Did you study nursing? Understaffed clinics and hospitals across this country are desperate for your help.
Did you study education? Teach in a high-need school where the kids really need you. Give a chance to kids who can’t get everything they need maybe in their neighborhood, maybe not even in their home but we can’t afford to give up on them, prepare them to compete for any job anywhere in the world.
Did you study engineering? Help us lead a green revolution, developing new sources of clean energy that will power our economy and preserve our planet.
You can also make your mark in smaller, more individual ways. That’s what so many of you have already done during your time here at ASU, tutoring children, registering voters, doing your own small part to fight hunger and homelessness, AIDS and cancer. One student said it best when she spoke about her senior engineering project building medical devices for people with disabilities in a village in Africa. Her professor showed a video of the folks they’d been helping, and she said, “When we saw the people on the videos, we began to feel a connection to them. It made us want to be successful for them.” Think about that: “It made us want to be successful for them.”
That’s a great motto for all of us. Find somebody to be successful for. Raise their hopes. Rise to their needs. As you think about your life after graduation, as you look into the mirror tonight after the partying is done, that shouldn’t get such a big cheer, you may look in the mirror tonight and you may see somebody who’s not really sure what to do with their lives. That’s what you may see, but a troubled child might look at you and see a mentor. A homebound senior citizen might see a lifeline. The folks at your local homeless shelter might see a friend. None of them care how much money is in your bank account, or whether you’re important at work, or whether you’re famous around town. They just know that you’re somebody who cares, somebody who makes a difference in their lives.
So Class of 2009, that’s what building a body of work is all about. It’s about the daily labor, the many individual acts, the choices large and small that add up over time, over a lifetime, to a lasting legacy. That’s what you want on your tombstone. It’s about not being satisfied with the latest achievement, the latest gold star because the one thing I know about a body of work is that it’s never finished. It’s cumulative; it deepens and expands with each day that you give your best, each day that you give back and contribute to the life of your community and your nation. You may have setbacks and you may have failures, but you’re not done, you’re not even getting started, not by a long shot.
And if you ever forget that, just look to history. Thomas Paine was a failed corset maker, a failed teacher, and a failed tax collector before he made his mark on history with a little book called “Common Sense” that helped ignite a revolution. Julia Child didn’t publish her first cookbook until she was almost 50. Colonel Sanders didn’t open up his first Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was in his 60s. Winston Churchill was dismissed as little more than a has-been, who enjoyed scotch a little bit too much, before he took over as Prime Minister and saw Great Britain through its finest hour. No one thought a former football player stocking shelves at the local supermarket would return to the game he loved, become a Super Bowl MVP and then come here to Arizona and lead your Cardinals to their first Super Bowl. Your body of work is never done.
Each of them, at one point in their life, didn’t have any title or much status to speak of but they had passion, a commitment to following that passion wherever it would lead, and to working hard every step along the way. That’s not just how you’ll ensure that your own life is well-lived. It’s how you’ll make a difference in the life of our nation.
I talked earlier about the selfishness and irresponsibility on Wall Street and Washington that rippled out and led to so many of the problems that we face today. I talked about the focus on outward markers of success that can help lead us astray.
But here is the thing, Class of 2009, it works the other way too. Acts of sacrifice and decency without regard to what’s in it for you, that also creates ripple effects, ones that lift up families and communities; that spread opportunity and boost our economy; that reach folks in the forgotten corners of the world who, in committed young people like you, see the true face of America, our strength, our goodness, our diversity, our enduring power, our ideals.
I know starting your careers in troubled times is a challenge but it is also a privilege because it’s moments like these that force us to try harder and dig deeper, and to discover gifts we never knew we had, to find the greatness that lies within each of us. So don’t ever shy away from that endeavor. Don’t stop adding to your body of work. I can promise that you will be the better for that continued effort, as will this nation that we all love.