A License to Action

A valedictorian reflects on the commencement speaker


On Saturday, May 24, 2014, I had the honor and privilege of delivering the valedictory address to my undergraduate class, the campus community, and their loved ones. I also received a couple of other awards that day, which was honestly kind of ridiculous, but again, a huge, huge honor and I am so very humbled to be recognized in such a way.

Since that Saturday, myself and other graduates have had a fair amount of time to post a nice bunch of statuses and photos about the occasion. But now that we’re a couple of days removed from the event, I’ve started to reflect on the ceremony — namely our commencement speaker.

I have to be honest with you folks: This essay is very much inspired by an ongoing email thread between the faculty in regards to the speech made by former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. As I read the exchanges, I was struck not only by the kind words they had towards my own speech, but also the way in which they expressed genuine concern for my graduating class. It was a lovely reminder of how critical and caring our professors are, and for that I am grateful (as I’m sure the rest of my class is as well). I write these words for them and for anyone else who hesitated with that standing ovation at the end of the speech. However, in contrast to my professors who have articulated their points with great eloquence and strong evidence, all I have to offer is the perspective from a student who just finished her undergraduate career.

This past commencement Saturday, Mr. Panetta delivered a speech that can more or less summarized by two excerpts.

First:

My message to you, graduates of 2014: Your degree and your education is a license to action, not an excuse to sit back and do nothing.

Then:

Whether you are in uniform or not, we all have a responsibility to nurture our democracy. To make sure that we have an America in renaissance, to make sure that we achieve that American dream of giving our children that better life, and to make sure that we always strengthen a government of, by, and for people — and it doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you’re willing to fight for it.

Both of these statements are pretty innocuous on their own. These are lessons we know well and have heard many times in our lives. So the issue here isn’t really these statements, but instead two things. First, the examples he used to justify these points. I personally feel that this needs no further explanation, so I will not expand upon this. The second, and perhaps the most pressing for me, is the implication that we have and will “sit back and do nothing.”

We are doing. Many students in the crowd that Saturday have already been acting with courage in order to claim a spot in the folding chairs for that lovely sunburn and diploma holder. Some of us are juggling families and multiple jobs. Some of us have been deployed. Some of us returned to school after personal issues interrupted our education. These students will continue to act with courage, put in that hard work, and use that “sheer grit.” I am sure of it.

However, that’s not to say that there weren’t students in that crowd who were entitled and needed to hear those words. They were there, just as they were there all throughout my years as an undergrad. They were the students who did not understand why we need diversity organizations. They were the students who treated the Sodexo food workers and Able janitorial staff as though they were invisible. They were the students in the dining hall who chose to stack their dirty dishes on top of garbage cans instead of walking them over to the counter.

But something tells me that those entitled people were the very same ones who leaped to their feet and chanted “U-S-A” at the end of Mr. Panetta’s speech — in an alarmingly serious way.

It’s easy to look at my generation and label us as lazy. There are people who see our ability to deftly handle social media, smart phones, and selfies as a sign of deeply ingrained narcissism that will jeopardize the future of this country. This is not a courageous view. What would have been courageous is the idea of hope.

I know what you’re thinking. Way to be another commencement cliché, right?

It is important to note that “hope” here is defined not as a simple, naïve optimism, but rather as a bold rejection of limits. We need more of that hope. Many people buy into the idea of grand narratives like the American dream that allow very little wiggle room for their personal circumstances. Our success should not hinge on one narrowly defined narrative.

I know, I know — I already gave my speech. But in a strange way, I felt that Mr. Panetta was undoing everything I wanted to tell my undergraduate class, so I figured I should use my “license to action” to say this to my fellow graduates one last time: I believe in you. I believe in the work you put in to get to where you are today. I believe that with all of us working and acting together, supporting one another and moving past fighting and bickering, we can and will leave this place better than how we found it.