President Patricia McGuire’s 2008 Cap & Gown Convocation Remarks

Congratulations to our seniors, the Blue Class of 2009!  Congratulations to Allison Dobbs, winner of the St. Katherine Medal!  Many thanks and congratulations to Peggy Lewis ’77, our speaker who just delivered such a remarkable address, truly an alumna worth of her award as a “Washington Woman of Genius.”

It is customary on this occasion for the president of the university to offer a few closing remarks to the senior class on the responsibilities that go along with your caps and gowns, the marks of your senior status in our academic community.

This week, the crisis in the financial markets finally stirred Washington, and the President of the United States summoned the most important leaders of our nation to a special meeting in the cabinet room in the White House.   You’ve seen the photographs of this meeting all over the news, in print and online and on television.   In all of these photographs, there are dark suits and red ties galore — and only one strand of pearls.   The only woman at the table in this gathering of the most powerful people in our country at this most crucial time is a graduate of Trinity, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, third in line to the presidency, Trinity Class of 1962.

Reports from this meeting say it was “one of the wildest meetings in memory,” a real donnybrook, with much conflict and little agreement over the plan to rescue the financial sector.   To the Speaker of the House falls the ultimate leadership task of forging consensus out of the conflict.   Anonymous reports also tell us that so exasperating was the meeting, so fraught with argument and anger, that at the end of the meeting the powerful Secretary of the Treasury got down on one knee in front of the Speaker of the House and begged her to get the job done, to get Congress to pass the bailout legislation.

How’s that for a Trinity Woman?

Nancy Pelosi is certainly a remarkable example of the power of a Trinity education, a role model for our students and graduates to emulate.  You might agree or disagree with her politics, but you have to admit that she is a stunning example of women’s leadership in our nation.

What’s that, you say?  A role model?  Nancy is so very different from me — I couldn’t possibly do what she’s done!

Repeat after me:  if she can do it, so can I!

If she can do it, so can I!

Nancy Pelosi was a student in many ways like you, but perhaps even less experienced, sitting in this very chapel in her new cap and gown in 1961, aspiring to graduate, get married, have a family, and settle down into the traditional roles then expected of Catholic women.   Becoming a member of Congress, let alone Speaker of the House — a woman so powerful the Treasury Secretary genuflects in front of her — none of these achievements were on her agenda when she sat in her classes on the second floor of Main Hall, when she dashed from Cuvilly to Alumnae for breakfast, when she sat with her friends in the lounge late at night and shared her worries and hopes and dreams and struggles and joys.   She went on to have five children, and did not even start her political career until the kids were all in school, when she was 47 years old.

She raised a great family, and got her start in politics rather late in life in politics because she was moved to civic activism by the needs of her community.  She saw conditions she wanted to influence, to change, to improve.  She was not afraid to raise her voice on behalf of the causes she felt were just, to denounce injustice.  She put in her time as a volunteer, community activist, local party leader, community organizer.   She earned her success as a political leader one office at a time, one election at a time, one vote at a time.  She became very skilful at doing the most important task of leadership, which is to build consensus among different points of view to achieve a common goal.   She earned the respect and acclaim of her colleagues even though she is also someone who does not hesitate to express bold, even radical, points of view.   She is unafraid of criticism; she accepts disagreement as part of the life of a leader.  And now, she is central to the process of forging the solution to our nation’s financial crisis.

If she can do all of this, so can you.

Oh, come on, you say, I’m just a mom trying to get through school, an office worker who is trying to make ends meet who wants a degree to move ahead financially.   I’m a 23 year-old senior who’s been to a few colleges and just want to get to graduation in May so I can be done with this phase of my life.   I’m just a regular person with my hands full, don’t expect me to do more!

Consider this:  there’s another woman on the political stage right now who is also, in many ways, just a regular person who has been propelled into the harsh glare of national media.   Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, is also, like Nancy Pelosi, a mom of five kids, though Governor Palin is raising them while in office, a real tough challenge.   Sarah does not come from wealth; she attended four or five colleges before earning her degree.   She has worked hard, has faced many “real life” family issues, including having a Down Syndrome baby and a daughter who is now expecting her own child.

And yet, this woman with so many real life issues is now a state governor, and candidate for vice president of the United States.   You may agree or disagree with her political positions.  But surely, Sarah Palin is showing other women the possibilities inherent in standing up for your convictions, in engaging the political process.

If she can do it, so can you.

Oh, get out, you say, Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, white women who have experiences and privileges I will never know, they can’t be my inspiration.

So, then, consider this:  there’s another public figure right now who is also a remarkable story, a bi-racial child raised by a single parent, putting himself through college on loans, learning how to organize communities first through his Church activities, eventually running for elective office because he saw ways to help people through getting involved with politics, rising quickly through the ranks of his party to become the nominee for President of the United States, the first African American ever to have the nomination of a major party in this country.   You may agree or disagree with his politics; but surely you must agree that Barack Obama is a remarkable model of achievement.

If Barack Obama can do it, so can you.

You can overcome the adversity you sometimes feel in your lives.   You can blow right past the barriers of race and gender and social class to establish yourselves as people of power and influence in the community.  You can rise above personal circumstances to become community leaders, movers of increasingly large circles of influence, authors of new programs and policies to improve the conditions of life for others.

You can do all of this with the strength and wisdom and knowledge imparted through your Trinity education.

But I’m not a politician, you say.  I’m a Business major, a lover of literature, a student of history, a scientific whiz2008 Cap and Gown Convocation Remarksbut I have no interest in politics.

No?   Do you want to buy a car someday soon?  Get a car loan?  Do you want to put gas in that car on a regular basis?

Politics affects your lives.

Do you want to get college loans in the future?  Bigger Pell grants?  Relief on the prices for textbooks?

Do you want to buy a house someday?  Do you want to keep the house you’ve got?

Are you buying bread and milk these days?  Are you happy with the prices you’re seeing at the grocery store?

Politics affects your choices.

Do you happen to work at, or know people who have worked at, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac or some of the other major financial institutions, some of which are right here in Washington?  People whose pensions were tied to the stock of those companies?  People whose jobs are disappearing in this financial meltdown?  Do you have bank accounts?

Politics influences your jobs, your personal finances, your economic security.

Not interested in politics?  Even poets have to write checks; even early childhood educators have to pay taxes.   Unless you plan to live in a cave and forage for food, you are affected by politics, and you cannot profess either ignorance or disinterest in the issues that are reshaping our society at this time.  There is not one person I know who can claim to be unaffected by what’s happening to our country economically, politically, spiritually.

We are about to have the most important presidential election of our lifetimes.  Historically, however, only about 50% of the people eligible to vote have actually voted in this country.   A few thousand voters actually makes a great difference in the very close elections that we have been seeing in recent years.   Voting is the first and most important responsibility of citizenship in a democracy.   You must vote.

Today you proudly wear your Trinity caps and gowns, those great symbols of your academic achievements.  But with these vestments come high expectations.   Trinity expects you to use this education for great public good, not just personal satisfaction.  Trinity expects you to rise to the challenges of each era in which you are privileged to live, to accept the responsibilities of leadership that you now have as a member of the elite community of college-educated citizens of this earth, gifted minds with large talents to share on behalf of our local and national communities.

Trinity expects you to break the silence wherever truth must be spoken.  Trinity expects you to take the risk of criticism and opposition to place justice as the central concern on the table. Trinity expects you to engage intelligently and passionately with the most critical issues affecting the health of our children, families, communities, schools and society.

You may certainly have different points of view about solutions, different policy preferences, different party affiliations, different candidates for whom you will cast votes; the only choice you do not have is the choice to do nothing.   Your cap and gown makes you a marked person; now you must act, with the power, wisdom and love of the Trinity going with you each day.

Congratulations, seniors!