Remarks Prepared for Delivery by U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao For Nyack College & Alliance Theological Seminary Commencement

May 19, 2008

Thank you, President Scales [Dr. Michael G. Scales, President, Nyack College & Alliance Theological Seminary].

Thank you all for that warm welcome.  It’s great to be here!

To the Board of Directors, faculty, and Administration:  thank you for nurturing and cultivating our next generation of leaders.  To the parents in the audience, let me be the first to welcome your sons and daughters to America’s workforce.

To the graduates — congratulations!  Today you are taking the first step towards a future filled with hope and opportunity.  According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers plan to hire 8 percent more graduates from the Class of 2008 than from the Class of 2007 and their salaries are expected to rise 5.3 percent, again as compared to the Class of 2007.  So, despite the short-term challenges facing our economy, you can be assured that opportunities abound for those who have invested in themselves through higher education.  That’s so important today because, as our country becomes part of an increasingly worldwide economy, the education and skill level of our workforce will determine our country’s future.

In the coming years, close to two-thirds of the estimated 15.6 million new jobs created will be in occupations that require post-secondary education or considerable on-the-job training.  For example, our country is experiencing an explosion in health care-related professions.  In the years leading up to 2016, we will need to train nearly 3 million more healthcare professionals.  And, of those we’ll need 1 million registered nurses.  This anticipated need presents a real challenge.  And, my fellow honoree this morning, Mr. Ron Eastman [Chairman of Nyack’s Board of Trustees], is to be commended for recognizing and taking action to help fill this need.  With his help, Nyack will soon offer a nursing program as part of its curriculum to help address the shortage of nurses in urban areas.
As Americans, we should have great confidence in the future because our country and our economy are so dynamic and resilient.  America is also strengthened by its growing diversity.  Our diversity is a tremendous competitive advantage in today’s increasingly worldwide economy.  And, this diversity is well-reflected in the current student population at Nyack — representing 64 countries!

Today, the United States is frequently heralded as having one of the highest standards of living, as well as being one of the most competitive and productive nations in the world.  But, perhaps even more important is the widespread recognition that Americans are among the most generous people in the world.

In recognition of this, the President has called all Americans to be engaged citizens, not just spectators. And he created the first White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives to harness the power of faith-based and community groups to strengthen our country’s social safety net.  Today, there are Centers for Faith-based and Community Initiatives in eleven federal agencies, including the Labor Department.

Let me mention one program, in particular, that has been very successful over the last several years.  In 2004, this Administration announced a new initiative to reach out to individuals who have had trouble in their lives, have paid their debt to society and now want to turn their lives around. Today, the Prisoner Reentry Initiative serves more than 6,000 people every year with counseling, job placement and other employment services.  And, since its inception, the Labor Department, in particular, has awarded approximately $56 million in grants to 30 faith-based and community organizations across the country.

This funding enables these organizations to provide job training, job placement, mentoring, and other services.  The goal is to help individuals who have paid their debt to society make a successful transition back into their communities.  Many of them want to do it on their own.  But they also need strong support — from their loved ones, their community, and their places of worship.  Nyack College is to be commended for reaching out to ex-offenders and helping them take the first steps to a brighter future.
Let me share a quick story.  In January, I visited the Jericho Program in Baltimore, Maryland.

While I was there, I met a gentleman named Thomas.  Thomas had spent more than 20 years of his life in and out of prison.  And, finally, he made the decision to turn his life around.  So, three days after his last release, Thomas enrolled in the Jericho Program and completed the initial two weeks of training.  He learned how to search for jobs, how to budget his money, and how to address barriers to employment.  After his training, Thomas created a resume and received coaching on how to interview for a job.  And, the practice paid off!  Thomas was offered a position as a security guard, and he’s doing a great job.  It was really wonderful to meet him and see the tremendous confidence he has now.

As of May 2, 2008, 13,272 men and women, like Thomas, have enrolled in the Prisoner Reentry program.  So far, 8,309 have been placed into jobs.  And, one year after release, the rate of recidivism for those who have participated in the program is currently 15 percent.  That’s approximately two-thirds less than the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ national average of 44 percent.  So, programs that instill hope in men and women really do make a difference and transform lives.

Not only in this country, but abroad, as well.  I know that many Nyack College graduates have a special calling to combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and child trafficking in Africa and other countries.  So you’ll be glad to know that since 2001, the United States has dramatically increased its commitment to development in Africa.  In fact, our country is on track to increase total assistance to Africa to $8.7 billion by 2010, double the level of assistance in 2004.  Part of this commitment is a 5-year, $15 billion program to combat HIV/AIDS.  This is the largest international health initiative in history to fight a single disease.  And, today, this initiative is supporting life-saving anti-retroviral treatment for about 1.4 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. And the Administration’s Malaria Initiative, launched in 2005, is estimated to have already helped over 25 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

And, of course, this Administration will continue its commitment to combating gender-based violence, trafficking, and other human rights violations.  In fact, in FY 2007, the U.S. provided close to $175 million for programs that promote justice and democracy in African nations.

Many Nyack students have traveled to Swaziland to work with HIV/AIDS victims and to West Africa to address the grave issue of human trafficking.  I visited West Africa in 2003 to launch several projects to combat these afflictions.  So I know how important your work is.  These young people — and others who have traveled to places like the Philippines and New Delhi — are putting their beliefs and core values into practice.  You are living your faith.  And, by your actions you are setting a wonderful example for others to follow.

You know, at the beginning of my career, my family could never have dreamed that I would be where I am today.  As a young immigrant to this country, I spoke no English, and my family and I had very modest expectations.

I remember how difficult those early years were, as we transitioned to a new culture, a new language, and a new country.  My father worked three jobs and my mother scrimped and saved to make a warm, secure, and comfortable home for us while managing to save $50 every month — no easy feat!  Looking back, I don’t know how she managed.  Yet, she did so without complaint.

My childhood memories are filled with scenes and incidents of the many sacrifices made by my parents.  And, I’m sure the parents in this room have done the same, offering the best of everything you have to your children.

My sisters and I were sustained by the love of our parents, their determination to build a better life, and their faith in the basic decency of the American people.  Our lifelines to mainstream America included church and community organizations.  They helped us to realize that if you work hard, invest in yourself, and never give up, you can achieve your dreams.

I am living proof that the promise of America is as real today, as it was forty years ago, when my family and I first caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and embarked on the great adventure that brought us here today.

So, thank you for inviting me to share this very special day with you.  God bless you, your families, and all of those in the Nyack community who have made this day possible.

I wish you all the best of luck as you embark on your very bright futures!  And, as Gandhi said, I hope that each of you will go forth and — “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
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