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Remarks by Ambassador Ron Kirk At UTA Commencement

May 15, 2009
University of Texas Arlington Commencement
Arlington, Texas


President Spaniolo, honored graduates, proud parents, friends and fellow Maverick Alumni ...

It is a privilege and an honor for me to join you for today's commencement ceremony to honor the 2009 graduating class of the University of Texas at Arlington.

I want to start by extending my best wishes to all of the parents here today. And I specifically want to encourage you graduates to express your love and affection to your parents many times today - and not just to them, but also to your parents but to your grandparents and all family members who have loved you, financially supported you, provided you home-cooked meals and sacrificed all that they could so you could enjoy your days here at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Also before I go any further, let me offer some words of comfort. Having been privileged to participate in a number of graduation ceremonies over the years, I have learned that there is one fundamental truth as it relates to these celebrations. That is that each of you came here to celebrate the awarding of a diploma to a wonderful group of young men and women with whom you have a very special relationship, and the only thing standing in the way of that celebration is my commencement address. Thus, you may take some comfort in the words of Henry VIII to one of his last wives, "Don't worry, I won't keep you long."

Many of you sitting here know exactly how you will use your degree. Some of you will take your degree and pursue a career in engineering. Others will go on to become caring and compassionate nurses. And a number of you may be headed off to law school - hopefully because you want to make a difference in the lives of others.

I can honestly say that I never thought when graduated from Austin College and decided to go to law school that I would one day end up becoming mayor of Dallas, running for the United States Senate here in Texas, and ultimately being appointed United States Trade Representative by President Barack Obama. But I do know that there are a few lessons that I have tried to live by since my graduation day - long, long ago - that have served me well. Some of them, in fact, even prepared me for the work I'm doing today.

President Obama has asked me, as the nation's top trade negotiator, to engage the world on behalf of the United States. It's my job to go out to America's trading partners and convince them to open their markets to U.S. goods and services so that we can have better-paying jobs here at home, and a trade policy that makes sense to American families. I have to do a lot of talking to those American families here at home, too, to convince them that we can make trade work for them.

Your first job out of college may not be to negotiate multilateral trade deals. But you should leave this place with a firm intention to engage the world yourself. Engage intellectually, engage culturally, engage morally, and engage spiritually. I want to talk to you today about some ways you can do that.


I am sure most of you are tired of books and papers right now, and I understand if you want to take a few weeks off from reading anything more complicated than the back of your cereal box. But for the rest of your life, you need to read - for education, for inspiration, for stimulation, or relaxation. And in today's world, you need to be more proactive, more deliberate about your reading than ever.

Through the miracles of technology, there's more reading material and information available to you than to any generation before. The challenge now is to make sure that reading expands your world - instead of just reinforcing what you already believe.

I now work in Washington, for instance, where you can tell people's politics by the papers they read and by the news channels they watch. But it shouldn't be so. Our political discourse would be far richer if people took five minutes to read - really acknowledge - what the other guys are saying, where they're coming from, and why.

Your life will be richer for the same exercise. Limiting your reading material and your news to only that which immediately interests you, or that supports what you believe, is a dangerous and diminishing practice. So accept the challenge of reading and exposing yourself to all kinds of information. Read voraciously. Read for life. Read outside the lines.


It's ancient wisdom, but still just as sage ... "one seeing is worth a thousand hearings." It will be absolutely essential to your success in life that you have an understanding of just how wonderfully complex our world is - and just how similar all of our hopes, dreams and desires are - no matter where we live, what color our complexion or what language we speak.

In the last week, I've been from the inauguration of Jacob Zuma in Johannesburg, South Africa to meetings at the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, and back to Washington, DC. Every time I go on a trip, I bring back new insight that informs U.S. policy. And if you put a backpack on your back, and strike out to see the world, you'll bring back insights that will inform your world view - make you a better, more thoughtful citizen of this country and of the planet. I don't want your parents to come after me when this speech is over, but I'll tell you that straight out of school is often the best time to take some time, and travel.

And let me tell you, graduates - to engage the world effectively, you must also be multilingual. You know this is true even if you don't leave home - right here in our Texas communities, it pays to speak more than one language. So if you didn't get your language learning as part of this degree, you'd better sign up for summer school. If you speak several languages you are considered to be multilingual ... if you speak two languages you are considered bi-lingual ... if you only speak one language you are presumed to be an American.

LESSON 3: Discover the joys of personal philanthropy

Not all of us can drop everything and hop a steamship to India right now. Most of you are going to go straight to work. But you can still engage your world in wonderful ways by reaching out right here at home.

Everyone starts out wanting to do well by themselves and eventually make the world a better place. It is tempting to think of your career first and think about giving back second. I am here to tell you, that you should not wait to put others first. Don't wait until you've created enough wealth to write a check. Learn the fulfillment of giving of yourself. My mother always says to me, "If you have anything at all, you have something to share."

There are so many ways to give of yourself. You can mentor a young person by participating in the Boys and Girls Clubs or Big Brothers and Big Sisters.

You can feed the hungry through your local food pantry or food bank. Or you can volunteer at a homeless shelter and learn the power of the theology of the hammer via Habitat for Humanity. At a minimum you will be humbled with the knowledge of how incredibly blessed you are, and that it is impossible to help someone else without getting back so much more in return. This is a way of living that offers another lesson: choosing action over words.


Most of you have spent the better part of the past few years learning how to use words to make your case or maybe even convince a professor why you deserve a better grade. Speaking well and writing well are important skills. But acting in the pursuit of positive change is what will make your engagement count.

You should hear a story about St. Francis of Assisi.

One day Saint Francis called his followers together and told them: "We're going to go preach in the city today." They followed him through the city. There wasn't a street they didn't walk. They paused periodically to help the sick, or give some food to the hungry, but they never uttered a word. After they had walked down every street, St. Francis led them home.

When they arrived, the younger brothers said: "Father Francis, we walked every street, we helped the poor, and we fed the hungry, but we never once stopped to preach. Wasn't that our goal?" St. Francis told them: "Always preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words." Your actions will say more about your character than anything else. Your actions, not your words, will determine whether you leave a mark, on this world.


Just in case you think that you're not meant to make a mark - that that's an accomplishment for bigger, stronger, or more important people - here's a last lesson. Never underestimate your power to bring about change if only you will engage. The world in which we live has been made far richer, fairer and more equitable for all of us because people of faith, good will and values have taken it upon themselves to make it so. They weren't always the richest people, or the most powerful people, or sometimes even the smartest people in the room. But they saw a chance to make a difference, and they acted. Why shouldn't that be you?

In her book, A Return to Love, an American author named Marianne Williamson made the case for "you" far more eloquently than I ever could. Nelson Mandela is a pretty eloquent speaker, but even he chose these words from Ms. Williamson for his inaugural address as President of South Africa.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world."

So don't play small. Get out there with what you've got and engage at every turn. Be like your classmate, Jorge Callado, who grabbed on with both hands to the opportunities that his Mom came from Mexico to find, and who's graduating today with a 4.0.

Go work hard at your job, whatever that job may be. Raise the best family that you can, with smart, educated kids. Seek to improve your community, whether you consider your community to be the neighbors on your street, the people in your town, or the citizens of the world. Whatever you do, it will multiply. One way or the other, you will have a direct impact on other people's lives. So make it a positive impact, informed by all the information, all the experiences, all the wisdom that you can amass in the years that you have ahead.

For the most part, good things happen because someone somewhere made a conscious decision to understand their world, and then step up and take action to change their circumstances. The Berlin Wall just didn't fall down. It came down because people chose to live in freedom.

And if you want to live in a better world, have a cleaner environment, or create a more equal and just society, you have to reach out and make it happen.

Throughout my life, I have been able witness to some of the most remarkable social and political changes in the last century, and not just in our country, but all around the world. When I graduated from law school, the Soviet Union was still one of the most powerful and repressive forces on the Earth. Apartheid was the rule of law in South Africa, and many people around the world lived under governments that dictated their freedoms, their employment, their dreams and their aspirations. All of those circumstances have been changed radically since then, and not by governmental decree, but because of the faith, inspiration and power of people who engaged, and agitated for change.

Just imagine what you will see, and what you can do, if you keep your eyes, your ears, your minds, your hearts, and your hands open to the world. I hope to see you out there on the journey. God Bless You. You've made the University of Texas at Arlington proud today. Thank You.