Class of 2020. Family and friends of graduating students. Teachers, support staff, and administrators. Thank you for the opportunity to say a few words during your commencement ceremony. I consider it a great honor to be addressing you on this momentous day, during an atypical period of history for this country and for the entire world.
Today, I address you not only as a speaker, but also as the parent of a graduating student. My youngest son is part of the Class of 2020. I expected to be in attendance at his ceremony as he walked across the stage and collected his diploma. Instead, I am abroad, under lockdown. It is likely that I will have to attend his ceremony virtually or watch a recording of it. My speech today, however, is for you all, not just for my son. But the advice that I wish to impart to you all is the same advice that I would impart to him.
As someone who also completed 12 years of education, and then went on to complete another 11 years, I know a thing or two about commencement ceremonies and how they normally proceed.
This is not normal.
Normally, we would all be crowded into an auditorium, in a stadium, or (weather permitting) outside onto a football field. Normally, someone like me would be delivering this address in person. After the speech concluded, you would normally receive your degrees, diplomas, or certificates of participation. Then you would all celebrate, hi-five and hug one another, revel with family and friends, and proceed into the next stage of your life—into a world that operated similarly to the one your parents and grandparents entered before you.
But nothing about this world right now is normal. Some of us have been inside for weeks, possibly months. When we do venture outside, we are suspicious or wary of proximity to others. We worry about our health. We worry about becoming carriers that could infect vulnerable members of our family and community. We worry about our livelihood. We worry about the future.
Yet, despite the chaos and stress of the past several months, today is still a day of celebration. Today is still a turning point in your lives. Today is still the conclusion of one chapter and the beginning of another. There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, but the silver lining is that there is a lot more possibility at the start of your adventure through life.
In the words of Albus Dumbledore to a young Harry Potter at the start of his journey, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” It is without question that you all are individuals of ability. For the past 12 years, you all have been cultivating your ability to comprehend a variety of subject matters, to excel at athletics, to perform intricate musical arrangements, to learn the craft of a trade, or to balance school with your home and work responsibilities. You all are amazing individuals ready for new challenges. But, don’t be merely content with the abilities that you have cultivated. Make choices to maintain those abilities, develop new ones, and employ them in creative ways to be of service to your family, community and the world.
Furthermore, I want to affirm that even though it may seem like your choices have been limited, or that they are severely impacted by the current situation, you still have choices. There are the traditional choices that are given to you, like whether or not to start college in the fall, join a branch of the military, or enter the work force. However, the more interesting choices are the ones that you need to discover for yourself. Use this time to figure the right choice or choices for you.
“But what is the right choice?” you may ask. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States and a man of folly and many adventures, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.” So, in other words, do something with your abilities, something with your potential. Just do something.
Still, this advice might seem vague or too general for you, so I will to leave you with one more anonymous quote to consider: “The things you are passionate about are not random, they are your calling.”
Maybe you have a good sense of what you are passionate about. Maybe you are still trying to figure out what that might be. Use the last 12 years, use the possibilities in this uncertain world, to retreat inward and listen to the whispers of your calling. Once you hear those whispers make the choice to follow them out of the safety of your home, out of this lockdown, out of uncertainty, and into a world of expanded possibilities.
To the Class of 2020, and to my youngest son: Be brave and be a beacon for others.
Congratulations on your special day.