Commencement Office
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May 2012 Diane Rudner Graduation Address

Thank you President Raines. I am so proud to be with you today to celebrate the 100th commencement ceremony at the University. Everyone in this room shares one thing in common. They care deeply about each of you graduates personally and about your education. And the people on the podium have spent much of their lives thinking and planning for the future success of this institution. The fact that Dr. Raines was the first female President in 90 years is not the only reason I admire her. It is what she has accomplished in this last ten years. Everything about the slogan “dreamers, thinkers, doers” has been about taking this university to the next level--in its curricula, its emphasis on research, its level of scholarships and its facilities. The faculty and local alumnae are among the most knowledgeable and prominent in this region. Shirley, we are all lucky to benefit from your vision. Its impact is felt in many ways and we, in Memphis, are the beneficiaries of your tireless efforts and accomplishments.

It is especially gratifying for me to be here today when Larry Papasan is receiving this prestigious degree. I got to know Larry well while he served for many years on the board of directors of the Plough Foundation. And during that time, I witnessed firsthand how he made such an important contribution to this community. His amazing career at Memphis Light Gas & Water and at Smith and Nephew Orthopaedics, as well as his many leadership activities, serves as a role model for all of us. I am sure the Board of Visitors, like myself, has felt it was a privilege to serve with Larry. His talents in dealing with all types of people, his patience, and ability to gain consensus decisions, makes a difference in every single project with which he is involved. He always sets the standard in a warm, respectful and considerate manner. It is no wonder that Larry becomes an advisor to so many younger people of all different backgrounds in this community. In fact, Shirley and Larry share an important quality that makes them both unique leaders-the talent of creating collaborative environments.

So on to the most important part of the day- you graduates. Today we celebrate your accomplishments. We all recognize the many challenges you have faced to get here. For some of you, these challenges were being the first in your family to graduate from college. For others, it was holding down a job and/or taking care of a family while finding time to study. And for others, it was juggling your schedule while you traveled the country representing the University in your sports and academic competitions. We salute all of you for your sacrifices and please make time this weekend to celebrate your personal success.

This is also the time to give gratitude to your parents, teachers, and mentors who encouraged you and inspired you along the way to this important milestone. Believe me, they are truly sharing your pride and success today.

So, what’s next? I’m going to make one big assumption. That each of you will be successful in your endeavors. Your hard work and dedication in completing your undergraduate, graduate, masters or doctoral degrees have already succeeded in improving your lives. You are on your way to fulfilling your dreams, your professional and your personal goals. The challenge I want to emphasize to you at this transition time is that of continuing to make your lives meaningful by helping to ensure that we have a caring and compassionate society. As you embark on the next journey of your life, I sincerely hope service to your community will be a top priority.

As we all know, the problems in today’s society are complex but understanding first hand the needs of the community is always the best learning experience. If we don’t understand the problems, how do we expect to solve them? So let’s take a minute to talk about some of the really alarming trends in the nation as well as in Memphis, Tennessee.

Did you know that 14% of adults in the United States over the age of 18 are functionally illiterate? That means they cannot read at the third grade level. Let’s put this in a Memphis perspective. 130,000 adults are unable to read well enough to fill out a job application, read to their own children, understand road signs or follow directions on a prescription bottle. We need your help. How do we tackle this problem for future generations?

Another fact. Only 42% of adults from 25 to 35 years old have a college degree. That ranks the United States 12th out of 32 countries. And in Memphis, only 31% have achieved what you have today-a college diploma. It has been proven that the poverty rate is three times greater for those with only a high school education. And this will become even more dramatic because economists say by the year 2018, only six years from now, 60% of all jobs will require some post-secondary training.

In the United States, 40 million individuals are age 65 and older. That represents 13% of our total population, or said another way, is one out of every 8 Americans. By the year 2030, it is estimated that there will be 72 million older persons- more than twice the number than in the year 2000.

On any given night in the United States, three quarters of a million women, men and children are homeless. That represents one out of every 45 children-and the majority of those children are under the age of 7. In Memphis, an annual count reveals that over 2,000 people are homeless on any given night and one-third of those were diagnosed as mentally challenged.

You all know how these statistics will impact crime, hospitals, prisons and workforce development in our cities. Just think what impact these findings will have in jobs related to each of your future careers whether your degree is in business, communications, education, engineering or public health.

Help us to understand what changes are needed in education to prepare our youth for success in high school. Help us to understand the emotional and social issues that are getting in the way of them completing their college degrees or vocational certificates. We need you to tell us how to build the infrastructure of our communities and the transportation systems needed for a changing demographic. How to best address the needs of the aging population? And how to motivate entrepreneurs to invest in these challenges of the future?

The Plough Foundation spends a large percentage of its time trying to determine which programs in Memphis and Shelby County really address the root causes of these problems. Which individuals and strategies can truly make a long-term impact? We see first-hand the value of your education, your expertise and your life experiences to creatively inform what we do. Your help is needed to identify ways to measure the outcomes of the many different approaches proposed to organizations like ours. This is critically important if we want to guarantee the economic and social vitality of our larger community.

Memphis’s strengths are many. Its potential should never be underestimated. I am always amazed by the generosity of people in this city. In fact, the latest study of philanthropy found that Memphis households gave almost double the national average and 80% of their giving remained in this region.

The satisfaction of helping others is undoubtedly one of the greatest rewards in life. I hope each of you will be inspired to develop your own vision so others will be the beneficiaries of your leadership and generosity. It may take only a few hours out of your precious time, energy and expertise. There are no deadlines or time frames for your service. Make it meaningful to you. You will never know what a kind word or one smile may mean to another person’s future. As the American poet laureate Maya Angelou said in her biography: “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” The success of Memphis and America could depend on your willingness to share your passion with others.

Thank you so much and congratulations to each and every one of you!

More from Commencement

View a slideshow View a slideshow of the May 2012 Commencement
About Governor Haslam
Read Address to Graduates
View Address to Graduates
About Diane Rudner
Read Address to Graduates
View Address to Graduates
About Larry Papasan
View Address to Graduates
View the Commencement Program

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Last Updated: 4/24/12