• U.S.
  • Education

Betsy DeVos Urges Ave Maria Grads to ‘Embrace the Mess’: Read the Full Text of Education Secretary’s Commencement Speech

12 minute read

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Saturday urged Ave Maria University graduates to “embrace the mess” — a fitting message, given the controversy over her appearance at the commencement ceremony.

DeVos’ speech, which emphasized the importance of service to God, country and neighbor, came after a group of 36 Ave Maria alumni wrote a letter urging the Florida school to rescind her invitation to speak at the ceremony. In the letter, they argued that DeVos’ values are at odds with the Catholic university’s, and that her “policies are callous and unjust towards marginalized persons,” the Naples Daily News reports.

Nonetheless, the university’s president, Jim Towey, stood by the selection, and wrote in a Daily Caller op-ed that Ave Maria was “proud to welcome one of our nation’s most controversial but effective public servants.” A separate group of more than 100 alumni also wrote a letter praising the choice.

Last year, when DeVos delivered a graduation address at the University of Baltimore, multiple students turned their backs in protest.

At Ave Maria, she encouraged students to stay prepared for whatever life throws at them. “I encourage you to embrace the mess,” DeVos said. “Know that your life won’t always unfold according to plan. Anticipate being called to something different, to something unexpected. Be not afraid! Don’t avoid a change in course, an alternate path. Don’t fear the unknown; step out with faith onto those stormy waters!”

Read the full transcript of DeVos’ prepared remarks below.

Thank you, President Towey, for that kind introduction and for your leadership of this university. In your seven years as president, Ave Maria University has grown in size and stature. And it will undoubtedly continue on that trajectory with you at its helm.

Thank you for this gracious invitation to be with Ave Maria’s board members, its faculty, and, most importantly you — its proud graduates.

Some of you may not have always imagined yourselves here this day, but at least one person did. When my fellow-Michigander Tom Monaghan founded this university and planted this Catholic mustard seed, he was ridiculed and criticized – as many with vision and bold ideas often are. With each diploma conferred, the mustard seed grows. Thank you, Tom, for your faith, for your idea and for your courage.

But, graduates, Mr. Monaghan wasn’t the only one who saw this day coming. Your families, friends, colleagues all walked side-by-side with you as you pursued your education.

They supported you, coached you, tutored you… and probably spent more time in prayer for you than you’ll ever know.

Graduates, how about standing and showing some love to all those who have helped make this day possible?

As I prepared to be with you today, I reflected on my own graduation from a small Christian college in my favorite corner of the Midwest. Sitting there that day, I never imagined I’d be a commencement speaker someday and I surely did not plan to become a cabinet secretary.

But my perspective then was limited. If there’s anything I’ve learned since, it’s that our horizons should be ever-broadening. We must engage our imaginations, be open to possibilities and be prepared to respond to the unplanned opportunity.

You know your classmate, Valeria. She was born without a left arm, but you wouldn’t know it from her deft handling of a lacrosse stick. Or from her ability to capture special moments through her camera lens. Or from her representation on Student Government. Or from her service to the homeless and the elderly. “Even though I only have one arm,” Valeria said, “God has given me so many other beautiful gifts.”

She acknowledges that “life isn’t always going to be easy,” but she encourages those she serves and those who have lost their spirit not to give up. Valeria seizes any opportunity to give them “just a little boost to help them find their faith.”

It would be easy for Valeria – or for any of us — to focus on what limits us. What’s hard.

“The world promises you comfort,” Benedict the 16th said, “but you were not made for comfort.” No, he said. “You were made for greatness.”

Valeria’s story is just one of the many stories out of this class we can all emulate.

God gave each of us unique talents and we can choose what to do with them. However, we should not bury them in the ground. I urge you to go for greatness!

Ave Maria has helped each of you develop your gifts, guided by your faith. Yours is a unique institution of higher education with the highest of aims: one that pledges fidelity to Jesus Christ and His church; one inspired by the lives of Saints John Paul the Second and Teresa of Calcutta; and one dedicated to authentic character formation — young people with hands and hearts prepared to serve.

I want to focus today on a key component of life here at Ave Maria: service. You’ve learned that service isn’t just a noble concept. It isn’t just for someone else to do. Service is a demonstration of our faith.

I’m reminded of that at home, where carved above our fireplace is this verse from Joshua: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Service — to God, to country and to neighbor — is a calling, and it’s an imperative.

It’s at the core of what it means to be an American. And it should be a calling for you.

First, to God. Christians are called to live out their faith in the context of everyday life. I can think of no better example than Saint John Paul the Great.

Here was a man, who by the age of 20, had buried his mother, brother and father – he had “already lost all the people [he] loved.” Karol Wojtyła then went to study in a clandestine seminary as Nazi tanks ravaged his homeland. That experience steeled him for the long struggle with the “evil empire.” He would need it in May of 1981 when the communists tried to have him killed. “One hand pulled the trigger… another,” John Paul said, “guided the bullet.” What an expression of faith!

He was a humble man, but he knew he was called to serve a greater purpose. John Paul answered the call to serve God.

He also served his homeland. And that brings me to my second point, service to country.

Before he became the Bishop of Rome, Wojtyła was the Archbishop of Krakow, where he defended not only his fellow Poles but the dignity of every person — behind the Iron Curtain and beyond. John Paul’s courageous voice for freedom over tyranny helped reduce the Berlin Wall to rubble and freed millions in Poland and across Eastern Europe. Not many would have expected this young Pole to become the successor to Peter, but his example speaks to all of us… a life inspired by faith and obedient to service, can change the course of history.

When we reflect on his powerful example, we soon acknowledge that solutions to problems don’t come from governments – they come from individuals. They come from you. Serving one’s country ultimately means serving those closest to home.

Public service isn’t self-service. It’s about serving others. For me, it is in the moral obligation to expand educational opportunities for each and every child.

Since its founding, Ave Maria has a history of raising up educators – indeed, the single largest profession among all of its graduates! Could I ask those who are planning to teach to please stand? I want to thank you in advance for how you will serve your country and her future!

And please stay standing a moment. I want the rest of the graduates to stand as well. Look around you. You are all going to do different things in different places, but you all serve the public and in turn, serve your country.

So, thank you!

No matter your anticipated profession, each of you has the potential to make a profound difference for others. John Paul was not the only one called to greatness. We are all called every day, no matter where we are in life, no matter where we live or work. There is no ordinary task, no ordinary work. And there is no greater call than to serve others.

That brings me to my third point, and perhaps the most familiar kind of service… service to neighbor.

Your model for service — our model — is a diminutive Albanian nun we now call saint. When Ave Maria opened the country’s first museum to Teresa of Calcutta, it was an honor President Towey knew would have made her blush. But the museum serves as an inspiration to live as Mother Teresa did, humbly serving “the least of these.”

I’m inspired daily by a painting in my home. It is a poignant portrait of Mother Teresa embracing a group of children. And I think of a story I’m sure some of you have heard before.

Mother Teresa reportedly visited a bakery to ask for bread for orphans. Rather than responding to her request, the baker spat at the nun. Teresa took out a tissue, wiped her face and said: “OK. That was for me. Now, what about the children?”

That’s a question we must ask ourselves every day. We may face spitting and derision, but we should always return to the essence of the question she posed: what about the most vulnerable… the forgotten among us?

One of the many pernicious effects of the growth of government is that too many have abdicated responsibility for one another. Ever-growing government has inserted itself into relationships, making folks less connected and more insulated from the needs of others.

In the Gospel story we all know well, the disciples urged Jesus to dismiss a hungry crowd of 5,000 to go and buy food on their own. Jesus said, No, you feed them. You. Jesus didn’t instruct the disciples to lobby the Roman Empire for more food assistance. He said, you do it.

America is the most prosperous nation on the face of the earth, and it’s also the most generous. But that strong tradition isn’t just passed along from generation to generation in the blood stream. It’s taught. It’s learned. It’s shared. To keep a lamp burning, Mother Teresa believed, we have to keep putting oil in it.

Service, then, is ultimately about humbly choosing to see the face of Christ in your neighbor and recognizing and addressing their needs. That opportunity to serve often happens with the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit urging you to act.

My friend and author Clare De Graaf came up with what he termed the “10 second rule.” When you think you are prompted, take 10 seconds. Stop. Pay attention. Pray. Then “do the next thing you’re reasonably certain Jesus wants you to do.”

That means being open to possibilities that aren’t pre-planned. Up until this point, you may feel like your life has been ordered for you and you have reached this new chapter rather perfunctorily… class to class, grade to grade, graduation to graduation. But you will find in your careers, your lives, your faith journeys that nothing is as predictable as it seems.

Think of a fine-looking needlepoint tapestry. When you look at the “right side,” it is beautiful in both design and execution. But when you flip it over, it’s a mess! It’s filled with knots and stray threads. It looks chaotic. The same is true when reflecting on a life well-lived, you remember each thread, and you learned from each knot. What appears perfect in form and design to others is actually comprised of many imperfections.

So, I encourage you to embrace the mess. Know that your life won’t always unfold according to plan. Anticipate being called to something different, to something unexpected. Be not afraid! Don’t avoid a change in course, an alternate path. Don’t fear the unknown; step out with faith onto those stormy waters!

You’re blessed to live in the most successful and most free country in the history of human civilization. But there are those who are vulnerable, those who are forgotten right around us.

“Find your own Calcutta,” Mother Teresa begged us. “Find the sick, the suffering and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools.”

So, here’s a question for each and every one of you:

Where is your Calcutta?

What will you do to put your newly gained skills to work in the service of others?

Now is the time to start doing it. And what you do now is up to you. It’s not up to your parents. It’s not up to your professors. With God’s guidance, it’s up to you.

Congratulations class of 2018! Thank you for the opportunity to share in this special day with you, and I wish you all the best as you embark on the next step of your journey.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com