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Speech Transcript

For immediate use

May 13, 2007

Commencement Address, Madeleine K. Albright
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
May 13, 2007

Chancellor Moeser, my dear friend, Erskine Bowles, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, parents, alumni, friends and members of the class of 2007, good morning.

I want to begin by thanking you very much for the honorary degree.  I know I speak for my fellow honorees in saying how grateful I am. 

As the class of 2007 well knows, a degree is a precious thing.  It is very satisfying to work hard and earn one.  It is an utter delight to receive one without having to attend a single class.

As the Chancellor mentioned, this is Mother’s Day, but I think every parent here is probably thinking the same thing:  how short the interval is -- between diapers and diplomas.

My three daughters are college graduates, and I know that on such an occasion the emotions of parents are mixed—we all feel a little bit sad, a little bit relieved, a little bit astonished, and totally proud.

To alumni, this is a day rich in memory; a day when those of a certain age (and I am one) recall our own college years – which took place roughly half way between the invention of the handheld BlackBerry and the discovery of fire.

But today is, above all, a day to recognize and honor the class of 2007.

To each and every one of you, I say congratulations.

This morning is a time for celebration, for looking back and for admitting that all the studying and cramming before tests was worth it.

In future years, you will recall this ceremony and realize that today, May 13, 2007, was the day you first began to forget everything you learned in college.

But as the names of dead European kings and the body parts of dissected frogs begin to fade, the true value of your days here at Chapel Hill will become more and more apparent.

For although you have learned a great deal about the world around you; chances are you have learned even more about yourself.

That is vital, because from this day forward, you will no longer be able to rely on grades to tell you how you are doing and where you stand. 

You will have to rely, instead, on an inner compass; and whether that compass is true will determine whether you are blown about by every breeze; or able to chart a course that reflects your own ambitions and values. 

Today is a day of joy and for anticipating the future with optimism, yet in our high spirits we cannot help but be conscious of shadows.

Closest to home is the knowledge that tragedy is inseparable from life. 

This past March, you lost an irreplaceable member of your class.We all feel the absence of Jason Ray.   

More broadly, around our country and around our world, we mourn the loss of innocent lives to hurricanes, tsunamis, disease and – as the horror at Virginia Tech reminds us -- the demons that sometimes infect the human mind.

As we mark this day, we are concerned by the insecurity and injustice that result from the dark side of globalization, widening the gap between rich and poor, and endangering the environmental health of our planet. 

We are angered that religion is used by some as a license to murder, as if God’s commandment were “thou shalt kill.”

And we worry about the grinding uncertainty of a complex and frustrating war in Iraq, and the failure of the world to respond to genocide in Darfur.

All of which is another way of saying:  Class of 2007, you have work to do.

You are the leaders of tomorrow, and it will be your job to pick up the baton so often mishandled by the leaders of today.

For inspiration, I can think of no more moving a story than that involving a passenger on United Flight 93, which went down in Pennsylvania on 9/11.  That passenger, Tom Burnett, called his wife from the hijacked plane, having realized by then that two other planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. “I know we’re going to die,” he said.  “But some of us are going to do something about it.” 

And because they did, many other lives were saved.  Since that awful morning, the memory of their heroism has uplifted us.  It should also instruct us. Because when you think about it, “I know we’re going to die,” is a wholly unremarkable statement. 

Each of us here this morning could say the same.  It is Burnett’s next words that were both matter of fact and electrifying.  “Some of us are going to do something about it.”

Those words, it seems to me, convey the fundamental challenge put to us by life.  We are all mortal.  What divides us is the use we make of the time and opportunities we have.

Another way of thinking about the same question is to consider the recent discovery of similarities between the genetic code of a human being and that of a mouse. We are ninety-five percent the same. Perhaps each night, we should ask ourselves what we have done to prove there is a difference. After all, mice eat and drink, groom themselves, chase each other’s tails, and try to avoid risk.  How does our idea of “have a nice day” differ from that?

It is possible that we are all so busy using time-saving devices we don’t have time to do anything meaningful.  Or we may have the right intentions, but instead of acting, we decide to wait – until we are out of school, until we can afford a down payment on a home, until we can finance college for our own children, or until we can free up time in retirement. 

We keep waiting until we run out of “untils.”  Then it is too late.  Our plane has crashed and we haven’t done anything about it.  We have passed through life, without truly exploring its possibilities; we have been drifters instead of leaders.

One reason is that we sometimes misunderstand what leadership is. We expect it to come from the outside. And so we wait and listen for the sound of some mighty voice. But real leadership comes from the quiet nudging of an inner voice. It comes from realizing that the time has come to move beyond waiting to doing. That is why leadership is so often found in simple acts of self-expression, when, for example, we challenge a falsehood that has been advertised as truth, when we call injustice by its name, when we stop what we are doing to help another, or when we choose a career that is less about making money than about making a difference.

When we think about leadership, we usually think first about the grand and famous. But I ask you to consider your own life so far. I expect you have benefited most from leaders whose faces will never appear on television – from the reliable presence of a parent, the outstretched hand of a friend, the extra effort of a teacher, and the example of a classmate or teammate who challenged you to do better than you have ever previously done.

Not every leader marches at the head of a band and yet leadership is also sometimes confused with certainty. All too often, we follow people simply because they have commanded us to follow; they prompt us to put aside our doubts because they are decisive and because they are so sure they are right. We fall in line because we admire their certainty and perhaps envy it.

But certainty is no guarantee of wisdom – as Hitler and Osama bin Laden prove. Wisdom comes from the ability to believe in ideas while maintaining respect for the rights, beliefs and doubts of others. As critics point out, this quality can sometimes produce intellectual mush. At its best, however, it can generate triumphs that encompass both mind and spirit. 

We celebrate the achievements of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela because they believed deeply but also because they embraced broadly – they were compassionate extremists whose certainty caused them to seek communion--even with their persecutors. The triumph they sought to lead us toward was a victory not of some but of all. This is the kind of leadership we yearn for today. Think how refreshing it would be if all the people in the Middle East and Iraq committed themselves to a victory of all. And how much better the world would be if we each truly followed the teaching that is central to every religion and system of ethics I know, and that is to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

It is not my intention this morning to place the weight of the world upon your shoulders--for that will always be your parents’ job.

But I do hope that when you accept your diplomas, you will do so determined to live life boldly, with largeness of spirit and generosity of heart.

I hope you will use the knowledge gained here at this magnificent university to be more than a consumer of liberty, but also a defender and an enricher of it; that you will be doers not drifters; and that by your actions, you will each add luster to what it means to be a Tar Heel.

It is said that all work that is worth doing is done in faith.

This morning, I hope you will each embrace the faith that every challenge surmounted by your energy; every problem solved by your wisdom; every soul awakened by your passion; and every barrier to justice brought down by your determination will ennoble your own lives, inspire others, and explode outward the boundaries of what is achievable on this earth.

To the Class of 2007, I say again, “congratulations.”  And thank you once again for allowing me to share with you this wonderful day.

Go get’em Tar Heels, and thanks for making me one of you.