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VCU Fall 2012 Commencement

Dec. 8, 2012
Stuart C. Siegel Center

Thank you, Provost Warren. And thank you for helping us set such high academic standards throughout the university, including for our students who graduate today and for all of those who will follow them.

Virginia Commonwealth University is an extraordinary place. That is never more apparent than at commencement, when we celebrate your achievements and imagine your great ambitions, and build excitement around the great contributions that you will make to humankind and society. We are proud that 3,000 of you will earn your degree today. I warmly congratulate you all.

But what matters most is not the number of degrees we award; it is the value of the education you received. It is how you use your education to lead in your area and to help other people.

That is your highest and most important calling. Through education, we develop our greatest abilities. Through our greatest abilities, we achieve what was once believed impossible. Through our achievements, we create opportunities where they never existed before.

This falls to you as the new generation of pioneers and the new brand of leaders. As a VCU graduate, you have learned what others have not. Now you have the opportunity to lead where others cannot.

Like Jessica Norman is doing.

Jessica is graduating today with her bachelor’s degree in nursing. But this is not the first life-changing event for Jessica this year. A few months ago, she read about a young man named Mitchell who had suffered from a debilitating disease for years and needed a new kidney. Actually, he needed a third new kidney; there were complications with two previous transplants, and doctors were certain that Mitchell — only 19 years old — would die without another donation.

Jessica did not know Mitchell, but — as a nursing student — she knew that she just had to help. She was undeterred even when she was told she was not a match for Mitchell. Instead, she found another solution: She would donate her kidney to someone else, and, in turn, that patient’s husband would give his kidney to save Mitchell.

Today, for the first time since he was 8 years old, Mitchell is healthy. So is the woman who received Jessica’s kidney. Jessica’s resolve to help Mitchell — a complete stranger — has actually saved two lives.

So why did Jessica voluntarily put herself through a difficult and painful procedure, especially for someone she did not know? Her answer is simple but profound. She said, and I quote: “Because I am able, and because someone needs it. It doesn’t matter if they are a stranger, a dear friend or a family member, they are someone in need. Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.”

As Jessica graduates today, we recognize that not only is her future bright, but she has given better tomorrows to two other people who desperately needed them.

Jessica Norman — would you please stand?

In a few minutes, Shane Brady will receive his Ph.D. in social work. While a doctoral degree is a long journey for anyone, it was especially challenging for Shane because of where he started.

Shane was the first person in his family to earn a college degree — much less four of them. He grew up in subsidized housing, reared by a single mother who was a frequent victim of family violence: As a young boy, Shane often had to bandage his mother’s wounds. He witnessed a drive-by shooting when he was 8; his house was burned when he was 10. By the time he reached middle school, many of his friends were already addicted to drugs.

Shane had no encouragement to pursue his education; indeed, he dropped out of college twice by the time he was 24 and worked a series of low-wage jobs.

Until, one day, he walked into a local community college and told them he “wanted to get his life back.” He took classes part-time and earned his associate degree. He was buoyed on to a university and completed his bachelor’s. Shane then earned a master’s degree — while continuing to care for his mother and work two jobs at substance abuse centers.

Today, he earns his Ph.D. from VCU, proving that where you begin your journey pales in comparison to where you finish it.

Shane says, and I quote: “My story is not just my story. It is because of the ugliness of my life that people listen to me, believe me and, more importantly, believe that maybe they can have a different outcome in their story, that maybe they can still write a different ending.”

This is not the ending of Shane’s story. His greatest achievement will come not in transforming his own life, but the countless others he will transform through his compassion, character and commitment to making a difference.

Unfortunately, Shane could not be with us today at the last minute because of a family illness. But I know you will still join me in recognizing Dr. Shane Brady.

Recent economic events in our world — from the Euro Market, to China, to our own nation — have shown us that our economic way of life is not sustainable. We need someone like Soraya Harris, who graduates today with her bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in financial planning.

Soraya is making a difference for so many families by showing them how to plan for their financial futures. Since she arrived at VCU, she has helped low-income women with their personal finances and — more significantly — to launch small businesses that may be their ticket out of poverty. She also taught basic finance to their children, ensuring that the young people who will shape our nation’s future will be effective consumers, workers, savers, investors and entrepreneurs.

Last summer, Soraya conducted workshops to help Virginia high schools teach personal finance more effectively, a program that will impact more than 22,000 students across our commonwealth. She also judged a statewide economics bowl — the only student among a distinguished panel of judges.

She has served VCU, too, establishing the Financial Planning Association here and leading a university team that took third in a prestigious national competition for student financial planners. Soraya’s team, by the way, was the first ever from VCU and won $1,000 — money that I’m sure she has invested wisely.

Soon, Soraya will begin her career back home in Norfolk. Of course, she will also continue to serve her community, helping teachers at her former high school better integrate principles of personal finance into their curriculum.

When it comes to ensuring that people of all ages have a solid foundation and bright future, Soraya said, and I quote: “I refuse to settle for adequacy.”

Let none of us settle for adequate when excellent is possible!

Soraya Harris — would you please stand so we can recognize you?

By the way, those of you who will be starting your career in the next few weeks may want to set an appointment to discuss your financial plans with Soraya after the ceremony today.

Certainly, these are not the only three members of the Class of 2012 who are using what they have learned here to help advance opportunities for their fellow human beings. Many of you are, and I know that. And as we celebrate together today, we know that your greatest achievements are yet to come.

As you write those chapters, I know you will fly the VCU flag as proudly as you can. Just as surely as we are proud of you.

You have made a great investment in VCU. You have helped shape our university, and you have been a significant part of elevating our academic profile through your hard work. I know we can count on you to carry pride in VCU throughout your life. You have been a part of VCU for the past several years, you are certainly part of VCU today and you will always be a part of VCU.

Thank you and congratulations.