This past May, Aspen Institute Vice President and the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Program Executive Director Anne Mosle delivered the 2014 commencement speech to graduates of Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. Endicott College is led by Ascend Fellow Dr. Richard Wylie. Read below for the full text of the speech.
Thank you, President Wylie, for that kind introduction, and my thanks to the Endicott community for the thrill and honor of being asked to share this wonderful day with you. Let me start with today’s most important word: “congratulations.” Congratulations to the record-breaking Class of 2014 — all 850 of you — undergraduates and graduates! What a wonderful way to honor the 75th anniversary of Endicott College. Founders Eleanor Tupper and George Bierkoe would be proud.
Congratulations as well to President Wylie, the Board of Trustees, the committed faculty, and administrators who helped these wonderful graduates on their journey. I had the chance to meet with some of the dedicated Trustees last night and was moved by the depth of their passion for what is happening each day on campus, as well as their care for what lies ahead for Endicott — be it a building or a new doctoral program. Parents, grandparents, and families, well done.
I’m sure you’re excited about what your son or daughter has accomplished, and I know you’ll feel that excitement all over again next fall when you will not have to write a tuition check.
Part of the fun for a commencement speaker is being reminded of your own college days. It prompts you to assess what have you learned and whether you are in fact living your life as intentionally as you would like.
Like many of you, I went to high school in New England. A special shout-out to the Sox, Celts, Bruins, Pats, and, of course, the Gulls. For college, I wanted to explore a different part of the country, and I went south, to the University of Richmond.
Like all of you, I did an internship. As a political science major, I worked for the Virginia General Assembly, where I had a front row seat for two historical breakthroughs: Douglas Wilder became the first African American elected lieutenant governor and later governor of Virginia, and a woman named Mary Sue Terry became the first woman elected to statewide office in VA. We have a made a lot of progress since then — but we still have some work to do.
While I have some things in common with the class of 2014, the fact is my college days were years ago… okay, many years ago.
When I was in college there was no internet and no laptops, tablets — you get the picture. People on campus would actually walk around looking each other in the eyes, because there were no cell phones.
When I was sitting where you are now, my emotions, I suspect, were pretty similar to what a lot of you are feeling: I was excited and even a bit relieved. Exams done. Papers turned in. But I was also anxious because I did not have a job, and I did have debt.
For me the anxiety was especially intense because of what had happened to my family not too long before graduation day.
We started out as a pretty typical family, firmly middle class. In high school, our situation changed dramatically. My father lost his job, and we lost our home. Things suddenly looked very different.
While that was a hard experience I would not wish on anyone, it was also a gift. A very important lesson was seared into my DNA: empathy. I will never forget each person who helped us in the tough times, and I vowed to do the same for others. To this day, I respond to each request for job advice from a student or someone who, like my father, may have lost a job. I don’t always have the answer, but I can show that I care.
As a nation, we could use more empathy, too. Truly caring for one another in good times and bad can help us tackle one of our biggest problems — the growing inequality in America.
My second story began in the early 1990s, when I moved to Denver to work for a leading American Indian organization. Comprised of more than 60 sovereign nations in the US and Canada, the organization focused on education and sustainable development.
The chance to work in Indian Country for tribal leaders was not part of my master plan but was a fantastic, unexpected opportunity. Experiencing Native American cultures and traditions was phenomenal. Sure, at times it was out of my comfort zone. But I learned new perspectives, let go [of] some preconceived assumptions, and worked with amazing people. I even finally shed the dressed-for-success blue suit I was wearing to meetings, and got into the western fashion of cowboy boots, bolo ties, and jeans. It was one of the best educational experiences ever. I left that organization with a deeper appreciation for culture and community.
So if you get that unexpected call that takes you beyond your comfort zone — take it!
The third idea I would like to share with you is about something I learned later in the game. As I look back on my own graduation day, I did not fully appreciate the importance of building social capital. Social capital translates into the trusted relationships and networks we can call on for help. In fact, social capital can be a decisive factor in a person’s economic and social mobility.
I am not talking about how many friends you have on Facebook. Deliberately start building an actual network of people with whom you share interests and ideas. Before you leave here, make sure you thank and connect with teachers, coaches, administrators, and classmates. Reach out to alumni. Actively seek out mentors and build your social capital. While you might be tired from the luau last night, this is a major window of opportunity before you leave campus!
As the saying goes, who you know can be just as important as what you know.
So those are my three lessons:
1. Do your best to help others climb the ladder with you.
2. Get out of your comfort zone and experience other cultures.
3. Build your network and social capital.
Actually, I have one last fun recommendation. And I have to say up front, it may not be [your] parents’ favorite. Grab a friend and drive across the country. And if you can, do it without Google maps or GPS. I did it twice — once for love and once for a job.
You’ll learn so many lessons during the journey, even if your car breaks down just before you reach your destination, like mine did when I crossed the Seattle city line. You’ll get a real sense of how huge, diverse, and wonderful our country is — as well as an up-close look at some of our problems. You’ll learn how to make compromises with the man or woman you’re sharing a car with. You’ll be forced to problem-solve, and you might even learn a little bit of auto mechanics. Give it a try!
Let me close with one last story — and it is a story about the power of when your heart and head are aligned. In 2000, my daughter Elliot was born. In fact, Elliot is here with me today. When I was on maternity leave from my job at a DC think tank, opportunity knocked. A chance to build something special was offered. It was a start-up foundation with no staff and a nearly non-existent budget. But it had an awesome mission. The mission was to build a powerful wave of philanthropy to ensure that all women and their families can achieve their potential in the Washington metro region — my home community. The first thing I did as the president was to activate my social capital. I called upon everyone I possibly could, and they responded. Very quickly, thousands of donors, volunteers, and community leaders joined in.
In our nation’s capital, we have a city with extremes of wealth and poverty. Today, I am proud to say that the Washington Area Women’s Foundation just celebrated its 15th anniversary and has invested millions of dollars in high-impact nonprofits and transformed hundreds of lives. I knew in my both my heart and head that all children deserved a fair shot and, in fact, all mothers could use some support — no matter their economic status.
Your passion and compassion can lead you to wonderful places. My passion brought me here today.
I currently serve at the Aspen Institute, which is an incredible global institution that was formed in the aftermath of WWII to confront the critical questions of what comprises a good and ethical society. The Aspen Institute addresses the most crucial issues of our times, from climate change, to Middle East peace, to growing US poverty. The Aspen Institute builds from the Socratic method of learning, and we encourage leaders to lead an examined life, which I encourage each of you to do as well. Live intentionally.
At the Aspen Institute, I lead a national program that is focused on ensuring that the American Dream can be passed from [one] generation to the next. We identify and invest in outstanding leaders and bright spots of innovations and impact. That’s how I met President Wylie, who not only is the head of this wonderful institution, but also is a national leader in working to ensure that all students — from every background — have the chance to reap the benefits of higher education and realize their dreams. Dr. Wylie’s passion, commitment, and leadership are extraordinary. I know that one of his proudest accomplishments is this record-breaking graduating class!
You leave Endicott fueled with a top-notch education, experience in and out of the classroom, and many people who care about your success.
I can’t wait to see how you are going to change this world. We are counting on you! As Picasso said, “if you can imagine it, then it is real.”
Enjoy today. Let yourself and your families be proud.
Live a life that is bigger than you and one that is also true to who you are. Thank you for listening. And, again, my heartfelt congratulations!