Commencement Address by Second Lady Jill Biden at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island

May 15, 2011

[As Prepared for Delivery]

Thank you Nuala, and thank you Sister Gerety. It is such an honor and a thrill to be with you this morning.

My husband Joe and I had the privilege of knowing Nuala and Claiborne quite well, as the two men served in the Senate together for over 25 years.

One of my fondest memories of Senator Pell comes from the times we traveled together with members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Many of you wouldn't know this, but I'm an avid runner, so I always bring my running gear with me wherever I go. Senator Pell once saw me dressed for a run and asked if he could join me. I said, of course he could. But I was quite surprised when … he showed up in an oxford button-down shirt, Bermuda shorts, black socks, and black leather shoes. I said, "Claiborne—I thought we were going jogging?" And he looked at me, and said, "Why yes—we are."

So I'll never forget jogging around Rome with a tall, lean man in leather shoes. And I bet some of you here remember seeing Claiborne jogging through his beloved Newport in similar attire. He was such an endearing man, wasn't he Nuala?

On a more serious note, Senator Pell was one of the most distinguished senators in our nation's history, leaving an incredible legacy in international relations and -- in an area close to my heart - higher education. It's for this legacy that we are all indebted to him today.

This year, as has been true for many years now, all across this nation, in cities and towns thousands of miles away from here, families are saying a word of thanks to a Senator they never knew or met because a Pell Grant helped open the door to college.

Claiborne Pell believed in the transformative power of education.

You might not realize it now, but you've all been transformed by education.

Your best professors have inspired you. Your peers have motivated you to be better than you ever imagined. And your favorite courses have literally altered the path you will take in life. As a lifelong student myself and now as a community college professor, I know this from my own experience.

Some of you are familiar with my story. I've been a teacher for 30 years, and I continue to teach full-time at a community college in Northern Virginia, not too far from the White House.

People often ask me why I teach, and my answer to this is simple: it's you. It's the students. Tales are often told of teachers inspiring students, but I find it is more often the other way around: my students have inspired me, each and every day. And I bet your professors here would say the same thing about you.

Though my students may differ in age and background from many of you, their stories, their dreams, are ultimately the same as yours.

They are the stories of education changing lives, building confidence, and opening doors. They are stories of young men and women who embody your school's mission statement: "working for a world that is harmonious, just and merciful."

You are living up to that motto. And in doing so you are inspiring us all. By changing your own life through your education, you are readying yourself to change the world for others.

You are Courtney Richards, Cadet Company Commander, one of the three ROTC graduates with us here today. Even though you transferred to Salve Regina just two years ago, you've quickly become one of the most respected and beloved students by your peers, by faculty, and by ROTC personnel. It's because, on a daily basis, you show us what words like "service," "strength," and "sacrifice" really mean.

You and your fellow cadets across the country inspire all of us – including me and First Lady Michelle Obama. We are working hard to make sure the rest of the country understands how important your leadership is to the future of our nation. And we will stand by your families – and all our military families – no matter where your future missions take you. As an Army mom myself, I want to say to you and your family, Courtney: Thank you for your service.

You are Kelsey Fitzgibbons, Evan Gallo, and Megan Welsh, who, after hearing and seeing the devastation in Haiti, decided to do something to help and used their creativity to bring the campus community together for a common cause. They started Salve Hearts for Haiti, which raised more than $21,000 to rebuild a primary school in Haiti, rebuilding that nation starting with the gift of education. I visited Haiti shortly after the earthquake and saw the destruction first hand, and I know how important it is to rebuild that country's education system.

And you are Dan Royce, a basketball player here who worked multiple jobs to pay for your education and still found time here and there to volunteer with the Special Olympics. And I am proud to say that Dan is a future teacher.

Service member. Activist. Teacher. Not to mention the doctors, the scientists, the writers, the public servants, the businessmen and -women you are all about to become – and all because of this magnificent institution and the people that have inspired you here.

As the poet William Butler Yeats said, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." And I ask you today to keep that fire burning brightly as you leave the steps of McKillop Library.

I urge you to embrace that fire and do what you love, and just as important, inspire others to love that something else, too.

While the vast majority of you are not going to be teachers in a classroom next year—I believe that you can teach or mentor or inspire someone in your lives. In fact, I hope you do.

I have no doubt each one of you has the power to inspire a future generation of business leaders, artists, statesmen, and scientists, to pass on this gift of education to others, to light that fire anew, for so many more.

I recently received a letter from a former student of mine who said that her time in my classroom inspired her to become a teacher at a community college in North Carolina. She wrote in her letter: "More than ever, I feel like I am changing lives."

The truth is, you don't have to be a teacher to feel that way. You can change lives doing many things. You have that potential, each and every one of you, doing whatever it is you do best.

It was the founder of this beautiful state, Roger Williams, who once said: "The greatest crime in the world is not developing your potential. When you do what you do best, you are helping not only yourself, but the world."

You owe it to your professors, to your school. You owe it to the families who are just dying to hug you right now, and to the friends all around you, itching to celebrate with you. But most importantly, you owe it to yourself. Keep the fire lit—and lit brightly-so others can follow the trails you blaze.

Congratulations, graduates, and good luck in all that you do!

Thank you all so much.

Jill Biden, Commencement Address by Second Lady Jill Biden at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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