May 11, 2007
Dr. Steger, honored families, friends, classmates and colleagues of those who so tragically lost their lives here a few short weeks ago, distinguished guests, graduates, faculty, and friends of this fine University. I am deeply honored to have been asked to address the members of the class of 2007 as you move forward with great promise to help build a brighter future. Let me begin by adding my own deep condolences for Virginia Tech’s loss to all of those already expressed by countless others from around the world.
Back in January this year I received a warm letter of invitation from Dr. Steger to be Virginia Tech’s commencement speaker. I was delighted to accept. I knew the beauty of Virginia Tech from coming to see my daughter play soccer here. I knew of the very high caliber of its faculty. I understood the quality of Virginia Tech’s students both from my son’s many friends here and from the high standard of the cadet corps I saw first-hand when I served as West Point’s commandant. I have served around the world with fine soldiers from Virginia Tech, men and women who serve the nation with great pride and ability. One of my closest friends, General Lance Smith, a graduate of Virginia Tech, combat pilot, former Deputy Commander at the Central Command and now the Commander of our Joint Forces Command, showed me by his personal example just how excellent your graduates can be. I might add, however, that he forced me to watch every televised VT football game with him wherever in the world we were. From him and from his wife Linda, a graduate of Radford College, I came to understand how important the Hokie spirit is to all of you. So back in January I already knew that Virginia Tech was a great university. After the terrible events of April, I now know that Virginia Tech is an even greater place than most imagined. Calm, steady leadership, compassion and teamwork in times of crisis and in the aftermath of crisis have a way of showing the character of a place and this place has great character.
Adversity has a way of challenging all of us sooner or later. How we bear Adversity’s seemingly insurmountable challenges marks how others will judge us; indeed it marks how we will judge ourselves. How we collectively bear up to the pressures of unexpected tragedy, how we care for and honor those who suffer loss, how we hold on to our values despite the seductive lure of simple, quick and easy solutions to the complex problems we face: how we deal with such things defines us. I remember watching New Yorkers dealing with the horrors of 9-11 with tenacity and courage. I remember seeing Londoners reject the idea that terrorists would change their cherished way of life. Confidence and calmness under intense pressure somehow seemed to define the collective spirit of that city. And, in that same spirit, I remember a faculty member from Virginia Tech telling a reporter following the tragedy how important it was to honor those who lost their lives and care for their friends and families. In the same interview she said that she was ready for classes to begin again, that she trusted the leadership of the University, that she trusted her students, and that she knew it was better to move forward than to be paralyzed by the past.
Such dignity, quiet courage, respect and poise in times of adversity are lessons you have taught us all. In today’s connected world adversity brings with it a harsh spotlight, and our lesson here must be that at such difficult moments, leaders must lead, communities must band together and problems must be solved. Whatever challenges life may bring our way, most of us understand instinctively that collective strength and positive teamwork lead to practical solutions. It is clear that this University is a place of teamwork and that this community is a place of focused commitment.
As your class moves forward into this complicated 21st century of ours you have been burdened by an inexplicable act of cruel violence. If this were a single, isolated incident, perhaps we all could move on essentially unchanged. But because you have experienced this burden you know that character in crisis matters, that honoring those lost and caring for those most affected are duties all of us share. This 21st Century of ours will challenge us in many unexpected ways, yet for all of the complications and difficulties it will bring, you will have the ability to make a difference, to show strength of character, and to lead with the firm knowledge that you have been given the tools to shape a better world. From having watched many of your peers, young Americans on the field of battle in far away places, first assignment State Department officers in isolated and dangerous stations, new professionals in the intelligence services working to keep us safe and countless selfless young volunteers trying to make the world better and safer in places ranging from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East to Central Asia, I am struck by your generation’s innate sense of service and confidence. I am grateful to know that we who have yet to fix the problems of the world are handing the reigns to those of you who might just be able to do so.
No doubt you take great memories of Virginia Tech with you: good friends, good times, good classes, good seasons, good professors. Such memories stay with you forever, and it is the great good that Virginia Tech has helped impart to you that will do much to shape your life and lives of those you touch. But you will also take with you the collective responsibility of realizing the dreams and aspirations of those who cannot be here. Most of you have probably learned already that, while personal accomplishment matters, collective pride, achievement and reliance give us unequaled strength to both achieve our dreams and deal with our hardships. While we Americans take well deserved pride in our individual accomplishments, no nation becomes great without the shared accomplishments and sacrifices of its countrymen. I believe that this graduating class will share special bonds forged in adversity and shaped with pride.
As challenging as it may be, the 21st Century will also be about hope and purpose. It is about a time when people of good character such as yourselves will find time to serve your families, your communities, your nation, and your faith. You will have time to make a difference in a world that needs people like you to make that difference. You will have time to demonstrate that you can be both compassionate and courageous. You will have the opportunity to participate in making this century one of achievement and success. You can make life a spectator sport or you can play on the field. Virginia Tech has prepared you well to play on the field of life, and it has asked you to invent the future. As you invent that future, you will also have ample opportunity to show your remarkable Hokie spirit, and to proudly tell people that you are a graduate of Virginia Tech.
It is our sacred duty to mourn those who lost their lives so suddenly and tragically and to help their friends and their families through these most difficult of times. It is also our duty to recognize this commencement and to congratulate these families and these graduates for work accomplished and work yet to be accomplished. It goes without saying that when tragedy strikes we seek comfort from those we love, yet it is also true that when we achieve a new threshold in our lives, we also seek joy from those we love. While we are saddened by the loss of those who cannot be here today, I believe that they would want this ceremony to commemorate both the tragedy of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow. I believe that they look down upon this gathering with dignified pride.
As I look out into this crowd of new graduates knowing full well what happened here a few short weeks ago, I am also filled with pride, optimism and the firm belief that you will make our country both wiser and better. Your compassion, your steadfastness under pressure, your tremendous support of one another make you a special group and you make me know our nation is in good hands.
In closing let us again offer our condolences to the friends and families of those so abruptly taken from this great community. Let us also give our most heartfelt best wishes to Virginia Tech’s newest graduates. Let us wish for them both a time of contemplation and a time of celebration. May God Bless and protect all of you as you lead our nation and the world into this challenging and exciting century.