Anderson Miller, a Candler native majoring in philosophy and international studies, was selected to deliver the commencement address on the WCU Poverty Project-related theme “Helping Others in Hard Times: What Can the Graduates of 2011 Do?” The text of Miller’s address from Saturday, Dec. 17, is below.
In writing this speech, I really had no idea where I was going to start. How does an undergraduate student give a commencement speech in the first place? So eHow, a “How To” webpage, was where I decided to go. At the very end of “How to Write a Graduation Speech” it said, and I quote, “Do not reference that Green Day song.” I thought this was some of the best advice that I had ever found on the Internet.
But coming up with advice to give you since you are actually farther along the path of life than me, it seems a little naive. What can I say? I am not the founder of a nonprofit organization who has a heart-wrenching story to tell you about how I have helped countless impoverished people have a better life. I am not a world leader, making great changes in laws to help end corruption so that we can apply wasted resources to areas that desperately need them. I am not a great inventor who has come up with a way to help the world’s poorest have reliable sanitation systems so a village’s people can have clean drinking water. But I am part of a generation of people, who like me, have also not yet done any of these amazing achievements to end extreme poverty for 1.4 billion people.
But! We are known as the Millennial generation and it has been said that we are tech-savvy, family-centric and achievement-oriented. We are said to be confident, ambitious and optimistic. We are said to appreciate being kept in the loop and that we seek new challenges and are not afraid to question authority.
This last point is what stands out to me. Our generation has been identified as a group of 70 million people who are not afraid to question authority. Now some of you might not want to admit it, but you have heard this before. I’m sure some of you parents and faculty members out there remember those bumper stickers of the 1960s. But that is a powerful concept. Seventy-million people who are not afraid to rise up and make a change against all odds. Look at what has happened already: We are a generation that started the social media revolution that led Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down so the Egyptian people could finally have a voice. A generation that, through unprecedented young voter turnout, helped to elect the first black president of the United States of America, even though most people in older generations did not expect to live to see it happen. And we can’t accept it when people tell us, “There is no hope to change the way things are,” or “What can you do?” or “You are only one person. You can’t make a difference, and you can’t end poverty.” But on this campus we stood up against that kind of thinking, and we have done some great things.
Western Carolina University students packed 36,288 meals that were used in crisis situations in developing countries around the world, raised $3,000 for the American Cancer Society and another $1,060 for poverty-relief agencies.
Students collected 1,167 pairs of shoes for the Nashville-based charity Soles4Souls and participated in a Live Below the Line challenge where students committed to live on $1.50 per day for five days to raise awareness and money to help combat global poverty. Through this, $2,730 was pledged to support CARE.
And students secured 1,000 signatures out of a global 25,000 that led to $118 million pledged to eradicate polio from this earth.
The best thing, though, is that all this was achieved in just the fall semester alone. But how much more can you do to end extreme poverty after earning your college degree?
I am on track to graduate in May and like many of you, I ask, “Where do I go from here?” Some of us have a plan for the future already established, but some of us do not. Since I am not allowed to use that Green Day song, I will refer to Steve Jobs and his dots. In the speech that Jobs gave to Stanford University in 2005, he said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. … You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. … Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path.” Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college, reflected on how college courses helped shape his life. He took one calligraphy course and used it to change font styles on the personal computer and revolutionize the world. Think of what you can do with an entire degree!
I know I have sat in a few classes and thought, “When will I ever use this?” But I believe this is the beauty of a liberal arts education for all of you graduating and for myself: We truly do not know how what we have learned during our years at Western Carolina University will end up changing the entire course of our lives. A college education is not simply about this piece of paper that we receive. It is about using what we have learned and actually applying it to every aspect our lives. You never know where you might end up because of your education.
When you are the founder of that nonprofit organization that has helped countless of impoverished people have a better life, then you will know how your modern foreign language classes gave you enough knowledge of the Spanish language to better connect with leaders from Spanish-speaking countries.
When you are that world leader making great changes in laws to help end corruption so that we can apply wasted resources to areas that desperately need them, you will recall how that required “Intro to Political Science” class with that professor who made you write an eight-page paper about corruption in the world changed the way you write laws.
Or, when you become that great innovator who has found a way to help the world’s poorest have clean drinking water, you will know how that environmental health class helped you understand that projects need to be sustainable and not just built and left behind.
The point is this: You do not know what great effect your years at Western will have on your life and your ability to change the world until much later. Let’s use our knowledge to be the generation that ends extreme global poverty. We are the generation built for it, and we have already had such a good start right here in Cullowhee, N.C.
I can now say that honestly I don’t want to quote that Green Day song, because I don’t hope that you have had the time of your life. You are going to do so much more: Your dots from Western Carolina University will lead to making a difference by changing the world and helping our generation end extreme global poverty. The time of your life is yet to come. So, go out there and connect your dots and use your college education to make lasting change in the world we live in.
Thank you, and sincerely happy graduation day to all of you.