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4:29 p.m., May 30, 2009----Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Thomas Friedman called on members of the University of Delaware's Class of 2009 to restore the values of the Greatest Generation and to be the “Re-Generation” that America needs to lead the world to a restoration of economical and ecological balance and sanity.
Friedman made his remarks to some 3,400 degree candidates who attended the University's 160th Commencement held Saturday, May 30, under crystal blue skies at Delaware Stadium.
Speaking to an audience of about 23,000 -- including parents, supporters and friends of the Class of 2009 -- the award winning New York Times columnist, who earlier had received a UD honorary doctorate, said that his generation, the Baby Boomers, had equated excess with success and in the process squandered the abundance they had inherited.
“My parents' generation, your grandparents' generation, were the Greatest Generation. They earned that title because they built a world of freedom for us abroad by defeating the Nazis and winning the Cold War, and because they also helped to build a world of more freedom at home, thanks to the Civil Rights movement,” Friedman said. “My generation, the Baby Boomers, well, we've been the Grasshopper Generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts.”
As a consequence, Friedman said the Class of 2009 is entering a world where “both the economy and Mother Nature have hit the wall.”
“Oh, we had our moments to be proud of, but I'm afraid that we took many of those freedoms that our parents sacrificed to create for us, and we used them to go to excess,” Friedman said. “The subprime mortgage mess is, alas, a monument to all of that.”
The task facing UD's newest alumni, Friedman said, is to use their campus experience to help regenerate, renew and refresh America.
“You may not believe this, and your parents may not believe this, but the education you received here has prepared you for this task in more ways than you think,” Friedman said. “The recession of 2008 is not just an economic event. It was the market and Mother Nature telling us in their own ways that the system for growth that we had settled into was not sustainable, financially or ecologically.”
The notion that more is better came to be represented both literally and figuratively in the size of individual Americans and their homes, Friedman noted.
“From the beginning to the end of the long boom, the size of the average new house in America increased by half,” Friedman said. “Meanwhile, the average American gained about a pound a year, so that an adult of a given age is now at least 20 pounds heavier than someone that age back then.”
Friedman also spoke of the subprime mortgage fiasco, in which people with no credit rating and even without a steady job were being given “liar loans” to buy houses they would never be able to keep.
“The whole system was built on two principles -- IBG and YBG,” Friedman said. “I'll Be Gone or You'll Be Gone when things go bad. The whole system depended on a decline in basic values, ethics, risk management and accountability between borrowers, brokers, lenders and investors.”
To restore some of the basic values of hard work and accountability that characterized the efforts of the Greatest Generation, Friedman urged the Class of 2009 to apply the principles learned during their UD experience.
“Whatever uncompromising idealism that was formed in you by a professor you admired, whatever unbending convictions about what is right and wrong, black and white, which you stuck to in student government debates, even when your cause seemed lost, whatever principled behavior you demanded from the administration here, or from fellow students supporting the same cause, whatever you do, do not leave it here,” Freedman said. “There is nothing our country needs more right now.”
Friedman also called on the graduates to not only restore these basic values, but to create things of real value in the process.
“We can't borrow our way out of this economic crisis, we have to invent and innovate our way out of this crisis,” Friedman said. “That's where you come in. I'm a big believer in imagination -- imagination is the single most important competitive advantage you can have today.”
The imaginative inspiration that leads to great ideas, products, designs and intellectual breakthroughs often is the result of combining the mastery of two or more different fields to “think afresh” and thus arrive at “something that no one else has thought of.”
The Class of 2009, Friedman said, is entering a world where more things than ever are possible but where fewer things than ever are guaranteed.
“Your country needs you to bring the values you learned here,” Friedman said. “Take the imagination you've sharpened here, the activism you nurtured here, and be the 'Re-Generation.'”
And, Friedman concluded, leaving the graduates one final bit of advice, “Please don't forget one thing -- call your mother. You will always be glad you did.”
The Class of 2009 gave Friedman a standing ovation.
From Re-Generation to redefinition
Speaking earlier during Commencement ceremonies, UD President Patrick Harker welcomed the attendees and called upon the Class of 2009 to redefine success in the light of the current economic crisis.
“Consider your life's currency, your net worth, something other than your bank account,” Harker said. “Give your time, your energy and your effort -- your heart and soul -- to something you believe in.”
These efforts to improve the lives of others while pursuing justice guided by truth and compassion are “the deposits that count, and when they accumulate, that's wealth, that's abundance,” Harker said.
Harker said while career success is important, it also is important to help others in the spirit that a number of UD students have done in projects around the world and around the corner.
“It will imbue every day, every minute with meaning that just can't be matched by cash, no matter how much,” Harker said. “It will stave off loneliness and beat back regret. It will bind you to a human community filled with people whose journey is tougher than yours, whose obstacles are higher, and whose prospects are more meager. It will remind you that you have the power to change someone else's life.”
Harker urged the graduates, who are now part of a worldwide network of more than 140,000 UD alumni, to do something great with the diplomas they have earned.
“You don't have an obligation to do anything meaningful with the advantages you've been given, but you do have an opportunity, and I ask you to take it,” Harker said. “Let that be your measure of success, your American dream.”
In recalling the words of statesman and scholar John Gardner, who said that “meaning is not something you stumble across -- meaning is something you build into your life,” Harker challenged the Class of 2009 to build on the gifts passed down from past generations.
“The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life,” Harker said. “Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure -- as the world measures success or failure -- is of less account.”
Thoughts from the Class of 2009
Before entering Delaware Stadium for Commencement ceremonies, several members of the Class of 2009 shared memories of their UD experiences as well as their post-graduation plans.
Michael Guerrere, a computer science major from Monroe, Conn., said he was very excited about Commencement and really enjoyed his four years at UD.
“The things that I appreciate here the most are the great people I have met, especially in my computer science classes,” Guerrere said. “These are the people that I grew up with here at UD and I will always remember them.”
Guerrere, who did an internship with General Electric, has been offered a full time job with the company and will start work this summer.
Courtney Barkey, a mechanical engineering major from Hillsborough, N.J., said that there was a touch of sadness mingled with the joy of graduating. “I will miss all of the great friends I have met, but I also appreciate that it is now time to start the next phase of my life.”
Barkey, who plans to work for Merck in New Jersey, also thanked her family and friends and the chance to participate in a study abroad trip to Australia. “It was great to travel halfway around the world and meet all the different people,” she said.
J'nai Grymes, an exercise sciences major from Washington, D.C., who said she wanted to thank her mom and dad, sister Joi and all her wonderful friends, called graduation day a bittersweet experience. “I never thought this day would come,” she said. “The greatest experience I had at UD was figuring out who I am, and what I want to do. I came here wanting to be an physical therapist, and now I'm going to dental school at the University of Maryland.”
Richard John (R.J.) Snyder, a health and behavioral science major from Wilmington, said that even though he spent four years waiting for this day, it still had a kind of surreal feeling. He also noted “the thing I most enjoyed was meeting so many people from all over the world. Being born and raised in Delaware, it has been great to know that there is a whole new world out there.”
Post-graduation plans for Snyder include “keeping an open mind and taking advantages of whatever opportunities present themselves.”
Chinedu Anikwata, a health and behavior science major from Burtonsville, Md., said that the whole experience of graduating and of parting with the friends she has made at UD did not hit home until it was actually time line up to march in the Commencement procession.
“Graduating from UD is definitely an accomplishment, and I'm proud to be a UD alum,” Anikwata said. “I really enjoyed being a Blue Hen Ambassador. It was an opportunity to be part of an organization that showed people around the campus, and it also was a chance to have a lot of fun activities. It gave me confidence and helped me make a lot of friends.”
After taking some time off, Anikwata said she plans to attend grad school and eventually have a career in the public health field, working in a place like the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Ambre Alexander, Duane Perry, Kevin Quinlan, Mark Campbell and Evan Krape