About the National Archives

American University Commencement Address

President Burwell

Trustees and Other Distinguished Guests

Faculty and Staff

Parents and Families

And, Most Importantly,

The Class of 2017


Being asked to deliver a Commencement Address, as humbling as that is, it is at the same time, a terrifying assignment.  I need to share something memorable that you will reflect upon years from now as you are facing a critical career crossroads or other important life choice.

I need to inspire, to enlighten, and to entertain.  And I need to do it all in 10 minutes!

So…I will follow the advice of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  I will be sincere, be brief, and be seated.
I have three short, easy to remember, interrelated messages for you this morning.


Do Good

Give Back

Say Thanks


Your education here at American has equipped you with the tools and sharpened your intellect to make this a better world.  Your experiential education has prepared you for the challenges of a diverse world—diverse politically, racially, socially, religiously, and ethnically.  Your job, as was my job when I was in your shoes, is to build on what you have internalized here, to make this a better world.  No matter the focus of your studies to date you each have an opportunity to apply your education to doing good.  The economy, the environment, government, energy, literacy, diplomacy, biotechnology, information technology—each discipline, each corner of our society needs the application of your skills in improving the human condition.  So do some good.

And while you are doing some good, start giving back.  I’m sure that the American Alumni Association already has you in its sights and supporting your alma mater is certainly an example of giving back.  But I’m suggesting your commit to a life of public service—the hallmark of an American University education—whether it is volunteer work in your community or working for a national cause or running for public office or any of a million different ways of improving the lives of others and making the world a better place.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt toured several Southern states, including a stop in Durham, North Carolina where he delivered an important speech to students on the edge of the Trinity College (now Duke University) campus.

He said:”Each of you, if his is worth his salt, wishes when he graduates to pay some portion of his debt to his alma mater.  You have received from her during your years of attendance in her halls certain privileges in the way of scholarship, certain privileges in the way of companionship, which make it incumbent upon you to repay what you have been given.”

“Now you can’t repay that to the college itself, save in one way, by the quality of your citizenship, as displayed in the actual affairs of life.  You can make it an honor to the college to send you forth into the great world.  That is the only way in which you can repay to the college what the college has done for you, and I most earnestly hope and believe that you, and those like you in the colleges of this land, will make it evident to the generation that is rising that you are fit for leadership, that the training has not been wasted, that you are ready to render to the state the kind of service which is invaluable, because it cannot be bought, because there is no price which can be put upon it.”

Here at American you have had opportunities to learn and practice the principles of leadership, ethics, and commitment to social justice and civic responsibility.  Through your Center for Community Engagement and Service you have worked to improve literacy rates among DC public school students.  You have had opportunities to work in the DC Metropolitan Area on criminal justice reform, environmental matters, community development, housing and homelessness, LGBT rights, to name just a few of your service learning activities.

This sense of responsibility that you developed in these activities does not end this afternoon when you receive your diploma.  Look for ways to build on these experiences and carry this commitment to service as one your life goals.

You know, our Founding Fathers had a vision for this country which continues to be a work in progress some 240 years later.  In a wonderful letter written to George Washington in March of 1872, Alexander Hamilton of Broadway fame sets it forth:  “Your Excellency will, I am persuaded, readily admit the force of this sentiment…it is the duty of a good citizen to devote his services to the public…”

What can you do to help create a more perfect union?  What better way to give back?

And along the way, learn to say thanks.  Your life experience has and will be shaped by hundreds or thousands of individuals who impart wisdom, advice, knowledge, information, guidance, and love.  Take the time, on a regular basis, to stop and reflect upon who you are and how you got to be who you are and identify those who have shaped that experience—and thank them.  And you get to follow that advice this afternoon because you are sitting in a space surrounded by parents and grandparents and spouses and children and life partners and friends and faculty and administrators and even a librarian or archivist who have gotten you to this point in your life.  So, stand up, and thank them!

I am sure that most of you think you have lots of time to get serious about my challenge of doing good, giving back, and saying thanks.  Forty six years ago I was sitting out there thinking the same thing.  But let me tell you, our time here is short, our paths unpredictable, and each passing day delays your opportunity of making the world a better place.  Steve Jobs, in a wonderful commencement address at Stanford in 1995 was prescient when he said:

“Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.  Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice.  And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  They somehow already know what you truly want to become.  Everything else is secondary.”

My own sense of urgency increases exponentially every day and I am guided by a quotation which sits on my desk on Pennsylvania Avenue.  As a literature major, I have long been moved by the words of a shepherd named David and I start each day with these seven lines from Psalm 90:

Teach us to comprehend the shortness of our days,

So that our hearts prove wise;

To use each day and every moment,

So that all of them count for something valuable in Your sight;

To wring the highest possible good from each day,

To spend well the little, precious time

You have allotted to each of us.

So, American University Class of 2017, go forth and use each and every moment to wring the highest possible good from each day.