Remarks by the First Lady at the University of Pennsylvania Commencement

Thank you. Thank you very much. It is indeed an honor for me to be part of this celebratory commencement at one of the premier and oldest institutions of education in our country. I want to thank President Hackney, the regents, the other honorary degree recipients, faculty, alumni, family members, citizens but most of all those of you who graduate this year from the end of your various degree programs whom I had the privilege to watch march by me just 15 minutes ago. I wish everyone in this stadium and indeed everyone in this great city could have stood there with us and watched not only the faces of individuals, many of you look like you’ve been celebrating already, but the diversity, the excitement, the hopefulness, the enthusiasm and the sense of moving forward into a future that none of us can predict but for which each of you has been well prepared.

Commencements are a time to stop and think about the past, to celebrate this present moment and to look forward into the future. There is no way that any commencement speaker at any campus this spring could stand before you and tell you what will happen. Not tomorrow, not next year, not for the rest of any of your lives. But part of the reason commencement speeches have a certain similarity and familiarity to them is because when one does stand in front of a group like this, impressed by your accomplishments and achievements, remembering one’s own past, it is an opportunity to talk about some of the ideals and values that have withstood the test of time and which can be guiding principals in lives well lead.

I started my morning on campus here sitting on the park bench with Benjamin Franklin and I hope each of you has had that same opportunity. The way that he sits there, in this relaxed manor, the way he looks at you as you look back at him as though he were making yet again an important point that needed to be repeated, gives one a sense of the continuity of time and life and history in this institution which is very reassuring. And then when I opened the program for this commencement and saw the quotation from Benjamin Franklin that I had intended to use as well, I was struck by how at this moment what he began all those years ago before we were even a country had special meaning.

Franklin was, as the program says, an advocate of good citizenship. “We may make these times better if we bestir ourselves,” he wrote. The nobelist question in the world is “What good may I do in it?” That is the question for this commencement. That will be, I hope, the question you ask yourselves as you journey through your life. That journey will not always be an easy one, it will not always have clear directions attached to it. As we are here in this magnificent stadium we can remember the many Penn Relays that have been held here and think often about the different kinds of events that take place. And although I am always impressed by everyone of them, sprints and hurdles and other track and field events, for me life is not a sprint, it is a marathon. It is something you prepare for and often you keep going through when times are tough, when you may even know where you are heading. And one of the questions to ask yourself is Franklin’s. Because often by asking “what good may I do in it?” you end up giving yourself that direction and not only doing good but feeling good about that.

There are many people in this stadium today who are responsible for your being here. Who believed in their journey, who believed that as parents and family members they had responsibilities to you and worked every day, often through hard times, to try to fulfil them. Because a college degree is a collective achievement because for every person dressed in black here in front of me I know there are people in the stands who are proud and often thinking back to when their checking accounts looked more red than black as they sacrificed to make this day happen.

And speaking of sacrifice, I just need to get this out of way. A reporter asked me about my new haircut, I know its been on all of your minds it is after all, the number one issue. I had a friend call me from Japan who saw it on CNN. So I told him the truth, that when the President called for sacrifice and asked everybody at the White House to get a 25% cut I decided to go for a 50% cut to do my part.

When I graduated from college in 1969, I too had dreams for my life and I also hoped to be able as I fulfilled those dreams to think about what good I might do if I bestirred myself. I gave a speech at my commencement and I have had an occasion in the last year to go back and re-read that. I see the idealism, I see the excitement and I see some of the naivete that marked me and marked many who are at the beginning of their adulthood. I know that at twenty-one, I did not fully appreciate the political and social restraints that one faces in the world. I know that I assumed that we could overcome a lot of these obstacles that are still with us, despite the progress we have made. But I am glad that I felt idealistic at twenty-one because I think it is

important to feel that way and I have tried to maintain that feeling as I have grown older.

My father, if he were here today, would tell you that the reason I have changed from being a Goldwater Girl to a Democrat is because I went to college. Not that he didn’t approve of my going to college, he always believed in education but that I came out different than what he had sent. Some of you may have had those conversations with your parents. What is it you learned and why do you feel that way now? But always during my growing up years and through college and beyond, what I loved and respected about my father is that he always took what I believed and cared about seriously, even when he disagreed very strongly. And there was always in our home an opportunity for the kind of discourse, one might say arguments, that mark people who care deeply and who have ideals. Being twenty-one is a license to be idealistic and I encourage all of us, no matter what age, to keep renewing that license because our world needs us to do that.

The sixties were a time of momentous change in our country but so are the nineties. Our world has changed dramatically from the days of assassinations, of wars, of riots. But yet, as we look around us today and we see all of the positive changes that we have lived with, we know that there is still much to be done in this, the most powerful nation on earth. Too many people work too hard without ever getting ahead. The Philadelphia Inquirer, in its Pulitzer Prize winning series of a year or so ago, in talking about what has happened to the American Dream, made that point forcefully. Many of the people in this stadium who have worked hard for a living have seen the security they thought they were working for, be endangered because the world around us is presenting new economic challenges that we have to be prepared to face. To few of our people today can meet those challenges and take advantage of our new opportunities.

They have not been prepared, they have not been prepared to negotiate this new world because in too many cases families are not offering the kind of stability and structure that builds skills and confidence in children. And other institutions including our schools are not setting high expectations and working hard to assure that children achieve those expectations. We have to learn how to make change our friend because no one can repeal the laws of change or tell you it will turn around and be the way that it once was. So today more than ever, we need to focus our attention on our children, give them the stability and structures they need and once again make education the passport to the American dream that it used to be. Because as we look around us, we see that there is a lot of work to be done.

We can look at places that are now on our front pages that we never heard of a few years ago, with names like Bosnia or Somalia. We can watch the spread of ethnic hatred, nuclear

proliferation, starvation, and the kinds of problems that come into our living rooms whether we want them or not. And here at home we watch our cities crumbling under the dual assault of drugs and guns that create a level of violence that is unacceptable. Within a few miles from this campus on this beautiful day we know that there are children whose parents are afraid to let them play outside. Who cannot faithfully walk to school. We know there are young people who are beset by hopelessness and despair. How can we claim to be civilized when our children can not even leave their homes in safety? How much longer will we permit those kinds of conditions, in which drugs and guns determine the quality of life to continue?

Now is a good time for us at this commencement to take a deep breath and decide how each of us will deal with these challenges. Because if you do not shape your life, circumstances will. Like generations of Americans, you will look for the right balance in your lives. A balance of work, and family and service. A balance between your rights as individuals and your responsibilities to yourselves, your families, your communities, your country and our world. I hope your experience here at this university will serve as a guide. Here you have met people from diverse backgrounds. You’ve had your ideas and beliefs tested you’ve had to learn what you’re willing to stand for and stand against. You have been part of a microcosm of the restless and diverse country we call America. You have seen people from every kind of background, every religion, every continent on this earth. You know well that you have had an opportunity to argue about what you think should happen and you’ve even had the chance to argue seemingly contradictory positions. Because if your college years were anything like mine, you have probably been in a position to take different positions even more than once in an evening’s discussion, to try out these new ideas and to try out what your real values and beliefs are.

What we have to do here at this university and in this country, is to find a way to celebrate our diversity and debate our differences without fracturing our communities. We must always uphold the idea of our colleges as incubators of ideas and havens for free speech and free thought. And our country and our colleges must also be communities. Communities of learning, not just book learning but people learning. Where every person’s human dignity is respected. Freedom and respect are not values that should be in conflict with each other. They are basic American values that reinforce each other. But, we cannot debate our differences nor face our mutual challenges unless and until we respect each other, men and women, young and old, across the ethnic and racial lines that divide us. I know that you share, you share the general distress that any acts of hate, hateful acts, hateful words, hateful incidents that occur too frequently today in our communities and even on our college campuses. In a

nation founded on the promise of human dignity, our colleges, our communities, our country should challenge hatred where ever we find it. But we should listen as well as lecture, confront problems not people and find ways to work together to promote the common good. We must be careful not to cross the line between censoring behavior that we consider unacceptable and censuring, that’s u and o. For the all the injustices in our past and our present we have to believe that in the free exchange of ideas justice will prevail over injustice, tolerance over intolerance and progress over reaction.

And we have seen that in our own history, in the struggles over civil rights, worker’s rights, women’s rights, human rights. We have seen how movements armed only with the power of their ideas have prevailed over ingrained prejudices and entrenched injustices. That is why is it always time for a free and open discussion in every college and every community throughout our country about how we can live together, bring out the best in each other, make our diversity a source of strength and not weakness. We are all in this together and we have to recognize that because as the President had said, we don’t have a person to waste in this interdependent world in which we live.

Now how do we strike the right balance between individual rights and responsibility? How do we create a new spirit of community given all of the problems we are so aware of? Regrettably the balance between the individual and the community, between rights and responsibilities has been thrown out of kilter over the last years. Throughout the 1980’s we did hear too much about individual gain and the ethos of selfishness and greed. We did not hear enough about how to be a good member of a community, to define the common good and to repair the social contracts. And we also found that while prosperity does not trickle down from the most powerful to the rest of us, all too often indifference and even intolerance do.

One eloquent description of the inter-connection between individual identity and the individual’s responsibility to society comes from Vaclav Havel, the playwright who is now the President of the Czech Republic. He went to prison during the communist regime in Czechoslovakia because he could neither be free as an individual nor responsible as a member of a community. Because the community in which he found himself suppressed thought, speech, religion and the other rights we cherish, and undermined individual responsibility and respect among citizens. Havel wrote to his wife Olga from prison, “Everything meaningful in life is distinguished by a certain transcendence of individual human existence beyond the limits of mere self-care toward other people, toward society, toward the world. Only by looking outward, by caring for things that in terms of pure survival, you needn’t bother with at all, and by throwing yourself over and over again into the tumult of the world with the intention of

making your voice count only thus will you really become a person.”

Each of you will be defining the meaning of your own life by your actions from this day forward just as you have, consciously or unconsciously, to this point. How you make those decisions and those turning points as to what you believe in and who you are, will at the end, sum up the life you have lead. There are many opportunities and some of you have already seized them. This campus has an extraordinary number of people who have committed themselves to public service while they are here. This country is about to be committed to national service because it is time for us to once again create opportunities for all people, but particularly young people, to be of service. Just as in my generation, with the help of people like Senator Wofford, President Kennedy challenged young people to be of service to the country and the world, today we have a new call to responsibility. A domestic peace corp that will help young people pay for college or job training by performing community service, helping children learn to read and write, working in hospitals, helping the homeless, cleaning up the environment, helping yourselves, finding meaning by helping others.

There is also a great opportunity that some of you are already seizing. Because of part of my husband’s, “Summer of Service,” proposal, a grant has already been awarded to a program here in Philadelphia, “Immunize Children At Early Risk, I Care”. It will put 150 college age students from throughout Philadelphia to work this summer. They will immunize more than 5,000 children, they will earn money for college, they will make a contribution to the community and I would argue they will have an opportunity to find some meaning in their lives that teaches them about who they are. When they come home from this immunization effort and look into their mirrors they will see people who have been changed by that experience.

We also have a great opportunity as a country to face a problem that is not only one of finance and delivery systems and buzz words like that but which challenges really, again, who we are as a people. And that is the challenge of health care. The first medical school in our country started at the University of Pennsylvania. The issue of health care bounded onto the national agenda because of the election of Harris Wofford. And it is time now as a nation to recognize that we have a chance to provide health care to all of our people and to do so in a more economical and humane way than we have up until now. I have traveled all over this country and I can tell you, based on personal experience that antidote after antidote, that although we are the richest country in the world and we have the best of medical care available in the world we spend more money on health care and take care of fewer people than our competitors who provide health care to all of the people and have better outcomes for the money that they spend on it. What we have instead is a patch work non-system. People who are employed but without insurance, people who have pre-existing conditions and can not get insurance, people who thought that they were part of an employment contract and would always have their health care being taken care of who are now watching that be stripped away through lay-offs and other kinds of changes. Most people in this country who are uninsured get up every day and go to work. They would be a lot better off when it comes to health care if they went on welfare. What kind of signal does it send to the 37 million uninsured Americans, 82% who work or who are in the families of workers, to be able to say that? What kind of responsibility does that imply?

Health care is an important issue also for the economy. As all of these Wharton graduates will soon discover first hand, if they have not already in their work experience, we have given away competitive advantage after competitive advantage because our major companies pay more in health care benefits every single year in a system that is out of control. The expense of that health care makes too many products more expensive than the competition. We in effect say to our manufacturers,” tie both arms behind you then get out in the world and compete and make jobs for Americans.” Unless we do something now, by the year 2000 almost one out of every five dollars that you will earn will be spent on health care. And that will be spent without insuring one more American, providing better health care in any rural communities or any inner city. We need to make some solemn commitments and change in the direction of insuring that every American will be secure. If you change jobs or if lose your job you will still be insured. If you get sick or if you have a pre- existing condition you will still be insured. If you are an older American and need help with prescription drugs and a start on long term care, particularly in your home, you will be insured. If you are a physician, or a nurse, or a pharmacist or a dentist, you will no longer spend 20-40% of your time and income filling out countless, meaningless forms. If you are an employer who has been struggling to maintain health insurance benefits for your employees you will see that cost stabilize and decrease over time.

This health care issues is not just an issue of economics, although it is that. It is a human issue, it is a social issue and it goes to the very root of who we are as a people. Can we take care of ourselves and be more responsible about our health, can we take better care of our families, can we have a healthier country? I’m betting that the answer to all those is, yes. Because I’m betting that in these very exciting and challenging times, as we move toward a sense of community and define the common good in terms that include us all but set standards by which to judge our progress together, that there will be contributions from all of us that will meet the challenges we face.

And for each of you, I think you are living in very exciting times and I hope that as you go forth from this university you do so with the kind of high spirits and enthusiasm I saw today. And that you understand that this marathon we all run for, which none of us knows where the end will be, cannot only be an exhilarating experience, but it can be one that leads to meaning in a challenging time for us as individuals and for us as a people. Thank you all. And Godspeed.

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