Commencement Remarks of Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis
May 6, 2012
Dean Monk, Dr. Pangborn, parents, friends—and most important students:
Thank you for inviting me to join you to celebrate your accomplishments culminating to today’s commencement.
This is indeed a special time. As President Rod Erickson noted earlier in the week, it is one of the most, if not the most, rewarding weekend on campus during the year.
I was fortunate earlier in the week to take part in some of the celebratory activities, including on Friday the privilege of having lunch with your student marshal, Melissa Kehs; her very proud father, Martin; and professor, Rose Mary Zbiek. So taking advantage of the opportunity, I asked Melissa if she had any advice to give me for this afternoon’s remarks. She was politely silent. She had a look in her eye that told me she had something she wanted to share but was too polite to take the chance that her advice might offend me.
So I let her off the hook and took a guess at what she was thinking.
“Keep it short, right?”
This is the advice I wish I could have given to my college commencement speaker if I had the chance. So I’ll see what I can do to heed Melissa’s advice.
Each year, graduation season means that a new class of education professionals will be preparing to enter classrooms across the country. As Secretary of Education, this is an exciting time of the year when, in a few short months, students become educators—bringing with them boundless enthusiasm and ingenuity.
Educating today’s youth is a communal effort, requiring a partnership between parent, teacher, and the community. A partnership that is rooted in the knowledge that every student has the ability to learn; a partnership which is committed to providing every student with the opportunity to succeed. Nowhere in this country can you witness this philosophy being put into practice more than right here in the Commonwealth and specifically here today, as you are a product of this philosophy.
Pennsylvania has a rich educational history. The educational structure we enjoy today was spearheaded by one of Pennsylvania’s, and this nation’s, founding fathers—Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, who spent most of his adult life in Philadelphia as a public servant, was a strong advocate for the education of America’s youth. He often spoke of the power that education plays in our nation’s economic, social and governmental stability.
Franklin envisioned an educational system which met the needs of every student, of every social class regardless of race or religion. He envisioned an educational structure that not only produced students who would achieve personal success, but also feel compelled to serve their community and country.
The words Benjamin Franklin penned in 1749 are no less true today, saying “Nothing is of more importance to the public good, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue. Wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of a state; much more so than riches or arms, which under the management of Ignorance and Wickedness, often draw on destruction, instead of providing for the safety of a people.”
You are all lucky enough today to live in a time when Benjamin Franklin’s dreams for America’s educational opportunities are now a reality. However, you must never take for granted the gift of the quality education which you have received from Penn State. Your parents, your community and this institution have unwaveringly invested in your future by providing the resources to ensure that you and your peers receive the gift of a world-class education.
This gift does not come without a price. Your civic duty must be to use your education to serve your community and your neighbors. Fortunately, in my mind, you have pursued a calling that allows you to use this gift in pursuits of a noble purpose—serving others in your day-to-day work in the field.
Education is the foundation of our society and your charge, as you graduate today, is to use the power of your profession to strengthen this foundation for the generations of Americans that will follow.
As I look out at all of the students here today, I can see the excitement of soon-to-be graduates, but more importantly, I see individuals who have the capability and power to change the lives of countless children over the course of a professional career.
I mentioned the word “power” in describing all of the graduates here today. I was very deliberate in selecting this adjective for, as new education professionals, you have been entrusted with a great deal of power and to quote that great philosopher Stan Lee, in his first comic that introduced the world to Spider-Man, “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” Your responsibility, moving forward in your career, is to find the best way to use that power on behalf of every student.
The word powerful is more often associated with individuals who work in law enforcement and as doctors, business leaders, and politicians. These individuals hold a great deal of power in our society. However, I would argue that teachers and those shaping the education spectrum possess as much, or even greater, power.
In order to possess power, an individual or group must have a significant ability to influence others. If those who work in education are not the epitome of what it means to be “powerful” than I do not know who is.
Educators play a crucial role in a child’s life, as students sometimes spend more time with a teacher at school than they do with a parent at home. Five days a week, parents trust that their loved ones are in the capable hands of professionals. As a parent myself of two school-age girls there are many days that they spend more time with their teachers than they do with me. I am sure that the parents in the audience can agree with me how hard it is to entrust your most precious gift with relative strangers five days a week, 180 days a year. However, I take great comfort, as a parent and as the secretary of education, in knowing that my children, and their 2.1 million peers across the Commonwealth, are being nurtured and taught by many exemplary educators.
As you transition into a professional career, never lose sight of the power you have as an educator and a role model to change the course of a student’s life. In fact, an educator’s impact on the lives of his or her students can be so profound that the effects are seen well into adulthood.
As educators you are facilitators of knowledge and with this knowledge arises the opportunity to instill confidence in students by allowing them to experience success, as well as failure. Empowering your students to succeed must also be accompanied with empowering students to embrace failure as an inevitable obstacle on the road to success. Every student, regardless of ability or barriers, has the potential to achieve success and, as educators, you must tap into that potential. The most rewarding part of your job will be the moment when everything clicks into place and you see that light go off in a student’s eye.
As you will quickly discover, if you haven’t already, our nation’s education system has many challenges. Despite these issues, I am always encouraged and renewed by the countless success stories of students beating the odds to achieve greatness, the self-motivated educators who dedicate their lives to their students and the policy leaders who work tirelessly for the future students whom they will never see reap the rewards of their labors.
All of this talk about your future and the power you have to effect the lives of others may seem daunting and overwhelming, and it can be at times. Even though I am speaking to you today with the wisdom and hindsight that comes with experience, I still remember myself on the day of my graduation, filled with both excitement and apprehension for the future. I was prepared, or so I thought, for the challenges I would face in my professional career but, at 22, I never imagined the highs and lows I would experience in both my professional and personal life.
So allow me to close with a bit of reflection on those years and offer a bit of personal advice.
First: While this day is a mark of great accomplishment for you, you need to take time to appreciate those around you who have helped you along your journey through life. Far too often we take for granted those who are closest to us and we neglect to offer people a simple thank you—especially our family. Your success today, and your successes in the future, will be built upon the work of others. Never forget that.
Second: Life is rarely a straight line. You are going to be challenged in ways not expected. Some of these challenges may seem like failures but are actually opportunities for growth and change; and unfortunately some of life’s challenges will knock you down; that’s okay too. Learn from the lessons life gives you and, while you’re at it, learn to laugh—it will make the hard times easier and the good times more memorable.
Third: During the past four years, you have learned from some great teachers but keep in mind that wisdom, knowledge and experience may come from an unexpected source. For some of you it may be a boss or a colleague, a wise mentor in the workforce or a close family member. For others it may be a person of historical significance, who when faced with a difficult situation somehow managed to steer the right course.
For me, it’s a young girl named Anna. A blessed young girl, growing up with parents and younger sisters who loved her, embracing every opportunity that life offered. Until one day they discovered, at age 10, that Anna had cancer. A football sized tumor was discovered in her liver—a cancer that was so rare that the hospital she was treated at, Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the world, had not seen it in almost 20 years.
Over the next three years, through scores of hospital admissions, countless radiation treatments and four separate rounds of chemo, Anna never lost her zeal for life. She rode horses, went parasailing, took modeling lessons, loved to dance, and lived the life of a typical American kid. Even when it became obvious that the chemo wasn’t working, she steered her energies toward working with Congress to change the laws so that people who have few treatment options can get easier access to experimental drugs.
All the while she laughed with every opportunity she could.
Until one August morning a few years ago, two months after making it to her 13th birthday, surrounded by her two younger sisters and her parents, my daughter Anna lost her courageous battle with cancer.
I share this story with you today, not just to remind you of the life lessons that can be learned from a child but, also because those years gave me a unique perspective of the Penn State students, through their and your support of THON. On behalf of my family and the countless other families you have touched through your generosity and humanity, thank you.
Lastly: Slow down. Life goes by far too quickly and if you don’t pay attention you will miss all of the amazing opportunities this world has to offer. I am reminded of a story I read five years ago which illustrates this point much better than I ever could.
One morning, in 2007, amidst the composed chaos of rush-hour in one of Washington D.C.’s busiest Metro stations, a young man arranged himself next to a trash can, took out his musical instrument, threw some seed money into his case and began playing. This behavior is not unusual, as so many street performers practice this same ritual every day in the hopes of making a living off the spare change in the pockets of commuters.
However, this was unlike any typical street performance. The young man was Joshua Bell a world renowned violinist, who had performed around the world, for presidents and royalty, in some of the most famous venues. The instrument he was playing was a 200-year-old violin worth $3.5 million. It is safe to say that Bell was not in search of any pocket change.
He performed for 45 minutes, during which time Bell performed six classical pieces for an audience of over a thousand hurried commuters. It was a social experiment to see if true brilliance would be recognized and appreciated by the hurried masses consumed with their daily migration. What transpired was a testament to the sad state of our society’s priorities.
In three-quarters of an hour, only seven people stopped to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime performance and, as for Bell’s earnings, he took home a total of $32 for his efforts.
When I first read this story I found myself wondering if I would have recognized Bell’s genius and if I would have stopped to listen – I would like to think that I would have. Today this story serves as a reminder to me that nothing is so important that we miss out on experiencing the little things that make life worth living.
I wish all of you the best of luck for a future that is filled with success and moments in which you stopped to listen to the music.