Chancellor George, Dean Yasbin, distinguished guests, thank you very much for inviting me to speak today. And thank you for that flattering introduction
Speaking to formations of soldiers for nearly 20 years, I have learned the importance of brevity. I also appreciate that I am not the highlight of your day –more likely, I am a roadblock on your way to a diploma, and a party.
It is a real honor to be here with you all on such an important day. Let me tell you a bit about myself, and why I’m so honored to join you.
You see, I am on a temporary assignment here in St. Louis, but I am a St. Louis boy. My family moved here when I was in the 3rd grade and I grew up out in Manchester. After High school in 1988, I left for the Army.
Now, 24 years and 14 moves later, I am home.
Contrary to what I thought when I was 18 and eager to venture out on my own, St. Louis is a great town. It is great for families, it is great for culture, it great for sports, and, as you know, it is great for education.
There is a billboard out on 170 that says “UMSL, SERIOUS EDUCATION - SERIOUS VALUE.” Having spent the past two years getting to know the many St. Louis area universities, I can tell you - that is not just a slogan.
There is no other place in St. Louis, probably in the Midwest, where you can get this level of contact with world-class professors and their research. Not to mention a network of nearly 60,000 alumni still in the area. UMSL is serious education, and it is an invaluable resource for St Louis.
You heard in my introduction that I was an undergraduate student at West Point. That’s true, but there’s an important distinction between your experience and mine.
I was trained. You have been educated.
I never had to make decisions as an undergrad. I was told when to wake up and when to go to class. I was told when to study and, when to go to sleep. I was limited in my class choices, and for that matter, my clothing choices. My life was very structured. And thanks to the American taxpayer, I never struggled with the bills.
You, on the other hand, have been educated. You have made tough choices, about what and how to study; about how to manage your limited time and about how to pay for your schooling ; maybe juggling a job and a family all in addition to your studies. You are leaving UMSL full of knowledge, but also with valuable skills that you will call upon, and build upon, for the rest of your life.
Let me start with a little history:
It was March 1783. The United States of America had liberated itself from the British and the victorious Continental Army had been disbanded. The officers of this Army, who suffered greatly to ensure our nation’s founding, had been promised a pension. But, the brand new Continental Congress had more obligations than it could bear. Our young country simply could not afford such an expense.
The military leaders were not happy, and they met in Newburgh, NY to discuss plans for a coup. General George Washington joined this gathering and was asked to speak. He obliged and stood up to address the crowd. As he did, he fumbled with his notes, realizing that his own handwriting was too difficult to read. And he said these famous words:
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my glasses, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country”
Although he continued his prepared remarks, General Washington did not have to say another word. This sentence alone reminded the military leaders that it was their service that was important, not the reward. Yes, their service had come at a cost. But their reward was much greater than a paycheck - it was a free and democratic country.
I don’t know when I first heard this story but I am certain it was early in my career, and it has stuck with me. That sentence, that idea, is such a simple yet powerful reminder that service is a reward in itself.
The demands of military service of today are very different from Washington’s time. The modern soldier, sailor, airman or marine requires a level expertise found only through hard training and years of dedication. He faces repeated deployments to dangerous and ill-defined battlefields and he runs the risk of injury both physical and mental. What has not changed since the revolution are the rewards of service. Which is why thousands of young Americans continue to answer the call.
In your ranks today are 46 military veterans who have already served. There is also a newly commissioned Army officer who is just beginning his service. To you men and women, I humbly say thank you, and good luck
This school - the faculty, administration and students, have done much to embrace our military veterans. I’d like to recognize and thank your dean, Ron Yasbin, in particular for helping guide your campus efforts to understand the challenges our veterans face as they navigate yet another strange and foreign world – college.
Obviously I have an affinity for military service. But that is not the only way.
You see, there is nothing quite as rewarding, as developmental, or as honorable as service. Be it national service like the military and government, or professional service like doctors and teachers, or community service, like organizing or volunteering. There is nothing more vital in our country today.
I know many of you are feeling that strong pull to enter the workforce, make money, pay off debts, and build a life. I cannot and will not argue against that pull. It’s a powerful one.
The pull to service may not be quite as compelling.
Service demands time, but doesn’t reward you with a lot of money. The job requirements are less clear; the emotional investment is higher. The opportunities are not always obvious – you need to seek them out.
Despite that, I urge you to make a deliberate choice, and expend the effort to make service a part of your life now. If you don’t, you will soon be consumed with the working world, your inbox, and your day-to-day to-do list. It will become too easy to say you don’t have time for service.
But you need to make time. And here’s why.
Service is not a choice between making money, OR helping others.
It is not a choice between yourself OR your community.
Service is not a choice between being selfish OR self-less.
As Madeleine Albright once said, service is a means to self-fulfillment, not self-denial.
You can have it both ways. In fact, I would argue that serving others is actually a little selfish, because the benefits you personally gain from service are likely to outlast and outweigh the good you do for others.
We are as David Brooks calls us, Social Animals.
We are who we are based on the connections, networks, and relationships we build. And what is service but fostering, and enriching, human connections?
Think of all the people you meet, and bonds you make, in the service of others. As a police officer, a nurse, a political activist, a teacher, or a church volunteer. Connections based on shared values, shared goals.
I can personally attest to the bonds I have made with my fellow soldiers. They are life-long, and life-altering relationships. Such connections enrich our lives and bring happiness.
Research shows that money is not a very good predictor of happiness. The best predictor (of happiness) is your network of good relationships. Which is why I believe service is as much about you as it is about those you serve.
Choosing a path of service will make you a more self-aware, community-minded, empathetic, and happier person.
Your life will be more fulfilling, and more interesting. You will have contributed to something larger and more enduring than yourself.
A month after that fateful meeting in New York, General George Washington resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, under the assumption that his service was complete.
During that trip home, he wrote a letter to his dear friend the Marquis d’Lafayette.
“I have not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself . . . Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this, my dear friend, being the order for my march, I will move gently down the stream of life…”
As we all know Washington would be called again to serve – this time, as our nation’s first president.
While he may have been wrong about his retirement, the contented nature of his letter is clear. General Washington had devoted his life to the service of his country and his countrymen. And, he was happy.
You and I are unlikely to make the kind of impact that George Washington did as we strive to serve others. But, we CAN achieve the same level of self-fulfillment, through service to others.
In contributing our time and talents; in applying our scholarship and expertise we can not only make a positive impact on communities worldwide, we can make ourselves better, and happier.
So I urge you new graduates, answer the call. Find a way to serve your country, your community, your fellow man.
But don’t just do it for them…. Do it for yourself!
Thank you, and congratulations.