a wide range of schools across the country and see the excellent work they are doing. This is my second college commencement address this spring, and I will be doing four more.

President Obama has set an ambitious goal that America once again will lead the world in college completion by the end of the decade. In every speech, I will highlight the unique contributions of this nation's diverse colleges and universities. We'll need them all focused on achieving the President's goal.

Today, I want to recognize the important role private universities like the University of Richmond play in transforming the lives of students. As you accept your diplomas today, you have much to celebrate. After a long journey of late nights of studying and writing, you have earned your degree. You have made friendships that will last a lifetime. You are prepared with the knowledge, the skills, and the passion to succeed in the next step of your lives.

When my friend Tim Kaine called to tell me that President Ayers was kind enough to invite me to invite me give the commencement address here today, he told me of the many virtues of the University of Richmond. He told me about its commitment to providing a strong academic foundation and a well-rounded education. It opens its doors to students of all income levels through generous financial aid. It's one of the few schools in the country that has need-blind admissions and promises to pay the whole cost of the education for those who demonstrate financial need. In this tough economy and as many college endowments face uncertainty, offering such financial aid is all too rare. But it's more necessary for students and their families than ever. We'll only reach the President's college completion goal if we open the doors of college to millions of new students. I hope more colleges and universities make the same financial commitments to their students that your University does. This is leadership in action, and I love the example you are setting for the rest of the nation.

What appeals to me most is the University's extraordinary commitment to engaging with its city and the rest of the world. Through the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, students are encouraged to be tutors, to volunteer in schools, to support efforts to feed the hungry. But the work of your university goes far beyond community service. It integrates service opportunities with your courses. Some of you studied biology by teaching oceanography to 5th graders in the inner city who have never seen the ocean. Some of the law students receiving their degrees this afternoon advised families who couldn't afford a lawyer on important legal matters such as adoptions and helped nonprofits with their legal needs. I'm impressed that all of you have participated in some form of community service or community-based learning courses. I know that all of those opportunities have enriched your college experience. I hope you and your families are celebrating those unique experiences just as much as your accomplishment today.

The University of Richmond has done a tremendous job creating these opportunities for you. But you have embraced them and made them your own. As one student told President Ayers, the students here are "practical idealists." Now, some people may say practical idealism is a paradox—that we compromise our highest principles when we apply them to the realities of daily life. I absolutely disagree. I believe it's only when we put our ideals into practice that they can transform lives.

So, I'm proud to embrace the practical idealism and belief in community service at work here at the University of Richmond. I've seen such idealism make extraordinary things happen in schools that are transforming the lives of children. Every day, millions of teachers are experimenting with what works in their classrooms. When they succeed, they share what they learned with their colleagues. When they don't, they try again and again until they know their students are on the right path.

We need more of these practical idealists, not just in academia or in classrooms. We need them in every profession and in every community. These idealists have the passion to help others and improve communities where they live. And we need those idealists to have the know-how to turn dreams into reality for themselves and others.

Since its Mother's Day, it's appropriate for me to talk about how my own mother offered me the best learning experience I've ever had. She combined her own ideals with the practical methods needed to transform the life chances for children in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago.

My sister, my brother, and I all grew up in a community-based tutoring program on the south side of Chicago. In 1961, several years before I was born, a neighborhood pastor asked my mother to teach summer Bible study to a group of 9-year old girls. The group only had one Bible, and my mother figured each girl could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next student. But my mother was horrified to discover that not one of her students could read.

My mother decided she could not be silent in the face of those young girls' illiteracy. So in June of 1961 she opened up a free, after-school tutoring program in a church basement on the South Side of Chicago. From the time we were born, she raised my sister, my brother, and me as a part of her program, and that experience shaped all of us. We have all tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways. She brought in families, and tried to get to young children as early as possible.

When we were little, the older students tutored the younger kids. As we grew up, we tutored the younger students. After we were all done with our studies and chores, we played basketball together. Everyone knew our program was a safe haven where children were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

From the corner of 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who had the difficult challenge of tutoring my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation. Another student became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools.

In those church basements I learned that a high-quality tutoring program can be a good thing. But a high-quality tutoring program run by caring adults is a great thing. It can literally help change lives.

Through that experience, I learned that in the right environment, all children can learn and succeed. I learned that everyone should both teach and be taught at the same time. I saw how education can truly help each individual realize his or her true potential. And that experience is the reason why I've dedicated my life to reforming America's schools, so that all children have the chance to learn in such exciting and supportive environments.

Today, as I travel the country, I see others who join in community service with the intentions of helping others, only to find out the service transforms their own lives. I was in New Orleans on Friday and visited the Freedom School run there by the Children's Defense Fund. The school started shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. Through the volunteer leadership of college students, hundreds of young children whose education was interrupted by the storm received tutoring in after-school and summer programs. I met college students who started at the Freedom School as volunteer tutors. They did it to help others, but they learned something profound too. Through the experience, they learned of power of teaching. Now they are pursuing careers in as educators, even though that was the furthest thing from their minds just a few years ago.

I suspect many of you had such life-changing experiences in your community service and community-based learning experiences here at the University of Richmond. In his commencement address to Wesleyan University last year, President Obama talked about his own experience as a community organizer in Chicago. "Through service," he said, "I found a community that embraced me; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction that I'd been seeking. Through service, I discovered how my own improbable story fit into the larger story of America."

As you leave the University of Richmond today, some of you will be entering the workforce. Others will be going on to graduate schools and Fulbright scholarships. Still others will take advantage of many full-time service opportunities available in Teach for America, City Year, AmeriCorps, and other programs. Whatever path you're choosing to follow, I urge you to uphold the value of community-based learning.

Make community service a hallmark of your life. Keep it at the center of your ongoing learning experiences.

As I look at the world today, I realize the task in front of you will be extremely difficult. You and the rest of this year's graduates face challenges of historic significance. Less than two years ago, our country experienced a sudden economic collapse that shook the foundations of our society. The economy is improving, but we're still feeling the affects of that shock today. A tough economy, a devastating oil spill, threats to peace and security—the challenges we face in an increasingly interconnected world are both complex and daunting.

But for all of those challenges, I am absolutely optimistic about our future because you and millions of others graduating this year are a smart passionate and dedicated group who will use your education to solve the problems that our country and our world are facing today. You will be the scientists who will invent the green technologies that will help sustain the environment. You will be the next generation of architects who design buildings that don't add carbon to the atmosphere. You are the community organizers who will go into struggling neighborhoods not just to change them—but to let them change you. You will be the business leaders who see the importance of developing green solutions and will create the business plans that are sustainable for the Earth and for the bottom line. You will become the teachers who deliver on the American promise that education is the one true path out of poverty—no matter your race, ethnicity, or zip code. You will become school leaders in neighborhoods where those schools are struggling and turn them around so that all the children in the community have the world-class education they deserve.

After today, all of you are off to new adventures. Wherever you go, and whatever you do, I hope you always remember the most important lesson your University of Richmond education taught you—your knowledge and commitment to service can, and will, change the world.

We look forward, with great hope and anticipation, to the next stage of your journey. I know you will make us proud.

Congratulations, and thank you for allowing me to share in this wonderful celebration with you.