The following is a portion of Condoleezza Rice’s commencement speech at High Point University on May 7, 2016.
Education is transformative. It literally changes lives. That is why people for centuries have worked so hard to become educated. Education, more than any other force, can help to erase arbitrary divisions of race and class, arbitrary divisions of culture, and to unlock every person’s God-given potential.
Your passion may be hard to spot. So keep an open mind and keep searching. And when you find your passion, it’s yours. Not what someone else thinks it should be. There’s no earthly reason that a black girl from Birmingham, Alabama, should be a Soviet specialist. But that’s what I wanted to be. Don’t let anyone else define your passion for you because of your gender or the color of your skin.
Too often cynicism can be the fellow traveler of learning. And I know why. History is full of much cruelty and suffering and darkness. And it can be hard sometimes to believe that there’s a brighter future. But for all of our failings as human beings, for all of our current problems, more people today enjoy lives of opportunity than in all of human history. This progress has been the concerted effort not of cynics but of visionaries and optimists and idealists who deal with the world as it is but who never stop working for the world as it should be. Here in America, our own ideals of freedom and equality have been borne through generations by optimists. There was a day in my own lifetime when the hope of liberty and justice for all seemed impossible. But because individuals kept faith with the ideal of equality, we see a different America today where “we the people” is more inclusive.
It is your responsibility as educated people to help close the gaps of justice and opportunity—and yes, the gaps of freedom that still exist beyond our shores as well as within them.
At High Point, I know the mission of service is very close to the heart of this university, a recognized model for service learning. The ideal of service to others has inspired this class as well as others to devote thousands of hours of your own time to help those in need. And yes, your service will help them. But take it from me, it will help you more.
When you encounter those who are less fortunate, you cannot possibly give way to grievance. “Why do I not have?” Or its twin brother, entitlement. “Why don’t they give me?” Instead, you will ask, “Why have I been given so much?” And from that spirit, you will join the legions of optimists who are working toward a better human future.
Be passionate about what you choose to do in life. Use your powers of reason. Cultivate humility. Remain optimistic and always try to serve others as well as the goals of freedom and peace and justice.
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