Be Non-Traditional: A Final Lesson and Your Next Assignment

2013 CTU Commencement Speech by Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings

CTU Commencement Speaker, Margaret SpellingsOn Saturday, former U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, addressed Colorado Technical University (CTU) graduates in Denver, Colo., offering her answer to the question on the minds of many recent college graduates: Now what? Following is her full commencement speech.

Good morning. Thank you, President Koehn, for the gracious introduction.

To the CTU faculty and staff, to the parents and families, friends and loved ones, distinguished guests and—most especially—to the graduates: Thank you for the chance to share in your celebration.

And, above all, congratulations! Congratulations to the CTU class of 2013! Congratulations on your achievements! This is YOUR big day. I hope you savor it and soak it in.

No matter how you celebrate your accomplishments—and you should celebrate! I hope you will look around and remember how you got here—or should I say, who got you here.

Let's give credit where credit is due. To the faculty and staff who guided you…

To the parents, loved ones, family, spouses and employers who supported you….

And to the personal grit and determination that sustained you.

If you can go through life with those three things—the guidance of mentors, the support of family, and the sustenance of self-will—you will go far.

***

Now, I know, amid the celebration, there’s always a little bit of anxiety. Some of you are about to start your new career. Others of you are looking to head in a new direction. You’re wondering what’s next. What now?

And that’s the job of the commencement speaker: Attempting to answer that question—and offer a little advice.

But it’s a difficult task being a commencement speaker these days. Because there’s not much advice I can give you that you can’t get on your iPhone. What do you possibly need to know that you can’t find on Wikipedia, WebMD or BuzzFeed?

Why ask me when you can ask Siri?

So, I thought I could share some words from the speaker at my graduation—all those years ago at the University of Houston. Some inter-generational advice. But there’s a little problem: I didn’t go to my commencement ceremony. And given that it was 1979, it’s certainly not on YouTube.

So there you have it: you already have a better track record than a former U.S. Cabinet Secretary.

***

To this day, I’m still sad I missed out. Because commencement is a great tradition. It’s also a strange one. Most days, if I’m still wearing a robe in the afternoon, something just isn’t right.

And a word or warning: outside this ceremony, you will never again be able to put a mortarboard on your head and make people think you’re smarter than they are. I think they make graduates wear these caps just to prove to you that, even though you’re officially educated, you can still be tricked into looking a little silly.

Now, in the last few years, I’ve been to a number of commencements. But I can sense that at CTU, graduation is especially significant. Many of you are coming from different time zones and different coasts and meeting professors and colleagues in person for the first time, after knowing them for months only in the virtual classroom. What an amazing experience that must be!

But beyond that, commencement offers a chance for you to self-examine and to celebrate. To look forward as well as inward.

And I hope that today is not the only time you set aside for doing such things. Reflection is important. It should be taken in small doses—but regular doses.

Especially in the modern age. We’re always connected, always, always distracted. As the CEO of Twitter said at a recent commencement, when my generation was starting out, “we didn’t have the Internet in our pants…. We didn’t have the Internet not in our pants.”

So take moments, like today, to pause—to silence your phones as well as yourselves. It will help you appreciate what you've done—and help you achieve what you're doing.

***

So it’s great that CTU is upholding the commencement tradition. But I’ll tell why I really like this school, why I was excited to come here today, and why I’m proud of you.

Because CTU isn’t all about tradition. Since its founding, you’ve been doing things differently and you’ve been blazing a trail. You were “country when country wasn’t cool.”

P.S. If you don’t understand that, Google Barbara Mandrell after the ceremony.

You see, while some schools prefer to do things the way they’ve always been done, CTU took a smarter approach. You wanted to provide an education that came with real skills for the real economy. You harnessed technology to break down walls—and made education more widely available.

You strive to treat students like the customers they are, helping them tailor their education to their lives. You’ve adapted, innovated, and met a critical need in America today.

As Secretary of Education, I tried to coax more colleges to do what CTU is doing. And all I got was blank stares. It was like I’d ask a Kardashian to get a real job.

But your programs aren’t just mold-breaking. They’re award-winning. Your business program: top ranked. And your support for our veterans has won accolades. CTU, you are serving those who have served us. And to the men and women of the armed forces getting a diploma today—and to all who serve and have served, thank you. Thank you. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.

[ APPLAUSE ]

***

And to all the students, let me say, because you are here, you are trailblazers. You’re showing your fellow citizens the new and exciting possibilities available in higher education through distance learning and online coursework.

Many of you had to juggle life and work and family and school. A few of you had a textbook on one knee—and a baby on the other. You did it because you knew the value of a quality education. You did it because you knew that the degree you’re receiving has the power to change the very trajectory of your family’s life. And I applaud you for that.

Lifelong learning is essential. They say the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. I want to add a third: I can guarantee that innovation will revolutionize the job market multiple times in your careers.

You must keep your skills well-honed. Today’s jobs include things we never heard of 10 years ago. Social Media Director. Sustainability Manager. App Designer.

If you’d told me a decade ago you wanted to be an “app designer,” I would’ve thought you wanted to decorate the appetizers at TGI Friday’s.

***

So CTU has been about seeing the world differently—and meeting the educational needs of today. And as students, you are to be commended for thinking strategically, and selecting CTU as your college. You’re not only giving yourselves a competitive edge; you’re helping your country respond to the demands of a global economy.

And I’m here today to encourage you to keep thinking that way. Challenge conventional wisdom. Challenge tradition.

Because sometimes it’s best to break with tradition. In fact, it’s when people challenge tradition that humankind sees some of the greatest breakthroughs in history…the heliocentric model of the solar system…universal women’s suffrage…ranch dressing as a dipping sauce.

Now I’m not saying you have to be the next Copernicus or Elizabeth Cady Stanton or CEO of Hidden Valley. But I am saying, don’t put limits on yourself. Don’t get stuck thinking traditionally.

So, for a crowd that’s not afraid to break from tradition, let me give you some non-traditional advice:  Don’t get stuck following your dreams.

Yes, you heard me right. And let me explain.

By now, you’ve probably received a number of cards and notes and well-wishes. They’re filled with inspirational quotes and Hallmark-quality thoughts. They’re all about dreaming big, finding your passion. And they assure you, that’s the key to success.

And many successful people have gotten up and given commencement speeches this season. I’ve heard a number of them. And they’ll talk about following your dream. But then, they’ll do a curious thing. They’ll say that their greatest achievement—being a movie star, being a pioneer, being a governor, being Oprah…they’ll all say that those achievements were something they never dreamed.

So, do you see my point? They didn’t take their own advice. And it’s a good thing. Because even dreams can be limiting.

I’ll give you an example. Being Secretary of Education was the honor and privilege of my lifetime…so far. I still marvel at the fact that I got to wake up in the morning and fight, in the halls of our nation’s capital, on behalf of the nation’s poor, disadvantaged and overlooked kids. There were hard days and long nights. And there were all sorts of frustrations, or as we call them in D.C.,…Senators.

But it was all worth it. It wasn’t because of the nameplate or executive bathroom or the size of the budget I managed—though I assure you all of those things were quite large.

It was fulfilling because I was making a tangible difference.

But if you think I dreamed of being Secretary of Education when I was in college, you’d be wrong. In fact, it would’ve been impossible. When I graduated, there was no Department of Education. President Carter hadn’t created it yet.

So, yes, even dreams can be limiting. So, too, can life plans. How many times have you been asked, “Where do you see yourself in 20 years?” For some of you, chances are, that’s your parents asking, and they just want to be sure the answer isn’t, “Living with you.”

Nevertheless, I hope you’ll beware of master plans. Hearing some of your life stories, I think you already know this, but I want to reinforce it. Be open to unexpected opportunities.

Twenty years ago, I didn’t see myself working for a president. I just saw myself as a gal helping this guy named George get elected governor of my home state. I was just working hard. And doing something I happened to like. And look what happened—completely unplanned and undreamed. My passion found me.

Here’s my point: there’s nothing wrong with dreaming or planning. They have their role, but they should never get in the way of living.

Because that’s where the fun happens. The exciting things happen in the present.

So, as you contemplate where to go from here, and what to do from here, don’t worry about finding yourself. Find a job. Don’t worry too much about what direction you’re headed. Just make sure you’re headed forward and get started.

Whether you’re starting out for the first time—or beginning a new career altogether—if you work hard, you’ll find what you’re good at. Then you’ll find what you love. And along the way, without realizing it, you’ll find fulfillment. Because fulfillment is something you only discover when you’re not looking for it.

That’s my lesson for you today. Something a little non-traditional for a non-traditional group.

***

There are other things you should know, of course. Like: don’t wear earbuds in the office. Because your boss can still hear more than you think, and she may not like Rihanna.

Also, one thing you should always do: remember people’s names. That’s one thing you’ll never be able to Google. And when you can’t get the copier to work, Mike in the next office will be much happier to help you if you don’t call him Sam.

It’s something I learned from President Bush. He could remember anyone’s name. And, as you may know, he also gave them nicknames. Karl Rove was Turd Blossom. Congressman George Miller was Big George. And I was Margarita…the salty kind.

Anyway, those are small things. I’ve got plenty more, but now I need to give you your assignment.

Yes, this speech comes with an assignment.

Today you’ve earned your degree, and your degree will help you contribute to your families, your communities and your country in new and exciting ways.
But there are some people out there who don’t have the ability to get the education that you’ve earned. I said earlier, you’re here because of mentors and loved ones and motivation. Not everyone is so blessed.

So, my charge to you is to help others get an education. Be a mentor, be a friend, be a good parent. Help others discover their own inner strength.

Help others feel that fire in the belly to learn something new, to acquire new skills.

Pass on the perseverance you have shown. Let others appreciate education the way you have

There are a million reasons in this world for people to feel hopeless. Give them a reason to feel hopeful. Help give them an education. If Rihanna “found love in a hopeless place,” people can find an education there too.

See, I told you your boss is listening.

I’m passionate about education because I’ve seen the limitless good that it can do. The investment that you have made at CTU will pay dividends for the rest of your life, and I don’t just mean dividends in your 401(k).

And the only thing more rewarding than receiving an education is helping someone else receive one too. Because in doing that you will learn more about yourself and more about human nature and more about the world than you will from a book or in a classroom.

And, let me point out, you will be doing a service to your nation. In this competitive world the United States cannot stay ahead, our communities cannot grow, if we are not a more educated people. The world is changing, and we have to change with it.

It is our duty to help those who haven’t attained an education to get one.

So that's your last assignment. There is no deadline. It expires when you do.

***

With that, I want to say congratulations again to you all. Congratulations on your accomplishments. Wherever you go from here, remember: challenge tradition, don’t limit yourself, and help someone else along the way.

Thank you for opportunity to be with you. God bless you and good luck!


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Image credit: Former U.S. Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings moments before she addressed graduates at Colorado Technical University's Commencement Ceremony in Denver.


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