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Remarks of Dr. Jill Biden at Southwestern Community College Commencement

Southwestern Community College Commencement
Creston, Iowa
May 11, 2012

As Prepared for Delivery

Good evening, everyone! 

It’s wonderful to be here in Iowa to celebrate such an important day with all of you. 

Thank you, Dr. Crittenden, for that very kind introduction. 

Erica, thank you for your wonderful remarks – we’re so glad you’re recovering from the injuries caused by the tornado. 

I know you’ve all had a tough month since the storm. 

I also know that the community support in the aftermath has been incredible … hundreds of volunteers showing up to help in the clean-up so that everyone could get back to class.  What an inspiring community!

Some of you know my story.  I’ve been a teacher for more than 30 years, and I continue to teach full-time at a community college in Northern Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. 

In fact, just last week I finished my semester.  And while I’m happy to be done, I know I will miss my students.  I imagine many of your professors feel the same way. 

And I can imagine how you students feel.  Proud.  Relieved.  And, yes – excited about the next challenge. 

When I’m not in the classroom teaching, I’m often on the road visiting community colleges.  Earlier this year, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and I toured five states to see some of the incredible industry partnerships that are helping students, employers, and communities all over the country.

What I’ve seen at every community college I have visited over the last four years is the story of hope.

Hope for workers, who have gone as far as they can go in their jobs … and are getting the skills they need to go on to the next level.

Hope for moms, juggling kids and a job, learning new skills for a new career.

Hope for recent high school graduates, taking that critical step toward a four-year degree.

Hope for people in their forties, fifties and even sixties – who have been out of work so long that they’ve nearly given up – getting the second chance they deserve. 

Some of these descriptions may sound familiar to you.

College is a place that changes lives, for the better.  I’ve seen it firsthand. 

From my perspective as a teacher, it’s easy for me to see how my students change.  But one thing I’ve realized is that the students don’t always see it in themselves. 

Every day, you’re working hard.  Every day, you’re learning something new.  Every day, you’re investing in yourselves.

So as you’re finishing all those papers and finals and projects, you might not realize the dramatic progress that you’ve achieved.

What you’ve done these past few years – putting in all those hours – has given you the tools to build a career and pursue the life you’ve dreamed of.

As you embark on that journey, there are three lessons I’ve learned that I’d like to share with you.  Three lessons that really stand out to me.  Three lessons that can apply wherever you are in life – inside or outside a classroom.

They are pretty simple.

The first is: lift up others.

That’s something Eric Mahoney’s been doing for years.

Eric’s no stranger to service.  A 12-year U.S Army veteran, Eric served in Bosnia and in Iraq for three tours of duty before his honorable discharge in 2008.

When he got home, Eric knew he wanted to keep helping others so he went to work in a hospital.  Then in 2010 he lost his job – but he never lost his spirit. 

Later that year, he enrolled at Southwestern where he’s kept on helping others.  Through the TRiO Student Support Services program, Eric has tutored his fellow students in math courses – from algebra to trigonometry.

Eric, a dad of three “wonderful” kids, is graduating today with his associate of arts degree.  He will begin classes at Iowa State this summer toward his bachelor’s in electrical engineering. 

Eric’s not the only graduate in the family.  His wife, Stephanie, is also graduating.  She wants to go on to get her bachelor’s and eventually become a social worker.

Eric and Stephanie, thank you for your service to our country, and congratulations.

The second lesson is: go to your strength.

This is about following your heart, and trusting yourself to do whatever it is that you know you do best.

Keenan Joiner originally came to Southwestern to pursue basketball.  But during his time here, he has succeeded not only on the basketball court, but also in the classroom. 

As captain of the basketball team, Keenan says he believed he should be responsible for setting the tone for his teammates in athletics – and academics.

Not only has he set the tone, he has done a lot to make the team successful.  Keenan led the team in assists – pretty rare for a forward.  But Keenan’s strength is making everyone around him better – so that’s what he does.

And that’s what he’ll do after graduation, too.  Keenan is headed to Grand View University in Des Moines where he will study sports physiology – and keep making his teammates better on the basketball court.

The final lesson is: never stop learning.

I always say my students are my heroes.  It’s true – every day I am in the classroom, I’m learning from them.  And I am inspired … by their hard work, by their dedication, and by their sacrifice.

For nearly 19 years, Donna Larkin commuted to her job in Red Oak.  During that time, she became a single parent to her daughter, Jessica.  And her life became more challenging when she was laid off after the CDS Red Oak plant closed.

After evaluating her options, Donna decided to go back to school for something she’s loved since she was a kid – automotive.  She says she used to drive her dad – a retired auto mechanic – crazy with all her questions about how everything worked.

Donna received a diploma in “collision repair and refinish” last June.  This year, she will earn her associate of applied science degree in “collision repair and refinish.” 

And because Southwestern offers an option to gain more skills with another year of training, she will return this fall to obtain the associate of applied science in automotive repair technology.  Now her dad’s going to have to start asking her the questions.

When Donna graduates, she plans to work for an auto shop in the Villisca area.  Donna has never stopped learning – and is well on her way toward her ultimate goal of owning and running her own shop.

Donna, congratulations. I’m so proud of you – and I know your daughter Jessica, and your grandchildren – Syril and Liz – have a great role model to look up to.

…Lift up others

…Always go to your strength

…And never stop learning

Three lessons to live by…

Three lessons exemplified by all the graduates in this room.  All of you.

Because no matter how hard it got…and I know there’ve been hard times…you never lost your faith in yourself and what you can do. 

Maybe you took a chance.  Maybe you learned something new.  Maybe you discovered a strength you never knew you had. 

But one thing is for certain – whatever it was that got you here today – it’s lifting up all of us.  Making us better.  As individuals.  As communities.  As a country.

I will close with a quote by Michelangelo.

Most people think of the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when they hear the name Michelangelo.  But interestingly enough, Michelangelo resisted painting – he considered himself a sculptor.

It was as a sculptor that he shared these words: “I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

There is an angel in each of you.  You might not see it today, but it’s there.

The degree you’ve earned is your chisel, giving you the tools you need to help build the life you want to live.

You all have something that makes you come alive.  That’s your angel in the marble.  Find it – and carve and carve – until you set it free.

So today, reflect on how far you’ve come.  And give thanks for the strength and resilience of this amazing community.  And, then tonight, celebrate your hard-earned achievement with your friends and family. 
 
You have a whole world in front of you, and the determination to take you anywhere you want to go.

On behalf of President Obama, the First Lady and the Vice President, my husband Joe – we are proud of you.  We look forward to all that is to come – congratulations!

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