May 13, 2007
President Gearan, trustees, faculty, parents and above all, graduates of the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Classes of 2007 — thank you for honoring us today. And what a day it is!
It is a privilege to be included with Senator Michael Nozzolio and Marge Shanahan. With their commitment to public service and community service they have enriched Geneva, this state, this country.
Your Classes of 2007 have students from 23 states and more than a half dozen countries, from Bulgaria to Vietnam. That reflects the glittering reputation of these small, but select Colleges with your beautiful campus and distinguished faculty.
It also reflects the rich talents of your extraordinary President. Just as he did in political campaigns, then at the White House and then in running the Peace Corps, Mark Gearan manages to make a huge difference and take on important and controversial challenges while making innumerable friends and no enemies.
Politics today is a business often poisoned by polarization and acrimony; and yet I have never met anyone, Republican or Democrat, who doesn’t both like and respect your President. He’s lucky to be here; and you’re fortunate to have him.
Today is one that always will be remembered and cherished by you 428 graduates. At least by those that weren’t at Parkers or Sideshow until three in the morning. Seriously, you deserve all the accolades for this achievement. Most of you have had nourishing support to reach this stage, most importantly from your family.
I work in public television, known for its lengthy treatment of serious topics. If that makes you nervous about how long I’m going to speak, I’m able to reassure you: one of the first Harvard commencement speeches was given half in Green, half in Latin—each of them was three hours long.
I will make a deal with you: my half—in English—will be shorter than many of our PBS reports if you will show your appreciation for the support you’ve received—and the moment today’s celebration is finished, walk over and give your Mom or Dad or anyone who was like family for you, a big hug.
I have a special fondness for the Classes of 2007. Our niece, Carolyn Davis—I had to look at the program, Andy, to know you were a Carolyn—is a graduate of William Smith today. Andy, we are so proud of the courage and determination that brought you here today.
I told President Gearan I was particularly excited to be with you today because I love commencements. But there’s another reason this is a thrill for me.
I was very fortunate to be able to spend all of last year learning about your generation. It was part of a project I embarked on, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which turned into a television documentary on PBS, a series of reports on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” another series of profiles of young people for National Public Radio, periodic reports for USA Today as well as a feature on Yahoo! News called “Talk to Power,” where we created a place for young people to post questions to politicians in Washington and elsewhere.
One reason I wanted to understand you better is that I’m the mother of three in your age cohort: Al and I have a 25-year-old, a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old. As parents, we may know less about you than anyone.
I and my team at MacNeill/Lehrer Productions gave you the name “Generation Next” and with the help of the Pew Research Center, we proceeded to study the 42 million of you who now range in age from about 16 to about 26. And what we learned was fascinating.
You are the most diverse generation in American history:17 percent of you across the nation are Hispanic, 14 percent of you are African-American, 4 percent of you are Asian, and a significant percent more are of what is called “mixed race.”
One in every five of your generation has a parent who was born outside the United States. One in every eight of you was himself or herself born outside the United States. So you are a generation for whom immigration is not an abstract concept.
You have a clear memory of where you were on September the eleventh, 2001. Most of you here today were just beginning your junior year in high school, and you have spent the five and a half hears since hearing a lot about al Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic extremists.
Heavy security at American airports is the norm for your generation.
If there’s another thing that defines your generation — that sets you apart from all others — it’s technology. You’ve grown up with computers and the Internet, with cell phones, video games, iPods, e-mail, Instant Messaging, Facebook, My Space and YouTube have your name and face all over then.
More often than not, you’re teaching your parents how to operate their Tivo, how to program their cell phone and how to do a search on the Internet. Significantly, you are closer to your parents than any generation in memory. You’re more likely to name your mother or father than anyone else when you’re asked “Whom do you most admire?” And eight in ten of you say you talked to your parents within the past day.
Money is part of the reason: three-fourths of Generation Nexters say your parents have helped you financially in the past year. And technology has been a huge facilitator: cell phones and e-mail have made it so much easier, and cheaper, to stay in regular touch with Mom and Dad.
Many of you told us it’s crucial that you really like the work you do – that you feel passionate about the work you’re paid to do. You said you don’t want to spend 40 years working for a company, only to turn around and see the company repay that loyalty by laying people off, downsizing, as you’ve seen happen to your parents’ generation — to the parents of your friends.
All this has given rise to a debate about whether your generation is acting “entitled,” some would say even spoiled. I don’t think that’s the case. I’m just struck that most of you say you believe you have something unique to offer the world. We hope so, because we can certainly use your good ideas.
Your politics sets you apart, as well. You don’t necessarily like the traditional labels of “Democrat” or “Republican” – preferring to say you’re Independent in your preferences. Still, you’re more likely than your parents’ generation to say that immigration has been good for the United States. You’re much more likely than the older generation to favor equal rights for gay couples, and to say you’re comfortable with interracial dating.
Like younger generations before you, you don’t vote in terribly high numbers, but something piqued your interest in the 2004 Presidential election – that caused the turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds to jump by 11 percent over what it had been in the 2000 election, more than any other age group. I hope – and I know people like Senator Nozzolio hope – that’s the start of a trend.
But whether your political involvement continues to climb or not, you’re already setting records by your civic engagement. There is as high a percentage of Generation Nexters who are doing volunteer and community work, as any other generation alive. From the Peace Corps to Teach for America to international AIDS work, community soup kitchens, projects to help the homeless, you members of the younger generation are showing an interest in your fellow men and women that is inspiring to us all.
Why is this important? Because even in today’s thriving economy in this country, one in every eight Americans lives below the poverty line.
Thankfully, you graduates of Hobart and William Smith are leading the way. So, it’s especially fitting that you honor Marge Shanahan today: she manages an army, with more than a few of you as foot soldiers, that served over 18,000 meals to the Geneva community last year. She – and you – need no lectures from commencement speakers about caring for your fellow men and women. My fondest hope today is that all 428 of you carry that spirit with you with whatever you pursue in life. Congratulations.
And now, with more about what lies ahead, my husband, Al Hunt.