Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Northern Kentucky University Commencement Ceremony

May 15, 2004

Thank you, Dr. [James] Votruba [President, NKU], for that kind introduction.

Graduates, parents, family members and friends, faculty and administrators—I am delighted to join you today for the 32nd commencement of Northern Kentucky University—1,000 graduates strong!
I’m proud to be a Kentuckian. Most of you were lucky enough to be born in Kentucky. I wanted to be a Kentuckian so badly, I married a Kentuckian. Speaking of which, my husband, your Senator and Assistant Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, Mitch McConnell, sends his best.

I want to commend Dr. Votruba and the faculty. You are a big part of what makes this university such a special place in this uniquely dynamic and economically vibrant part of the Commonwealth.
As you, graduates, stand on the threshold of a new life, you should be confident of the opportunities in America’s 21st century workforce.

You are fortunate to be entering a world that offers you an unprecedented variety of opportunities to realize your dreams.

I know that some of the headlines about the economy in today’s papers are confusing. There are many sectors creating new job opportunities. In fact, the economic news for today’s graduates is very encouraging.
On the national level, our economy has seen 8 straight months of job creation, gaining more than 1.1 million new jobs since August 2003. The unemployment rate today is 5.6 percent, which—although higher than we’d like it to be—is lower than the average unemployment rate of the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Kentucky’s unemployment rate [5.8%] is a little higher than the national average, but there are areas in the state that are significantly lower. The unemployment rate in the Cincinnati metropolitan area, which includes portions of northern Kentucky, is 5.1 percent. Compare our unemployment rates with other countries like Germany and France, where the unemployment rate is stuck at 9 percent!

Industries enjoying rapid growth in the U.S. today include health care, information technology, biotechnology and finance, to cite just a few. Throughout our history, the American economy is constantly evolving and producing new ideas, new jobs and new opportunities.

Providing opportunity has a special resonance with me personally because I came to America as an immigrant from Asia when I was 8 years old.

My parents left everything familiar behind so that they could give their children the freedom and opportunity that America offers.

Our initial years in this country were very difficult. We didn’t speak the language, didn’t understand the culture and traditions of this country. We had neither family nor friends in this new country.

Even as our English improved, English colloquialisms didn’t always make sense. For example:
I was reminded by a friend what a struggle it was to learn English. People talked about parking the car in the driveway and driving the car on the parkway. That is very confusing to a non-English speaker. How do you drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?
To learn English, my sisters and I watched a lot of television. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out why Relief is spelled ROLAIDS!
Once, when an Asian friend asked someone for help, the person replied: “Fat chance!” He thought that was a good thing! It wasn’t until months later that he realized it meant: ‘No way!’ Where I came from, “fat” is always equated with “good.”

Yet, we survived and thrived through the generous help of newly found friends and neighbors. I will always remember the many kindnesses of strangers to a young immigrant family new to these shores.
As I look back upon a career that has spanned the nonprofit, for-profit and government sectors, I hope I may share with you a few observations:
First, in most other countries, for example, there were only a few paths to success. But in America, there are many ways to achieve your dreams. Each person is free to create his or her own path—to take what he or she has learned and apply it to personal goals and unique talents.

Second, education is important. Just by graduating today, you are already getting off to a great start. 80 percent of all new jobs require some kind of postsecondary education or training. And historically, college graduates earn twice as much over their lifetimes as workers who stop with high school diplomas. I know that many circumstances can make it challenging to stay in college. I commend you for your achievement.
But learning new things doesn’t stop when you leave campus. Our economy is changing rapidly. In this environment, it is crucial to continually update your skills and knowledge base. That means developing a commitment to lifelong learning.

Third, don’t be afraid to fail. In America, few mistakes are fatal. So if things don’t go right, pick yourself up and try again. Our country values and rewards persistence.
Fourth, true success isn’t just about progressing in your career. It’s also about helping others. No other country in the world has such a wonderful tradition of helping others unconnected by blood or marriage as in America. The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America in the 1830s, noted that Americans were unique in their passion to form associations to address community problems. That commitment to compassion continues to make America great.

As you embark on your next adventure in life, I hope that you will remember to give back to your community.

President George W. Bush created the USA Freedom Corps to provide meaningful opportunities for Americans to serve their neighbors. He has asked all Americans to dedicate at least two years or 4,000 hours over their lives in service to others. By doing so, you will be adding to the millions of acts of kindness and generosity that are strengthening our country, one heart and one soul at a time.

Some people claim that America is the strongest nation because it has the mightiest army. But the President has said that America is great because of the compassion and generosity of its people. It is the character of the American people that makes our nation such a force for good in the world.

Giving back to others is a way to earn the freedoms we enjoy. Our country is currently fighting a war against terrorism. We have fellow Americans in harm’s way. I was reminded last week of the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which tells the story of a group of soldiers during World War II, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice to rescue a Private Ryan.

At the end of the movie, Captain Miller, who led the mission, is dying. But before he dies, he said to the young Private Ryan the two most powerful words he would ever hear, “Earn it.”

Years later, an elderly, former Private Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller with his family. With tears in his eyes he asked, “Have I been a good man?” He wanted to “earn it!”

Private Ryan remembered that others had sacrificed so he could live in freedom.

Today, men and women in uniform, whom we will never meet, are making the ultimate sacrifice to defend our nation and spread the cause of freedom—so that we will continue to enjoy freedom, opportunity and security in our homeland.

The best way to repay them—and the generations who sacrificed for us before them—is to earn it. As you make your way in life, I hope you’ll remember to cultivate a grateful heart, to thank the people at home who made sacrifices for you, to share with others and to give back to your community.

God bless you. God bless America!
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