Commencement 2011

Patrick Corvington, CEO, Corporation for National and Community Service
Commencement Address
May 15, 2011

Thank you for that gracious introduction. I want to thank President Gearan, and the faculty, trustees and staff of this great institution for awarding me an honorary degree and for the honor of sharing this important moment with the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Classes of 2011. Congratulations to my fellow honorary degree recipients – Makiko Tanaka, James Hunter, Thomas Burr and of course, the new President of Knox College, your beloved Provost and Dean of Faculty, Teresa Amott.

I know that the focus of this day is the students and their hopes and dreams for the future, but I must begin by saying a few words about my friend and colleague, Mark Gearan.

Fifteen months ago, when I took the job as CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, I was excited for two reasons.  First, I would have the opportunity to lead the federal agency directly charged with supporting the American people’s commitment to volunteerism and community service.  And, second, I would get a chance to work alongside one of the giants of the service movement, Mark Gearan.

Mark has brought a lifetime of service accomplishments to his second job as Chairman of the CNCS board.  As a former Peace Corps director, senior White House advisor, and now president of one of the nation’s leading service-minded colleges. His advice, counsel, and unwavering commitment to improving the lives of people here and around the world, have been an inspiration to me and indispensable to our service mission.  You are fortunate to have him as your president and I am fortunate to have him as a colleague and a friend. Thank you, Mark.

The first thing I want to do is acknowledge the members of this family -- parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters and friends -- who have traveled near and far to share in the joy of this moment.  Without their love and support, none of us would be here today.  Let’s give them all a round of applause.

And now a few words to the graduates…

Today, nothing I say will add to or subtract from what you’ve already achieved. 

But since tradition requires that I at least try to offer some departing bit of wisdom, let me briefly cite two observations from my own experience.

First, if you want fulfillment as well as employment, do something you’re passionate about.  My passion for service was instilled in me by my Haitian parents.  Their loving values and their often difficult journey from that troubled country to a better life in America taught me the importance of looking out for one another and the wisdom in honoring the dignity of every human being.

Second, if you want to be remembered for more than just the size of your income or the square footage of your living space, seek to serve some good greater than your own.

To one degree or another, each of us has learned that lesson at the hands of parents, grandparents, teachers, clergy, friends, spouses, significant others--those who’ve gone out of their way to support and encourage us.

Yet the reason I’m here today isn’t just because I’ve been blessed with wise parents and a supportive network of friends and family.

I would not be standing here today if it were not for the sacrifices of a whole generation of courageous Americans of all colors and walks of life who rose up as one to challenge this nation to live up to its promise of equal opportunity for all.  Your generation is the first to live in a country that has finally put to rest the notion that there is only so far you can go if you are black or Hispanic or a woman or gay or a person with a disability. 

The big question before you today is not how can I use the degree I have earned at Hobart and William Smith Colleges to achieve personal fame and fortune.  The question is how can I use what I have learned here to make life better for my family, my community, my country and my world?  How can I serve?

That is a question that has been central to my life, and my career. 

Citizen service is not new in this country.  It is as old as the Republic itself.  But it was first placed on the national agenda in 1961 when a young president – John F. Kennedy – challenged us to ask ourselves:  “What can I do for my country?”
That led to the creation of the Peace Corps, and later our domestic Peace Corps, VISTA and then, in 1993, AmeriCorps.  Fifty years later, another young President has asked us to take service to the next level.  President Obama and the Congress have made an historic investment in the belief that national service can be a solution to many of the problems facing this nation.  The President has issued a challenge that every American become engaged in some way in their community.

President Obama believes, as I do, that citizen service is essential to solving the big problems facing our nation – from poverty and high unemployment to the drop-out crisis.  Service must be about raising test scores, lowering the drop-out rate, eradicating poverty, moving people from the unemployment line to the dignity of work.  In short, service must be about making a real difference – the kind of difference you have made right here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

The time you have spent here has been so valuable because along with stressing academic excellence, this institution has put an equal emphasis on community service.  You have learned that real success is measured by the size of your heart, by the difference you make.  It is measured in the Geneva Partnership and the fact that 43 percent of students and 38 percent of faculty and staff contributed almost 200,000 hours of volunteer time last year in this community.  It is measured in the fact that a large number of graduates enter AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps to keep that ethic of service alive.   

Real success is measured in the service work students are doing with Katie Flowers and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning.  It is measured in the many creative ways you are making a difference in this world – from the “Hope for Haiti” dance party to raise money for earthquake victims to the annual Hope House Frigid Fundraiser which enticed more than 100 of the craziest students, faculty and staff to plunge into Lake Seneca on a cold December day in support of cancer awareness.  And about that, I have to say: y’all are crazy.  These acts of service – and many others – have resulted in Hobart and William Smith being named as an ‘Honor Roll with Distinction’ institution on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll announced earlier this week. 

The question is, when you leave here today, will you stay the course?  Will you continue to open the door to the millions still trapped by poverty, misfortune and the legacy of inequality in this great land of plenty?  Will you step outside your comfort zone to feed the poor, heal the sick, read to a child, mentor a student, build a shelter in the storm and carry on the work of national service visionaries like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King?  As President Obama has said, will we are the ones we have been waiting for?  You are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

Will those who gather here fifty years from now remember your courage and your commitment? Will they recall what you did to bring about a society in which there really is enlightened self-interest, compassion and “liberty and justice for all?”

Change happens because we choose to make it happen.  As Dr. King reminded us, “It doesn’t roll in on the wheels of inevitability.” Along with seeking improvement in our own lives, we must join hands to help those who are suffering…those who are still left out or excluded.  

I know you will be on the frontlines of change in the 21st century.  And whether you continue the Hobart and William Smith tradition of service as a career, a passion, or both, as you leave here today, there is a lot of work to do.  We live in a time of extraordinary challenges.  The college graduates of my generation were faced with issues like poverty and health care and improving education.  On top of those issues, you are confronting relatively new challenges like the great recession, climate change and terrorism. 

But as you think of the challenges that lie ahead, I have a secret to share with you, lean in closer,  it is this:  the problems of this world are solvable.  Don’t let anyone tell you differently- The problems of this world are solvable -- And, they are solvable by the choices you make.
I can’t tell you with certainty what your life your future will look like in ten years, but I do know that the best way to predict the future is to create it.  Hobart has prepared you well to be both professional and civic leaders.  And perhaps the greatest lesson of the past four years has been the knowledge that we are better, we are stronger, we are more united when we do for others. 

Right now, as you sit in these chairs, you have a lifetime of choices.  But as you get older you may have fewer choices.  Use your power of choice wisely.  You control your future.  You control your destiny.  The future of this great nation rests in your hands. Choose to create the future you want.  Choose to live lives that matter.  Choose to follow that about which you are passionate. So, as you leave here today, I’m asking you…President Obama is asking you, your country is asking you, “How will you serve?” 

Class of 2011 – Be Bold, Be Passionate, Be Courageous.