Thank you so very much. I am delighted to be here this morning.
I have such a high regard for this college, its extraordinary record of educating women and its commitment to carry on that legacy into the future. I am so impressed with the enthusiasm and energy that I see on this campus.
In fact, the first time I came ¯it took awhile to sort through both the memories I had and the records that I could find. And the college was a great help. Because all I could remember was that sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, I came to this college on a beautiful summer evening. And I went to Rebekah Scott Hall and had dinner with a group of Agnes Scott faculty and students and representatives of other colleges and high schools from around the South, who were looking for new ways to encourage and provide support for young people from all walks of life, whose families may not have had the privilege of a college education, to be on the path themselves to attend and graduate from college.
There was something about this campus and that night that stayed with me. I often just reflect back — because of my strong commitment to women’s colleges — on what a wonderful job was being done right here at Agnes Scott. So when I was asked if I would make this commencement address, I thought about it, and I realized that it might be the perfect opportunity to apply for a Fifth Year Free.
You know, I think every once in awhile, we all need a break; to sort of take stock of who we are and where we’re headed and what we intend to do with our lives. The idea of a Fifth Year Free is just so smart.
And it reminded me of perhaps the shortest commencement speech I have ever heard. I can’t even remember who delivered it, but it seemed so appropriate for today. The speaker stood on a beautiful day like today on a campus like this and looked around silently for about a minute, and then addressed the graduates by saying, “Why leave?”
But of course, for most of you, leaving is part of the journey. It is a commencement for a reason. Because there has been so much in your lives leading you to this point. But it is also a beginning, and in this audience today are family members and friends and supporters and advocates and cheerleaders who helped you along the way. They share the pride and satisfaction of knowing that you have made this step on your life’s journey.
As you walk across the stage a short time from now and receive your diploma, there will be a thousand pictures flashing through the minds of all the people who love you as they watch you.
I remember so well watching my daughter receive her diploma. I had to keep blinking my eyes because it was hard to imagine that this young woman was the same child with whom we had read to and gone on adventures with. Bill and I used to, when she was very young, take turns picking out a night of the week where we would have an adventure.
Each of us would get to choose. The adventure might be to go to a movie, or the adventure might be to throw the ball in the backyard. One time, Chelsea’s choice of adventure was to buy a coconut and crack it open. Now, probably between Bill and me, we have decades of higher education. But nothing prepared us for a coconut that would not crack. Hammers; throwing it onto the driveway….
It was, I would venture to guess, the first time this little girl, who could not have been more than 4, realized that these parents of hers were not all-powerful. You know, that is one of those lessons you absorb along life’s way.
So, today is a day of beginnings, but it is also a time to look at your friends and the faculty members and others with gratitude. There is something else though at work today that I wanted to spend just a few minutes addressing.
There has never been a time in human history where it has been better to be a young woman alive than today in America. There has never been any generation of young women with so many choices and so many opportunities to live up to their own God-given potentials.
Now, with that extended opportunity comes new responsibilities.
Those of you who have traveled abroad during your college years may have seen firsthand some of the tension that exists very obviously in other societies, but still persists below the surface even in our own.
What do women want? How will we determine what is best for ourselves, for our families, for our futures? How do we balance the various demands in our lives? How do we chart our own course, but do so in a way that is sensitive to and understanding of the needs of those who care most about it? How do we build an individual identity, but maintain and nurture relationships?
The old rules were pretty clear, and the lack of opportunities made choices difficult. But today, here in this country, and increasingly around the world, women are assuming their rightful places in every walk of life. I’m very pleased about that. I can remember not so long ago when I was your age, there were still schools that didn’t choose to be all women or all men any longer, but still there were barriers for people attending or having certain scholarships or being admitted in certain programs.
A lot of the external barriers have been eliminated. Now it is up to each of us to decide what we want to do and how we will contribute.
Ten years ago, I was privileged to speak at the Beijing Conference on Women. In that speech, as the representative of our government, I tried to explain clearly, for the world to hear, that there could no longer be women’s rights and human rights as though they were not one in the same. That what we had to do, and what was important for the United States to do, was to stand for women’s rights. To work with governments and societies to open doors to health care and education and to the full participation in society.
In the last 10 years, we have made a lot of progress. But we still have work to do. And it is my hope that more young women in America will not only demonstrate here in our country how they are putting together lives of meaning and purpose, but also contribute to that great struggle abroad.
There are so many stories that we have seen in our own media over the last several years that clearly argue for the importance of women’s full participation—not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because our belief in democracy and freedom really demand that it occur.
I’ve been to Iraq and Afghanistan twice as a member of the [Senate] Armed Services Committee. I’ve met with women in both of those countries who have seen so much hope, but are aware of the continuing dangers to them as they go to school, as they try to practice a profession, as they show up to vote, as they run for office. I’m very proud of our country for standing with these women, as they have struggled against great odds to fulfill their own hopes and aspirations.
In other parts of the world, we see tremendous change happening in women’s lives. And I don’t believe that change can necessarily last unless we in America provide support—publicly and privately.
And there is no more important job than educating women.
I’m very happy that I went to an all-women’s college. People ask me today, “Is there still a role for women’s colleges?” And I answer immediately, “Absolutely!”
There is not only a role, there is a necessity for places like Wellesley and Agnes Scott —places where for just a few short years, you can concentrate on your studies, on developing your mind, on understanding the opportunities for leadership that come from a place such as this. What I hope we can do is spread women’s education around the world. It could be one of America’s greatest legacies.
There are so many young women denied the right to higher education, often denied the right to secondary and primary education. Yet, we in our country know that we could not have achieved all that has been accomplished without the unique system of higher education that has made it possible . Here at home, I worry that in many parts of our country, the doors to higher education are getting harder to push open for many families. I’m very impressed that Agnes Scott makes it possible for so many students to attend such a fine college and takes care of their financial needs. But there are not enough Agnes Scott Colleges.
There are not enough places that seek out students and provide the financial incentives and resources that their families require. It is now harder for a student who comes from a family of modest economic means to attend and graduate from college because of financial pressures than it was 25 years ago. At the state and federal level, we are backing off from keeping up with the financial pressures that increasing costs have placed on students and families.
So, I would just hope that we would do two things simultaneously:
Reassert our commitment to higher education in our own country, to the diversity of higher education, to seeking out students who would otherwise not be able to afford to go to college and graduate and do everything we can to make that possible again.
Secondly, that we would take the model of American higher education and seed it throughout the world. Provide the chance for even more girls and women to have the education that I enjoyed and that you have had here at Agnes Scott. This is not just some luxury or nice thing to do. I think it is absolutely essential to our national security and to the furtherance of peace and freedom and democracy around the world.
You cannot have a democracy if half the people are shut out. You cannot have freedom if half the people are told at birth they are inferior. You cannot have peace where half the people can authoritatively decide how the other half lives.
It is imperative that we stand—not just rhetorically—for peace and freedom and democracy, but that we work to help educate young women to take their places in free, democratic societies that will be friends and allies of the United States for years to come.
So I end where I started, in congratulating you; in welcoming you to the so-called adult world; in hoping that as you commence from this place, that you remember the lessons and all of the hard work that you did to reach this point, And that you go forth intent upon integrating your own life: looking for the ways that are uniquely yours to combine your deepest feelings and values, family responsibilities, work and public involvement.
Because there is no one else like you. There is no blueprint. And it is unlikely that you will live a life that is totally ordained. That sitting here today, you know where you’ll be when you’re 30, when you’re 40, when you’re 50 and you’re 60, and you’ll live on average so much longer than women have ever lived. You will have different stages of life to fulfill some of your deepest journeys and hopes. As you construct that life of yours, you will be touching so many other lives.
Go through your life with kindness. Give it wherever you can, even if you don’t expect it in return. Show compassion for those who are not as fortunate or as lucky.
Understand that many of us have blessings that we had nothing to do with. They’re a gift from our creator; they were in our genes, and we didn’t pick our parents.
As you make this journey, consider ways you can help other young women along. Mentor someone. Tutor someone. Think about how you can teach, whether it be formally in a classroom or in some other setting, and broaden that horizon that is now ours to look far beyond our own shores.
Work toward creating opportunities so that other young girls and women who will never know our names, could one day be sitting in place like this, in charge of their own lives, looking toward their own futures and making contributions to the kind of world that we want for all of you.
Congratulations, Class of 2005! And God bless you on your life’s journey.