Miles Community College Commencement, May 11, 2013
Dr. Rod A. Risley, Executive Director
Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society
Distinguished Trustees, Madame President, Deputy Commissioner Cech, faculty, staff, students, and guests thank you for the honor and privilege of participating in this wonderful and important celebration. While my hair may be gray, as a former community college student, I remember so well my thoughts as I sat in the chair as you do this day. I know exactly what your are thinking… “ God, I hope he will be brief!” And my promise to you is that I will!
I wish to start by sharing with you thoughts of one of my true American heroines – Harriet Tubman, who risked her life by leading hundreds of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Following her first escape from slavery, Harriet Tubman said, “When I found I had crossed the line, I looked at my hands to see if I were the same person. There was glory over everything.”
Have you ever experienced one of those moments in life as Harriet Tubman described when suddenly you realize that you are no longer the same? Maybe by having viewed a movie in a theatre when, once it was over, everyone exited in total silence by the experience, maybe by the birth of a child or by reading a book that moved you to tears. Maybe the first time you left home, your family, and Montana for an extended period of time or maybe, just maybe, by having completed a feat you did not think possible. By that experience or encounter you feel different than before. You realize that the lens through which you now see life has forever been changed. You feel you are no longer the same.
For our graduates today, this commencement ceremony celebrates the experience that Harriet Tubman described, for this is the very moment when we all must stop, reflect and realize these student are not the same as they were when they walked through these doors a few months or years ago.
They have grown. They have grown intellectually. They have grown in confidence. They have grown through every experience encountered here. They have new hopes, and dreams and a new spirit about them.
They are no longer the same.
Parents, spouses, and friends of those who are graduating tonight, we can no longer view these students as the same; and graduates, you can no longer view yourselves as the same.
You have received a first-class education here at Miles Community College. And never has it been so cool to graduate from a community college as today.
In my more than 35 years working with community colleges, there has never been a more exiting time to be associated with them. I have never before seen the measure of attention provided our institutions by corporations, foundations, and the national media. The White House recently held the first ever Summit on Community Colleges with Phi Theta Kappa represented and selecting the student scholars to participate. And even I am so proud today to stand before to share that IVY league schools are aggressively recruiting community colleges students, because we now have the studies that reveal community colleges transfer students perform academically and in leadership roles as well if not better than those students who attended the selective college exclusively.
You should be so proud that you chose to attend Miles Community College – a college with instructors whose mission in life is to teach, and
a college with programs that will give you the competitive edge whether entering the workforce or transferring to a senior college.
Be proud of your decision to attend Miles Community College because you obtained this quality education at 1/3 of the cost compared to those who attended only a selective senior college. Let the elitists revel in their snobbery, while you laugh all the way to the bank! Well-done!
And, I congratulate you on your completing what you started. You are the exception. Completion of a credential or degree is more the exception than the rule – and the consequences are frightening. Upon entering a community college, 85% of students indicate that they plan to complete a baccalaureate degree. But studies suggest the number is significantly less than 50%. More and more students are entering our colleges underprepared – not ready. More than 60% of our students require developmental education classes, and the number who successfully emerge to take college credit classes – well it is frightening. Why does completion matter?
Everyone here today must understand that we live in a global economy. Just look at the impact of the booming energy industry in this part of the state. Hopefully, you have been advised and have invested in a career pathway that will prepare you to be competitive in this new global economic order. But the news for most is not good.
Why does completion matter?
The United States has fallen from number one among the 34 major industrialized economies to number 16 in terms of the percentage of citizens who have earned a higher education degree or credential. Two years ago, the U.S. ranked twelfth. Further, U.S. students rank #25 out of 34 nations in math skills.
To make this all the more challenging, America is growing older, my gray hair as evidence. As the birthrate in the U.S. has declined, there will be fewer workers to replace those who are retiring. Yet, we have more students enrolled in higher education than ever before – with most never earning a credential. How can we compete in a global economy with fewer workers, and most lacking the skills needed to be hired?
Why does completion matter?
This past July, the U. S. Department of Labor reported 3.5 million jobs – livable wage to high-income jobs – unfilled. In manufacturing 600,000 jobs unfilled, and in health fields 500,000 jobs. Microsoft needs thousands of workers but is having to import them from other countries because we are not producing the students with the skills sets to perform the jobs.
American manufacturers, who exported jobs to developing companies, like our auto manufacturers, are bringing jobs back home because of the escalating cost of production overseas. But, the jobs they are bringing back are not the same that left. These jobs require a much different and more complex skill set. And, they do not have the workers here who can perform those jobs.
Think of the consequences of this disconnect between education and employment. And, when I speak of employment, I am not talking about exclusively about “technical jobs”. I am also talking about all the other fields that require high-level thinking, creativity, and innovation to compete – that demand critical thinking, writing, working collaboratively, communication, and more.
Our universities in these high demand fields have awarded more Ph.D. degrees in the fields of science, mathematics, technology, and engineering the last few years than ever before – but not to Americans. The majority of these degrees have been awarded to international students who do not have to stay in the U.S. to gain high-income level jobs.
Emerging economic powers have invested in education more strategically than has the U.S and their students who are obtaining their education here can now return home and be employed in high-wage jobs. Yet, here in this country we are engaged in an absurd debate about whether going to college matters, whether it pays, and questioning the value of college.
Did you know that national studies show that those who attempt to transfer before completing an associate degree are much more likely to never complete a baccalaureate degree? This confirmed by a recent study by the National Student Clearing House.
Did you know that by completing your credential or degree at a community college means that you will likely earn more than $500,000 over your lifetime than those with only a high school diploma? This from the Department of Labor.
Did you know that in less than six years – two-thirds of all new jobs will require a post-secondary credential? This from the Department of Labor. For my generation, a high school diploma meant you might be qualified for a livable-wage income-earning job. Those days are gone.
Did you know that associate degree students can earn more and are more likely to be hired than those with three years of higher education without a credential? Employers want to hire those who demonstrate the tenacity, determination and desire to become better at what they do, those who have the discipline to finish what they start.
So, I congratulate all of the students here today for completing what they started.
Candidates for graduation, you have been provided a wonderful gift – This gift, however, comes with “strings attached.” You now have serious responsibilities to embrace. What do I mean?
Theodore Roosevelt explains it this way, “From the standpoint of the nation and from the broader standpoint of mankind, scholarship is chiefly of worth when it is productive.” By this he means the true scholar – not merely acquires or receives, but gives. It is not enough to “know” or possess knowledge. Each of you has a responsibility to share your knowledge acquired here so that all might “know.” You must improve the quality of life for those who cannot help themselves.
Sometimes when I read the news of the day I become so frustrated by what we, as a society, seem to value and not value.
We value professional athletes more than our instructors.
We value being entertained more than we do about learning.
We value buying more things rather than providing more for those in need.
We value more knowing what people are doing to each other than for each other.
I feel ours is a culture that promotes and embraces mediocrity. I asked one of our recent convention speakers, “Why is this?” Why must we dumb things down? She explained that de-emphasizing being smart has been a part of our culture for a long time. She went on to say, that “more speech, however, could be added to that.”
She said, “If being smart or getting good grades makes you a NERD,
if being into technology make you a GEEK, and if being interested in studying something makes you a DWEEB, then…be a NERD
be a GEEK, be a DWEEB! Your country needs you to be that and you are going to be a better date, better friend, and better parent, than those people who are just “too cool for school.”
Starting today, let’s everyone pledge to make this a community where being smart is valued. In Miles City and points beyond, it’s cool to be smart and don’t you ever apologize for that. Let’s hear it for all these nerds, geeks, and dweebs! They are the coolest things going!
All who are here in this place share in your glorious celebration – a celebration of hope, possibilities, and dreams fulfilled. We must remember, however, that within the borders of this community there are those, for reasons beyond their control, who have lost all hope. There are those outside this celebration who have been beaten down so hard and for so long that they have forgotten how to dream.
They have forgotten how to dream because they face in their minds only a life filled with despair, distrust, and discouragement.
We must face the fact that in this great country and here in this community we have a society of “haves” and “have nots”; where the “haves” have increasingly more, and the “have nots” have less and less.
Students, you have been given a gift with a responsibility.
You have a responsibility to never forget those who have not at all, those who have been robbed of hope and the ability to dream.
You have a responsibility to improve the quality of life in your community, for all in your community.
You have a responsibility, as does everyone connected to this college,
to provide access to hope, to lift the hearts and minds of those in despair, so that we all can dream again of a better day, a better life, and a better future.
I ask the students to stand, please.
For just a moment, I ask you to take a deep breath. Close your eyes and walk with me through a journey.
Remember the first day that you set foot on campus and entered the classroom. Remember the anxiety you felt, wondering if you have made the right decision, wondering if you could compete with the young “kids” across the aisle, or the grown adult in the front row seat.
Remember when you turned over your exam and saw you earned a high grade and turned it quickly over quickly again because you thought it was a mistake - because you did not believe in yourself.
Remember the professor who took you aside and looked into your eyes and told you, “you can do this…yes, and you can do even more.”
For the first time perhaps, or for the first time in a long time you felt someone believed in you.
Remember your friend who encouraged you when things were not going well and would not let you give up. Remember your parent or significant other who said, “You go study, honey, I will take care of the kids.” Remember your parent or child who has silently watched you here and wanted so much for you to succeed. Through you this very day, they now feel they too have succeeded.
Remember all these people who have been a part of your journey to this day. You did not travel this journey alone. As Tennyson says so eloquently, “I am a part of all that I have met.”
Please take your seats.
So as we celebrate this glorious event, which reflects upon your current success, let us recall Harriet Tubman’s words when she held out her arms and looked at her hands and said, “There was glory over everything on her first day of freedom.”
For her it was a flash of a moment; a moment in time when anything seemed possible and when any dream could come true. Embrace Tubman’s glorious moment as yours, because you share with her strong character, courage, and the determination necessary to succeed. Today for each of you, anything is possible. The only thing that could possibly hold you back… is you.