Remarks of Michelle D. Bernard

At the

Hodges University Class of 2009 Commencement

Sunday, May 14, 2009  

(Remarks as Prepared for Delivery)  

Representative Arnold, thank you for that very kind introduction. I am honored to be introduced by the youngest person ever to be elected to the Florida State House of Representatives. Just in case you haven’t heard, the State of Florida will be electing a new governor in 2010. As the saying goes, “The second time around is always a charm!” Hint hint!

President McMahan, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, proud parents, grandparents, children of the graduates, and above all else, the Class of 2009, there are no words I can use to properly express my gratitude for being invited to share in the celebration of one of the largest graduating classes in the history of this great University. I am honored and blessed to be here.

In preparing for today’s commencement address and even in watching all of you take your places, I couldn’t help but choke up. I am awestruck by the mission of this University and all that it stands for. More importantly, I am inspired by what you have accomplished as non-traditional students.

I am astounded by the fact that 70% of the student population is female and 30% male. I am even more amazed that the average age of the students here is 32. Never in my lifetime did I think I would be speaking at a university that not only understands the importance of a university education, but also understands that men and women of all ages should have an opportunity to obtain a university education at any point in their lives.

I speak here today in honor of my mother, Mrs. Nesta H. Bernard, and the Hodges class of 2009. My parents emigrated from the Island of Jamaica in the West Indies to attend Howard University in Washington, DC many years ago. After having four children at a very young age, as was the tradition then, my mother left school for a few years in order raise us while my father finished his undergraduate work and dental school. After my father finished school, my mother went back to school in order to finish her undergraduate and graduate work. When I think about how hard it must have been to raise four young children, go to class, study, write papers, take exams, graduate, apply for graduate school, and then do the same thing all over again as a graduate student, all while providing emotional support for a husband going through an internship, residency, and post-residency program, I can only imagine how many women simply gave up and never went back to school.

I haven’t asked for permission to speak on behalf of anyone today, but on behalf of all of those mothers and fathers, and all of those “older students,” thank you Hodges University. To the Class of 2009, you have worked and studied hard to earn your degree and, I applaud you for all you have done to get here and for never giving up.

I always think it’s unfair or inappropriate when people tell students preparing to graduate that they are about to enter the “real world.” I know you have been active participants in the real world for a long time – in addition to studying, many of you have been working; others have been participating in politics, and volunteering in each of your communities. You already know a great deal about the so-called “real world” and the challenges that people face in trying to make ends meet, fulfill their dreams, and give their children the future they want for them.

But just because you’ve already been living in the real world, that doesn’t make this occasion any less important. This occasion—graduation day—represents an important time of transition: a chapter of your life is closing. A new chapter is beginning.

And that new chapter begins at a very challenging time for our country. You know the facts all too well. I am told that six years ago today, Bruce Botts who is earning his associates degree in computer information technology, was on the battlefields of the Middle east serving our country during Operation: Iraqi Freedom. I am sure that if you were to ask him, Bruce would tell you that we still live in an age of terrorism, and there are very real and serious threats and challenges internationally. We are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and face emboldened foes in much of the Middle East, and in countries spanning the globe from Venezuela to North Korea. President Obama is succeeding in changing the perception of the US around the globe, but there is much work to be done, particularly with countries led by those dedicated to the destruction of the United States and our way of life a way of life that you all affirm and celebrate today.

Yet, at least today, our international challenges seem to pale in comparison to our economic crisis. Indeed, just about no one has been spared from this recession. Unemployment has soared—nearly one in 12 Americans who would like to be working is today unemployed. We see stores closing up all around town and in our cities. Jobs are scarce. I know that makes life particularly difficult for you all, since many of you are entering either the job market or are hoping to find that critical first opportunity that will put you on your desired career path.

You may or may not be as directly affected by the stock market decline, which has crushed the retirement savings of so many, but in the future, you will be paying the real price of the decisions our policymakers make today. In particular, the debt that our nation is accumulating in hope of pulling the country out of recession will ultimately fall on your shoulders.

Our debt numbers have become so high that they are virtually meaningless. In March, we broke a new record in terms of debt – the Treasury Department reported that for the first time we owe more than $11 trillion dollars. That’s more than $36,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. And we expect things to get far worse: by the end of 2012, the Administration expects us to owe more than $16 trillion.

And that’s only our explicit debt. The real situation is much worse. Once you start to include the implicit debt of programs like Social Security and Medicare, it becomes truly mind boggling how much money we owe and how much more our government has promised than it can deliver. Paying back your student loans will sound like small potatoes when you realize how much debt the government has taken on in your name and is going to collect from you one way or another.

And what of our education system? Our K-12 public education system is a mess. Access to higher education is becoming more and more difficult. No one has yet to put forward a real plan that will get our nation on the pathway to energy independence. As taxpayers, we now own a massive share of US automakers. We have all but nationalized our nation’s banking system and I fear that in reforming health-care, we might actually move away from a patient-centered system and find ourselves the victims of government bureaucrats who think they know better than do our doctors as to what medical treatments we need – and deserve.

I am fearful about the America my children will inherit.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman whose name I will not mention. Our discussion has haunted me every day since I left her. She lives in one of the poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods in the District of Columbia. On the outside, she appears hard and cold. However, when you start to talk to her, you realize she is kind, gentle, and just as deserving of the ability to achieve the American dream as any of us here today.

She is in her early 30s and has three children under the age of 12. All of them have different fathers. Her youngest, a beautiful three-year-old girl, has never seen her father even though he lives within walking distance of where she lives with her mother. The mother has little education and the public school her children have been assigned to is an abysmal failure. She asked me if I had ever heard the stories of women who kill all of their children. She assured me that she had no such thoughts, but told me that she understands why they do it. As she wept, she said, they “just don’t want their children to suffer.” She then told me that she doesn’t want welfare, she just wants a job.

Imagine how different her life and the lives of her children would be if she could step into your shoes and attend a Hodges University where she could work, take care of her children, and obtain an undergraduate and even graduate degree.

For this woman, there are so many challenges and so much uncertainty. Knowing the challenges that she faces and the challenges that we, as a nation, face, what can I tell you – how can I inspire you – in spite of all the problems that we face?

I think about this woman and the life she has lead versus the life Barack Obama has lead. The major difference: the education he received versus the education she has been unable to receive.

Look at what one can accomplish with an education, drive, and determination. There is a black man in the Oval Office. We have a female Speaker of the House, and it’s hardly even worth mentioning that we have a female Secretary of State because this has become commonplace.

Education is the great equalizer. If there is one thing I would ask each of you to do today, it would be to ask each and every person you know to go back to school. Get them to apply to Hodges or anywhere else they can and earn their degree. I truly believe that each of us has a moral obligation to do this.

With the degrees you have earned today, you are now some of the most blessed people on Earth. As the election of Barack Obama demonstrated to the world, we do live in a time when opportunities are truly open to all, especially after having received a first-rate education in the finest, freest, most democratic country in the history of the world.

Think about it: your opportunities are essentially limitless. You can become or accomplish anything that you dream of, if you have the talent and are willing to work for it.

There are many fine examples of this today. Your classmate Michele Boose was homeless in 2000. Today, she is graduating with an MBA. Phyllis Fields is another hardworking student. She is single mother graduating today and preparing to start her own company. And what about Mike & Lisa Little, a Hodges U husband and wife team? Mike is a Sheriff’s deputy and Lisa is a dental hygienist. They have four children, they work, and today, both will earn Bachelor of Science degrees in management. Now, as you think about your future, the future of your children, as well as the collective future of this country, and indeed the world, it’s critical that you don’t take this progress for granted. None of the progress that women, men, people of color, and religious minorities have achieved has happened by accident. None of it was a matter of chance. It was a matter of hard work and sheer determination. All of the progress we have made as a nation and as individuals is the result of decisions made by countless individuals who used their minds and their love for their children, their families, their ancestors, and their of country to pursue a goal.

We know the names of many of the famous individuals who have helped make the world a better place. Now most commencement speakers would use this as a time to reflect upon the early abolitionists, women’s rights activists and civil rights heroes.

I’d like to think briefly about the great innovators—men and women who came up with spectacular technologies or businesses that alone have changed the world and the way we live our lives. Men like Vivien Theodore Thomas, a black man who rose above poverty and racism and became a pioneer of certain cardiac surgeries at Johns Hopkins, and Bill Gates who has developed spectacular technologies that have had an impact on millions of lives around the world. Women like Julie Clark who, as a mom who wanted to, as she says, “share her love of humanities with her baby,” founded Baby Einstein in 1997 with a single video called Language Nursery. Today, Baby Einstein is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company and is worth millions of dollars. There is also California Baby founder Jessica Iclisoy who, with no cosmetics experience, started an all-natural infant skin care company just because she wanted the best for her son.

I hope that as you think about what you want to do with your life—how you want to spend your career—you will consider how you might take part in the world of innovation and this parade of progress. I know from my own graduation ceremonies that speakers often focus on encouraging students to go into public service, to remember to volunteer and make an impact on their community. That’s a really important message and I know that there are many who work in government and in the nonprofit world that have had a positive impact on our world and society. Yet that’s not the only way that you make the world a better place.

Starting a business, coming up with a new product or technology that fills a need, finding a way to reduce the cost of some everyday item used by families everywhere – these are also important contributions that deserve our respect and celebration.

I’m going to buck tradition and like Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, go where no man or woman has gone before: I’m going to encourage you to go out there and try to make some money! It seems almost taboo to say so these days, and certainly, I would encourage everyone out there to think beyond money, never to choose your profession or even a job solely based on the number of dollars you are going to earn. Yet, there is nothing wrong with seeking compensation and trying to build wealth for you and your families.

Make a commitment to yourself that you will do well and then be in a position to do well by others – to help those starting out and to support charities and organizations that provide assistance to those in need.

One of the challenges you are going to face in the next few years is in the many choices you will have to make. There are so many different directions and paths you can choose.

There will be no easy answers to this problem. And while everyone will experience this in one way or another, I know that the women out there are likely to feel particularly conflicted. In many ways, women today are so fortunate to have all the choices that we do when it comes to career and family. Some women choose to focus exclusively on their careers; others become stay-at-home moms; and others find some combination of the two. And I believe that just about everyone respects the choices that women make. We are lucky that modern technology makes balancing work and family easier than before – I stay in touch with the office through my blackberry and cell phone while I’m taking my kids to and from school. That makes life better, but it certainly doesn’t make it easy.

Inevitably, we all still face the problem of how we are going to divide up our time: we only have 24 hours in a day and we can’t be two places at once. This can be particularly tough for women who tend to feel more conflicted about the amount of time they dedicate to families and their careers.

Sometimes I think that people – women in particular – who are frustrated with that conflict feel that there is a set of policies the government could advance that would take that conflict away. But it just isn’t that easy. No one can give us more hours in the day. No policy is going to take away my desire to both be with my kids and be aggressively pursuing my career.

That’s the burden of having so many choices. There is often no clear cut answer of what’s right, and we are always aware of the path not taken…the path that might have been.

But I hope you will not spend time second guessing yourself. I hope you live your life with passion and confidence. Think hard about what you love, where you see yourself in the future, and how you believe you can have the greatest positive impact.

In times like these, it’s easy to get discouraged and focus on the negatives, but when I look out at all of you, I feel that there is so much cause for optimism. For this country, and for each of you individually.

Enjoy this important celebration today and know that there will be many more milestones and reasons for celebration in your future, and get excited about that next chapter of your life.

Congratulations graduates and thank you for having me here today.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice. Also, Bernard is author of Women’s Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before and is an MSNBC political analyst and a Sunday columnist with The Examiner.