One of the most rewarding parts of my job is the chance to speak to young people, especially college students at graduation time. This year, I was honored to be the commencement speaker at both Xavier University in New Orleans and Howard University in Washington, DC, two of the most historic and outstanding HBCU’s in the nation. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate college graduates everywhere and to share with you some of what I said at the two commencements:
Class of 2011, the world that you face is a world in the throes of change and transformation. From the growing economic power of India and China, to the presence of a black man in the White House, this nation has come a long way since college students like you joined the Freedom Riders to change the American South. As you look toward the horizon and see the many valleys, hilltops and mountains that you will traverse throughout your life, I would like to ask you to keep three E’s in mind:
The first E is Excellence. Whether we are talking about Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, or Thurgood Marshall, we are witnesses to lives that have committed to excellence. I want to see the graduates of 2011 accelerate themselves and their lives through an absolute commitment to being the best you can be in everything that you do. Whatever profession you choose, commit to be the best.
The second E is Equality. You must work for a more just and equitable America. An America which will not tolerate deep poverty amidst great prosperity. A nation which does not tolerate almost 40 percent of its young black children not finishing high school on time each year. We cannot be comfortable when the great recession has cost millions of people their jobs and millions of people their homes. Like the Freedom Riders of 50 years ago, like the students that challenged the Vietnam War or those who marched against Apartheid, you must have the courage to commit to work for social and economic equality for all.
The third E is expectations. A nation which expects failure will fail. A people that accepts second place, will remain in second place. You are living proof, today, that a child who grows up anywhere is a child who can succeed. Whether you grew up uptown or downtown, with two parents or one, whether you grew up with prosperity or poverty, hold fast to the highest expectations. As a great writer once wrote, “You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own and you know what you know and you are the one who will decide where to go.”
Class of 2011, choose wisely. That is your mission, this is your moment. Congratulations. Good luck and Godspeed.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.