Commencement Address at Northeastern UniversityR. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
May 6, 2006
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Northeastern University Class of 2006, it is a very great honor for me to join you, your families and friends and the leadership, faculty and staff of your school to pay tribute to you.
I’m grateful to Northeastern for the incredible honor they have bestowed on me by giving me an Honorary Degree in Public Service and for the opportunity to meet such distinguished Americans – Dr. Walter Massey from Morehouse College, Anne Mulcahy of Xerox Corporation, and Dr. Raymond Robinson, Professor of History here at Northeastern.
Graduates, this is your day. This is your moment and the hour when we recognize all your hard work and success here at Northeastern and send you off into the world to do great things.
Now, before we go too far overboard in praising you, we should rightfully recognize first the people who also made this day possible—your parents and family members and your teachers. They dreamed of your attaining what is now an essential feature of an educated life in America —a university or graduate degree. And your parents, especially, have paid, in more ways than one, for that distinction. As they helped make today possible for you, would it not be appropriate for all the graduates to rise and salute your parents with an enthusiastic round of thanks and applause!
They say that graduation day is one of the most five significant anniversaries of one’s life, along with birth, marriage, having kids and the most momentous day of all—when you finally pay off your student loans.
I hope you feel this morning, how fortunate you have been to have studied in Boston and especially here at Northeastern University. We New Englanders are very proud of Boston. The first college in America was built here as was the first hospital. Bostonians launched the revolution against the British in the eighteenth century and began the movement to abolish slavery in the nineteenth. Boston is now a world leader in medicine, in higher education and in high tech. Most importantly: we’re home to the three-time Super Bowl champion – Patriots – and, after a pause of a mere 86 years -- and I say this as a loyal member of Red Sox nation – we were finally delivered from our Calvinist New England belief, embedded deep in our regional DNA, that the Red Sox must always lose, when the Sox finally won it all in that glorious autumn of 2004.
You graduates will also be fortunate to be life-long members of the Northeastern University community. Northeastern has an extraordinary faculty led by an accomplished President – Richard Freeland – who has done a magnificent job here for the last decade and can be proud of his achievements when he steps down this summer.
Now, once that diploma hits your hands a few minutes from now, two things will happen. First, your parents will be very proud. And second, the Alumni Association will already have you listed permanently in its data bank as a prospective donor. Don’t be surprised if you get a call on your cell phone in the next few minutes to make your first donation. You will join the ranks of the alums in the U.S. and around the world who love Northeastern and are proud of how far it has come.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the graduating class, I am acutely aware that I am the only person standing in the way of you and your diploma. So in addition to reminding you of your great good fortune to have studied in Boston and at Northeastern, I want to leave you with just one message this afternoon.
Beyond the engineering, history, economics and science you learned in the classroom here, beyond the friendships you have made, beyond the brilliance of your teachers, what will you also take away from your university experience that will be truly precious and lasting?
I believe the one lesson from Northeastern you will take away is this – you know that the real meaning of your education has to be that you shall now use it for a good purpose, a noble purpose – to live a life of service for the greater good.
You attended a University with a great history: its roots go back to what makes this city and this country so special; it’s tradition of helping others and giving back to your community. In its beginnings as the Boston YMCA, in the 1890’s, prominent Bostonians volunteered their time to provide a place where students could gather to learn about literature, music, history and other subjects. Out of their community service and enthusiasm a great university was built. Thousands of Northeastern alums have left here over the years, as you will today, having been imbued, whether they consciously realized it or not, with the university’s tradition of service to others—to our families and friends, our communities, our county, the world. It is the core belief that how we lead our lives should not be just about and for ourselves but about what we all can do, in the poet Tennyson’s words, to "seek a newer world" here on earth.
In short, a Northeastern education is a call to service. It has given you an ethical compass with which to navigate your lives beyond this campus. It asks what you can do as individuals to build a more just and peaceful world to give to our children. And it urges you to consider a life of public service. This was President John F. Kennedy’s summons to your parents’ generation forty years ago when he asked them to think not just about themselves but about their country. Gandhi put it a different way—you can be the change you want to see in the world. Don’t wait for someone else to empower you to make a difference. Have the confidence and the belief that each of you has something unique and powerful to give in your life.
Now, in advocating a life devoted to public service, I do not mean to suggest that all Northeastern grads must run out tomorrow to become Peace Corps volunteers or cloistered nuns to live lives of abject poverty in devotion to the public good—although all are worthy pursuits. What I do mean to suggest, however, is this: Whatever you do in life, discover what your greatest talent is and commit it to something bigger than just yourself. In that sense, try to challenge the shallow and often cynical obsession with self so prized by our mass media. Find a way to give something back to your community and country.
Whether you are a future health service provider from the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, a future captain of industry out to conquer Wall Street from the Business School, a future engineer solving the world’s problems through technology, a future star in the National Hockey League, or a graduate of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies who just wants to get a job with your degree – you all leave Northeastern today with something priceless—your education—and with a call to service to make a difference.
There is so much good you can do in our country and for our country. We need little league coaches and church volunteers. We need people devoted to care for the elderly, to keep our air and water clean, to create a more fair judicial system—all this so that more people can realize the American dream. Beyond our shores, we need Americans, as citizens of the world’s most powerful country, to represent our government, so that we do our part to make the planet more humane for all peoples in all countries. In this sense, public service is not just a job, but is how you can give back to the society that has given you so much.
As you enter – or reenter – the working world, be assured there is plenty you can do to make America the country we all want it to be. We still struggle, as we have for two hundred years, with the battle to overcome racial and religious discrimination in our society. We still struggle to achieve decent housing for the poor and adequate care for the elderly. We can and should do much more to provide basic health care to all citizens – and it is good to see the Commonwealth of Massachusetts taking the lead on that critical issue. There is plenty you can do to keep America on the path of greatness.
And, if you are even more adventurous, you can help America negotiate its path into the future in an increasingly complicated and globalized world. Your generation of students comes of age at a time when America has never before been so buffeted by the winds of change in the world. We see the bright, positive side of globalization which is changing our planet for the better – the advance of science to cure disease, of the information age to liberate our minds and human potential of our creative business community to create good jobs, the extraordinary opportunity we Americans have to use our awesome political, economic and military power for good and for peace. But, we also see and confront every day the dark side of globalization – the emergence of new global threats that race under, over and right through our borders – global climate change; international drug cartels that deliver crack cocaine to every town in this country; international crime and trafficking in women and children; vicious and evil terrorist groups that kill at will and the truly terrible potential that they might join their fury with chemical, biological or nuclear technology. The truly ominous threats to our society and way of life now come from beyond our borders. And, simply put, we need good and smart and successful young people to help defend our country and to advance in a more positive and even idealistic sense, our vision for the world – of democracy, human rights, liberal economics and peace. To succeed in this generational challenge, we will need young people like you to serve on the front lines in places like the Middle East, Afghanistan, in Africa, and Central America, and China as diplomats and military officers, as human rights workers, teachers and journalists, as representatives of our great business community to preserve our democratic way of life and to promote human decency.
It doesn’t seem too long ago – but it has been 28 years – since I sat at my own graduation ceremony down Commonwealth Avenue at Boston College and made the choice that took me away from Boston and the U.S. for a career in the American Foreign Service – our Diplomatic Corps.
Much of what I have seen in my two decades as a diplomat reveals the fragility and the challenges of the modern world. The terrible poverty, suffering and the AIDS epidemic in Africa – a pandemic of over 40 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, three million of whom die annually, including 500,000 children. Natural disasters such as the Asian tsunami, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the earthquake in Pakistan which caused enormous suffering and destruction. But, these global problems reveal, as well, the extraordinary generosity and compassion of people all around the world who rushed to bring relief aid, medical care and funds to restore shattered communities. One of the most encouraging conclusions I draw from my own experience in international politics is that every disaster brings legions of people who seek to rebuild; every war people who seek to make peace. In the 1980s I witnessed terrible poverty in Africa but saw how Save The Children sought to alleviate it. I’ve seen Catholic Relief Services help Palestinians living in desperately poor refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the 1990s, I saw our own government help to liberate Eastern Europe from Communism and end the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. When faced with the daunting challenges of war and peace, subjugation and freedom, injustice and justice all over the world, there is in each of us sometimes a natural tendency to despair – to think "what can I possibly do to make the world a better place." And the answer is – you can do quite a lot. Especially as an American due to our privileged position in the world and our power.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is an exceptionally important moment for the United States. Since our Revolution, the major drama of American foreign policy is how we have vacillated as a country between isolation from the world and engagement with it. Your generation is going to have to answer the fundamental question that has bedeviled our leaders from Washington and Jefferson to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and down to our own time. What kind of country are we? I think the answer is obvious to the great majority of Americans – we need to be an active and committed member of the global community and resist those in our own country who still maintain that we can be either unilateralist or isolationist. After September 11, 2001, how could we possibly believe that we can sit on our continent in splendid isolation and choose not to stain our hands with the hard work of building a peaceful world order? After the war in Afghanistan and Iraq we know that America needs friends and allies and that we should use our awesome power as an active and committed force for good in the world. That is what our government is trying to do. Let’s resolve to end that two-century plus debate for good. Let’s continue to exert American faith, American optimism and American energy in the search for peace internationally in our time. Instead of isolating ourselves from the world or going it alone, we need to be constantly and fundamentally engaged as a country, working with friends and allies to help us along the way.
So, as you leave Northeastern today, think about what you can do here at home or around the world to answer the call to service which is the responsibility of every man and woman in our society. Think what you can do in government service or the non-profit sector to win the war on terrorism, and to bring peace to the Middle East, and other troubled parts of the globe. Think what you can do as business leaders to ensure integrity and fairness in the workplace and to prevent a future Enron crisis. Think what you can do in your private life to promote tolerance and understanding on our planet. Think what you can do as teachers, doctors, nurses and civic leaders to strengthen bodies, minds and communities.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2006, like every other generation of Americans before you, you are today called to service and to greatness. You have role models here today who can show you the way forward. Many of your grandparents are here. They are rightfully called the Greatest Generation because they beat the most severe depression in American history and then went on to defeat Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the most terrible war of all time. Your parents launched the great crusade to end racial segregation in America and to give to African-Americans the rights that surely should have been theirs all along. They put men and women in space, learned how to transplant hearts and condense a library full of books into a single, slender disc in igniting the information age. They and we are finally granting women equal rights in the workplace and before the law.
Your grandparents and parents have spoken the essential human truth that everything is possible and that your hopes can be realized if you believe in yourself and commit yourself to service in the public good. As you set out in life beyond Northeastern, we all hope that you will retain the will to take risks, the strength to be courageous, the spirit of optimism that is particularly American, the importance of being patriotic to support and defend our great country, and the inspiration that you might dare to do great things in the world.
The late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a son of Boston, on the night Martin Luther King died in 1968, addressed a crowd of anguished African-Americans in Indianapolis by saying, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: To tame the savageness of man and to make gentle the life of the world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and our people."
Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2006, that is, indeed, a worthy ideal around which all Northeastern graduates and all Americans can unite.
As you graduate today, we wish for you the very best – good fortune, success and happiness in the years to come. And we look forward to following your accomplishments as you live and write the history of America and of the world in the century to come.
Congratulations to you all!
Released on May 12, 2006