Department Chair Jeffrey Lewis, distinguished faculty, alumni, graduates,
I am thrilled and delighted to be here today.
It is an honor to return to this campus—many years after I sat where you do today—to help mark the celebration of your tremendous achievements.
And, it is humbling. 27 years ago, I wondered: who’s that old dude at the podium. Today, I am that old dude at the podium.
To the graduating class of 2016, my deepest congratulations.
And because as we know success is a team effort, let me also say congratulations to the friends and family who supported you on this journey.
Here at UCLA there is a culture of giving back. At no time was that more evident than last week, when tragedy struck close to home. In the wake of the shooting, the entire world saw how Bruins come together as a community to care for each other.
And that culture of giving includes a strong tradition of public service, on and off campus. In your very first month at UCLA, you participated in Volunteer Day. And many of you—including the eight R-O-T-C students with us today—have continued to commit yourselves to serving your community while pursuing your studies.
Thank you for the service you have done, and are doing.
And I hope you’ll find ways to lift up your gaze and look beyond yourself throughout your lives—but more on that in a moment.
Yesterday, I spent some time walking down memory lane. One of my stops was at the southern suites, where I lived. At the time it was the hottest real estate on campus. To this day, the freshman housing lottery is the only lottery I’ve ever won.
Curiously, many of the athletes seemed to live there as well, and my neighbor was Reggie Miller. Some of you know Reggie as an NBA announcer. Others may know him as a hall of fame NBA player on the Indiana Pacers. Some may even know him as the guy who beat USC twice his senior year.
I knew him as a buddy freshman year, and the best source ever for a Halloween costume. How many of us get to suit up as a 6-foot-7 UCLA basketball player?
The Value of Education
So, I’m coming back here with some old memories… but also a new perspective… a perspective on just how valuable your UCLA experience has been—and will be—in your lives.
Last year, I was in Guatemala to visit some of the development projects that are being funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which I have the privilege of leading.
MCC is a U.S. development agency that provides poor countries with grants for projects to address poverty and help promote economic growth.
In Guatemala, we are working to improve the education system, and a quick look at the statistics tells you why: nearly half of the students drop out before 9th grade and only about a third go on to finish high school.
In Guatemala I visited with those lucky few that actually make it to high school.
But even these students are only allowed to attend half-day classes, because there aren’t enough teachers or facilities to accommodate a full-day schedule…
And many worry they could be pulled from school at any time—to work in the fields or help their families put food on the table.
These kids had only one dream, which was to get an education. They viewed school not as a chore but as a gift—one that could lift them and their families out of poverty. On that quest they seemed to vacillate between hope and fear—but all desperately wanted to learn.
Wanting to learn… It seems like such a basic aspiration—and yet it’s out of reach for far too many—in too many places.
When I sat in your chair so many years ago I had no idea how many families around the world would risk it all—just for the opportunity to send their kids to school. I had no idea of the depth and scope of extreme poverty around the globe—and the impact it has on families that are really no different than those here today.
On some level I might have thought I knew. But I certainly didn’t get it.
If there is one thought that I want to leave with you with today it is that this diploma that you hold is precious. In some families, like mine, you may be the first to hold it. In some families you may have always been expected to hold it. But for many people in the world you have fulfilled what is the unattainable and greatest aspiration.
It is not a cliché to say that this is your key. It will open doors for you—and perhaps more importantly it will allow you to open doors for others.
And while you may only realize it in retrospect, there were moments here at UCLA where that key has already opened a door for you. It may have been a class or a professor who exposed you to new ideas. Or a friendship with someone from a world completely different than your own. There are moments that send you in new directions – and they end up shaping your lives.
Let me share two very different moments that are part of my own story: When I was young, my mother remarried into a Jewish family. While I converted to Judaism at an early age, my mother and stepfather later separated and by the time I arrived at UCLA no one in my family was Jewish.
One evening my sophomore year I was engaged in a heated debated about Israel, and at some point in the conversation someone asked — are you Jewish? I hedged and said something like sort of. Later that night I was wracked with guilt. It seemed to me that question should be one I knew the answer to.
UCLA gave me the opportunity to answer it.
I could hardly pay my way through school, let alone travel, but with UCLA’s support I spent my junior year studying in Jerusalem, exploring my own faith and the history, faith and politics of the region. It was the start of the intifada in 1987, and Jerusalem was teeming with passion and violence.
My experience in Israel sparked in me a lifelong interest in international affairs—and a commitment to engage in the broader issues of peace, security and America’s role in the world.
A few years later, I was taken on another one of life’s unexpected detours. It was 1991, I was working in Washington, and one of my best friends from college was on the Clinton campaign—as in Bill Clinton. That fall, Governor Clinton made a well-publicized trip to Orange County. My friend asked if I could “advance” his trip—that is, help organize the events and drive him and his advisors around.
I had no idea what I was doing, but somehow managed to get through the 14-hour day with only a slight glitch. At 10 pm—as we raced to the airport—Governor Clinton asked whether we could stop for food. I had to say no, we can’t stop, because there is a curfew at the airport and you might be stranded here if we’re late. Needless to say, it was not a popular response.
So in desperation I radioed the car ahead and told them to hit the Del Taco drive-thru in record speed and meet us on the tarmac. The tacos arrived just as the plane doors were closing. And you should have seen the smile on Bill Clinton’s face. Within a few weeks I was in Little Rock working to elect the 42nd President of the United States.
I share these stories to say there are moments and experiences that will set you on your path. They can seem profound at the time—like standing before the Wailing Wall—or rather trivial and ridiculous, like delivering a bag of tacos.
Be open to both. Be open to the winding path… the path full of detours—or no path at all. Be open to serendipity.
And as you embark on your own journey, I encourage you to lift up.
Now, I mentioned it earlier, but what do I mean by that?
I mean: Seek out new perspectives. Engage in the world. Challenge yourself.
We live in a wondrous time of connectivity. Even in the short span from my graduation in 1989 to yours today, the way we interact with the world around us has completely changed.
I mean, I typed my papers – as in on a typewriter!
The world has changed in the way we obtain information. Changed in the way we communicate. Changed in the way we create and share our creations.
At the same time, it is getting harder than ever to reach beyond our filters. Social media allows you to surround yourself with likeminded voices—and shut out those that differ from yours.
The Internet serves as an echo chamber for your own views and experiences. Tailored advertisements and news articles can make it seem like there are not seven and a half billion other unique perspectives.
It seems paradoxical that at such a moment of technological advance—when we can instantaneously reach tens of millions of people around the world—we risk isolating ourselves from other views. Go and sit on just about any bench in any park in this city, and consider that your typical experience while engaged on a smartphone is less diverse and less challenging than if we put down our phones, lifted up our heads and spoke with those sitting nearby.
So I encourage you to lift up your head to engage with those around you. Lift up your eyes to scan new horizons. Lift up your heart to help those in need. Lift up yourselves to travel, to learn, to get away from the familiar, to get out of your comfortable virtual space. Break out of the filter bubble. Blast through the confirmation bias.
Engage in the world.
Because lifting up allows you to also see the broader arc of history, and the role we can play in bending it towards justice.
The year I graduated UCLA, peaceful revolutions spread across the globe. Leaders emerged around the world who were wise and compassionate. Vaclav Havel led a Velvet Revolution from the cobblestone streets of Prague. Lech Walesa led a Solidarity movement from the shipyards of Poland. The Berlin Wall, an ugly mass of concrete and barbed wire that had served as a physical and symbolic divide, was torn down in jubilant celebration. The Cold War had spanned generations — and in a moment, it was over.
The years since then have not always lived up to the promise of that time. The end of the Cold War gave way to new threats and fissures that divided—not united—people. And in the post 9/11 era, the world has witnessed prolonged conflicts and brutal violence. You may well be the first generation of college graduates in American history that has known war longer than you have known peace.
Yet when you look up, you can see that change, when it comes, can come quickly.
And when I look up at all of you, I see the people who can usher it in.
In my work, I look up and see our men and women in uniform, and I see that they remain a remarkable force for good in the world. I see organizations like the Peace Corps working to improve lives and promote understanding across borders.
I see organizations like PEPFAR—which President Bush created in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa—saving the lives of millions of people and dramatically altering the continent’s future.
And at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, I look up every day and I see an extraordinary team of dedicated professionals working to lift millions out of poverty, connect them to jobs, healthcare, and to that incredible key—education.
And I see that you—through these organizations or so many others—can engage in the world; build understanding, lift up, and seek meaning bigger than yourself.
Because I think whatever your path… where you find that meaning… you will find fulfillment.
And that is ultimately my wish for you.