President Clinton Addresses the Undergraduate Class of 2016

2016 Undergraduate Commencement Address
by William Jefferson Clinton '16, 42nd President of the United States
delivered on May, 7, 2016, at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles


I want to begin by thanking your chair, Kathleen Aikenhead, and congratulating her not only on her degree, but on her work of many years to enable more young people go to college. President Snyder, thank you for welcoming me here, and for your service and for doing it with such remarkable energy, and a good sense of humor. We need more of that today in America. I want to thank Congresswoman Maxine Waters and her husband, Ambassador Sidney Williams. Maxine, for her service or devotion to this district, and her longtime friendship to Hillary and me, which means more than I can say. I thank the provost, the vice chair of the board and all the other faculty and staff of LMU, and a lot of proud parents in this audience. But as people who are in public service, I do want to note that Sen. John Barrasso from Wyoming and his family are here because his daughter, Hadley, is, also, in the graduating class, so I thank him for his presence.

At least two of your alumni were very important parts of my administration. I want to acknowledge former Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy deLeon, and a man who is not here, Tony Coelho, who was a great congressman from California, the primary sponsor of the American with Disabilities Act, who served on the commission with people with disabilities.

I am here in two capacities. Not just as the commencement speaker, but Hillary and I came as the proud uncle and aunt of our nephew, Tyler, who is a member of this class. So I want to congratulate Tyler's mom and dad, and all the parents and family members and support systems that got all these graduates here today, as well as the graduates themselves.

I am well aware that for most of you, the least important part of this ceremony is my talk. Look, I graduated from Georgetown 48 years ago, and I can say with some conviction that most people who've been out of college as long as I have cannot remember either their commencement speaker, much less what he said. However, I remember both, and I learned a lot from it. Like you, we had our commencement outside. Like you, it started out as a cloudy day, but just as the commencement speaker, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Walter Washington, got up to speak, this huge thundercloud rolled over. The thunder was incredibly loud. A massive lightening bolt came out of the sky, and Walter Washington looked at us and said, “If we don't got out of here, we're all going to drown. I wish you all the best. If you'd like to read my speech, I'll send you a copy. Good luck.” That was it. I learned that the very finest commencement speeches are both brief and highly relevant.

Here's my only slightly longer attempt. You are graduating in the most interdependent age in human history. Interdependent with each other, within your community, your state, your nation and the world. This campus has seen global imagination, and what you have all said today, “light the world on fire,” both have to be defined, because all interdependence means is that here we are, stuck together. We can't get away from each other. Divorce, walls, borders, you name it, we're still stuck with our interdependence.

Whether we like it or not, for the rest of your lives, what happens to you will, in some measure, be determined by what happens to other people, by how you react to it, how they treat you, how you treat them, and what larger forces are at work in the world. The global economy, the internet, mobile technology, the explosion of the social media have unleashed both positive and negative forces. The last few years have seen an amazing explosion of economic, social and political empowerment. They have, also, laid bare the power of persistent inequalities, political and social instability, and identity politics based on the simple proposition that our differences are all that matter.

At the root of it all is a simple profound question: Will you define yourselves and your relationship to others in positive or negative terms? Because if we're bound to share the future, it seems to me that it is clear that all of us have a responsibility, each in our own way, to build up the positive and to reduce the negative forces of our interdependence. This applies to people on the left, the right, somewhere in the middle or somewhere out there. There are so many people who feel that they're losing out in the modern world, because people either don't see, don't know, or they see them only as members of groups that they feel threatened by.

The young people pushing for immigration reform, clinging to DACA and DAPA, hoping to make their way in a country where their future is uncertain, feel that way. The young people in the Black Lives Matter movement feel that way. But so do the coal miners in communities where their present is bleak and they think their future is bleaker, and they think all of us who want to fight climate change don't give a rip about the wreckage of their lives. It's everywhere. When we try to drift apart in an interdependent age, all we do is build up the negative and reduce the positive forces of interdependence.

What does set the world on fire mean anyway? It means you can set the world on fire by the power of your imagination, by the gift of your passion, by the devotion of your heart and your skills to make your life richer and to lift others; or it means you can set the world on fire. You have to decide, but because the world is interdependent, you can't take a pass.

I think the future begins by accepting the wonderful instruction of our very first Jesuit pope. Pope Francis has fostered a culture of encounter. Where my foundation works in Africa and the hills of central Africa, nobody's got any kind of wheel transportation, so everybody meets each other on foot, and when people pass each other on path and one says, “Good morning, hello. How are you?” the response translated into English is, “I see you. I encounter you. You are real to me.”

Think about all the people today, yesterday and tomorrow, you will pass and not see. Do you really see everybody who works in a restaurant where you'll go after here to have a celebratory meal? Do we see people that we pass on the street, who may have a smile or a frown, or a burden they can barely carry alone? When we passionately advocate for the causes we believe in, have we anticipated all the unanticipated consequences so that we can take everybody along for a ride to the future we imagine.

When Pope Francis tells us to engage in a culture of encounter, he's thinking about the LMU students in this class who since they were freshman have performed almost 200,000 hours of community service. Thank you. That's a fancy elevated way of saying you saw a need, and you stepped in to solve it, and you did it, not only because it was the morally right thing for other people, but because it made your life more meaningful. That's the way you want to set the world on fire.

The young people that were mentioned in my introduction who have been part of our global initiative community for university students made very specific commitments. They promised to mentor high school girls to help them overcome any preconceived notions of their own limitations. They promised to help the victims of domestic violence and violence against the homeless. They promised to provide more capital to small businesspeople in Haiti through micro-credit loans, something that means a lot to Hillary and me personally, because for more than 40 years since we took a honeymoon trip there, we've cared about them and believed in them. They promised an educational exchange with the National University of Rwanda. We can learn a lot from them, because they lost 10 percent of their people in ninety days to a genocide in 1994, and they came back because they refused to be paralyzed by the past. They joined hands across the land that led to all that bloodshed to create a common future.

That's what's at the heart of your restorative justice program here. Instead of figuring out who to punish, figure out how to repair the harm. Instead of focusing on getting even for the past, focus on how we can share the future. It's at the heart of your efforts here to improve the juvenile justice system. You, without knowing it, have often embodied the future of positive interdependence we hope to build. You can't have shared prosperity and an inclusive community unless we believe our common humanity is even more important than our incredibly interesting differences.

I will say this again. On every continent, think of the struggles in Latin America; think of the political struggles and social and economic struggles in America; think of what's going on in Asia; think of what's going on in Africa; think of how Europe is dealing with this influx from the Middle East of the largest number of refugees since World War II, and all the conflicts within all these countries, and whether they should keep Europe together. Every single one of these is part of an ongoing battle to define the terms of our interdependence.

Will we do it in positive or negative terms? Are we going to expand the definition of us and shrink the definition of them, or shall we just hunker down in the face of uncomfortable realities and just stick with our own crowd? It will be a bleaker future if you do that.

Set the world on fire with your imagination, not with your matches. Set the world on fire by proving that what we have in common is a million times more important than our admittedly utterly fascinating differences.

Finally, I just want to say that all this is, this great struggle that will go on for several years now to define our relationships in an interdependent world, is for you the background of a real life, your life, the life in which you will write your own story, live your own dreams, suffer your own disappointments. It is an empowering gift, this education you have. For most of human history, adults had no choice about what they did with their waking hours. They got up and did what their forbears had done to survive, to feed, to propagate the species, to have children, to raise them, to go on a more or less routinized way. If someone had said to them in whatever language they communicated in, “Your job is to set the world on fire,” they would have had no clue, except maybe to try to put two sticks or stones together to be warm at night and cook food. But you can set the world on fire, because of the empowerment of your education and the empowerment of your circumstances.

Here's my last shot. There are no final victories or defeats in this life. You will make mistakes and you will fail, and if you keep trying, you will be glad you did. The only thing that matters is how quick you get up and how resolutely you go on. It is not given to us to win every battle, but to fight the right fight. Mother Theresa once said it was far more important that she and her fellow nuns be faithful than that they always be successful.

I can tell you, after 48 years, it doesn't take long to live a life, but the journey can be utterly glorious, and I would give anything to be your age again, just to see what's going to happen. I do believe that this will be the most prosperous, discovery ridden, exhilarating period in human history, if we decide how best to set the world on fire, if we keep expanding the definition of us and shrinking the definition of them, if every day we all get a little better in seeing everyone we encounter physically or virtually, if we remember that a very short life, the things that we share that are even more than the things about us that are special.

Do well. Do good. Have a good time doing it, and remember, it's the journey that matters. Set the world on fire in the right way. God bless you.