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May 11, 2007

Graduates can help fulfill the American Dream for a better tomorrow

Purdue President Martin C. Jischke made these remarks during commencement ceremonies on the West Lafayette campus on May 11.

Elliott Hall, where we are gathered, is among the largest theaters of its type in the world.

It is filled to capacity today.

There are 6,025 graduates, parents, family and friends sitting in this theater. And right now, as I look out, every one of you is smiling. I don't know about the expression on the faces of these stern academics behind me, but all of you are smiling.

It is a most wonderful sight for a university president to stand at the lectern during commencement and see so many happy faces.

University presidents don't often get that many happy faces coming to our offices. People come to us with complaints, problems and budgets!

It is very refreshing to see you here and to remember what higher education is all about. It is all about the success of our students. This is a celebration of your success.

Today, your smiles could light the world. Congratulations to our graduates. You have worked long and very hard. You deserve this recognition and celebration of your success.

This university is designed to be quite difficult - to stretch your abilities and show you how far you can go. One of the great lessons you have learned here is that you can go very far, indeed.

Congratulations, as well, to all the friends and family who have joined us today. You have worked hard, too! As a parent myself, I understand what this day means to you.

I will always have a special bond with this class of 2007. I feel a part of this class. This summer, I am retiring as president of Purdue. So, in a sense, this weekend my wife, Patty, and I are graduating with you.

I actually enrolled as a freshman in college in 1959. I have been in higher education ever since - as an undergraduate, a graduate student, a member of the faculty, a dean and, for the past 22 years, as the leader of four different universities.

That totals 48 years in college. It is a long time leading up to this graduation ceremony, I can assure you. Your parents are very happy; it has taken you far less time to graduate.

You and I will go on together after this ceremony and face our new lives. Life will be quite different for all of us. Soon, many of you will be going to work every day in suits for the first time. And I won't!

It has been a great pleasure for me to spend my entire career in higher education. I believe in higher education. I believe in the power of education to change lives. I believe in the power of an educated people to change the world. I believe this intellectually. And I believe it personally and emotionally, as well.

I have seen the power of education in my own life. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. Some of you today know how this feels.

My grandfather immigrated to this country from an area that is now part of Poland. He had minimal education. He was a Wisconsin farmer and he ran a small grocery.

My father wanted to be a physician. But there was no money to send him to college during the Great Depression, so he worked in the grocery business in Chicago. I don't remember him ever taking a vacation. With the six kids at home, we spent everything my father made.

My father found my experience of going to college quite amazing. My parents were both enormously proud.

I worked. I had scholarships. I took out loans. I financed my own education. When I finished my Ph.D. at MIT, I went home for a visit.

I brought with me a copy of my doctoral thesis, and I gave it to my parents. They had absolutely no idea what I was giving them.

They had never held one. They had never even seen one before. It was very mathematical. They didn't understand it. It could have been written in German or French, it was so foreign to them.

But my father opened it. And he saw what I wanted them to see. I had dedicated my thesis to my parents. When my father saw this, he started weeping.

I will never forget it.

I wonder what my father would think if he could see me standing here today as president of the one of the world's best universities. I have far exceeded his greatest dreams - and mine.

But this story is not about me.

I tell you this story because I represent just one of many millions of Americans whose lives and futures have been changed by the power of education.

Today we are adding these new graduates to that growing list.

Our graduates today are living a promise that was first identified by an American historian named James Truslow Adams.

Most people have never heard of him. But we are all very familiar with three words that he wrote: three simple, but powerful words. They might be among the most defining three words in American history, after "We the people."

In a widely translated book titled "Epic of America," James Truslow Adams coined the term "The American Dream." Wherever you come from in the world - and we have many international graduates here today - you have all heard of the American Dream.

It is part of American culture and heritage. It is the essence of what we, as Americans, believe about ourselves and our nation.

But the term doesn't come from our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution or the Bill of Rights. It comes from James Truslow Adams.

You might be surprised that he introduced the term in 1931 in the early years of the Great Depression - the Depression that stopped my father's dreams of higher education.

In 1931 when the term American Dream was introduced, U.S. unemployment exceeded 16 percent. Eight million people were without work. It would get worse. Much worse.

Into this, James Truslow Adams introduced the American Dream. And people believed it.

What is the American Dream? What does it mean to you? Is it your own prosperity? Is it becoming more successful than your parents?

I can tell you what it meant to James Truslow Adams. He wrote that the American Dream is the "dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

"It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of birth or position."

Standing here before you - the grandson of a Polish immigrant with little education, the son of a grocer - I have experienced the incredible opportunity of serving as president of Purdue. I am surely living the American dream.

But I believe the American Dream is not merely success. The American Dream is not the attainment of riches. It is not fame.

The American Dream is opportunity. And when coupled with desire and hard work, opportunity can fulfill all our greatest dreams.

I believe the American Dream was the concept Thomas Jefferson was crafting when he wrote:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

I believe the American Dream is much more than the dreams of individuals. I believe the American Dream is the dream of this nation.

I believe the American Dream is the opportunity to live in a nation in which diversity is celebrated as the source of strength and beauty.

I believe the American Dream is the opportunity not only to acquire, but to give and to serve other people in need.

I believe the American Dream is the opportunity to pursue knowledge freely, through a lifetime of learning, growing, changing and evolving.

I believe the American Dream is the opportunity to share these great possibilities with people throughout the world, no matter where they live, no matter what their circumstance.

All of this is the American Dream to me.

Martin Luther King Jr. said: "America is essentially a dream, a dream as yet unfulfilled. It is a dream of a land where (people) of all races, of all nationalities and of all creeds can live together as brothers (and sisters)."

Dr. King was right.

Even today we struggle to fulfill the incredible full promise of the American Dream.

But I believe it can be fulfilled. I believe it must be fulfilled. And I believe you are the ones who will do it.

There are those today who will tell you the American Dream is finished and gone. There are those who will tell you that all dreams are foolish, beyond the harsh realities of life and a waste of our time.

Don’t believe them.

Brooks Atkinson was a 20th century American drama critic who said: "Our nation was built by pioneers who were not afraid of failure, scientists who were not afraid of the truth, thinkers who were not afraid of progress, and dreamers who were not afraid of action."

What is the American Dream?

Ultimately, you are the American Dream, this class of 2007. You are the culmination of all the dreams of all the people who have dreamed before you.

You are the best-educated generation in the history of the world.

Your opportunities are limited only by the depth of your resolve and the height of your ambition.

This is among my final commencement speeches. This is my final message to you:

You are our American Dream for a better tomorrow.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees of Purdue University, congratulations to the Class of 2007.

Thank you.

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