SPEECH: University of Alaska Southeast Commencement

* As Prepared, Not Delivered

Chancellor Caulfield, Members of the Board of Regents, parents, students, and friends—good afternoon!

I am so pleased to be here to celebrate with all of you.  As the mother of two sons who have graduated from college, I know something of the long road that has brought each of you here today, and the joy you are feeling as we gather to help you mark your achievements.

While many commencement speakers over the years, at campuses across the United States, have used these occasions to give advice like, “Be true to yourself”, or “Work at what brings you joy and ignites your passions”, or “Have the courage to sail far from shore”, my address today will be a little different.

I think it is more important to recognize the reality of the future you are walking toward today and to share a message of practicality leavened with optimism.

Today, across the country, many college graduates may feel the future looks bleak.  Some of you here today may share that outlook.

Here in Juneau, politics have surrounded you as legislators have wrangled and argued over competing fiscal plans without a broadly-supported solution in sight.

Alaska still suffers from recession and the highest unemployment rates in the nation. 

We see more and more out-migration of skilled workers and university faculty who are leaving Alaska to find jobs down south.

Newspapers proclaim that student loan debt has topped a trillion dollars. Graduates across the country struggle to pay off their loans while they hope to someday be able to buy a home or a new car or start a family.

Across the nation, it seems that Americans are divided as never before by politics, by race, by income, and by region.  It sometimes seems our American family cannot agree on anything.

          You have a lot of things in front of you that might make the average person worry.  The practical reality of embarking on a new life under circumstances like these may be daunting.

My message is this: Be Not Afraid.

          Why?  Because—whether you were born and raised here in Alaska, or you are here by choice—you are Alaskan. 

And, as I often say, “If you want something done right, get an Alaskan to do it.”

          Innovation, solution-finding, and creativity began in Alaska over ten thousand years ago when the first person crossed the Bering Sea land bridge looking for a place to live and raise her family.

Those qualities didn’t evaporate the day after Alaskans collaborated to build an 800-mile long oil pipeline to accommodate the challenges of earthquakes, caribou, bears, permafrost, wide rivers and spring breakup, 3,000 foot mountains, glaciers, and landslides.

          Alaskans did not stop figuring things out during the Exxon Valdez oil spill when confronted by birds and marine mammals covered with oil.  They got out their bottles of Dawn. 

          Alaskans are still called to innovate to address our unique circumstances when it comes to energy production, adapting to climate change, providing health care, to feeding ourselves. 

          You are part of Alaska’s tradition of getting it done, doing it right, making it work.  Just by living here, getting through a day of subzero cold, or a week of rain coming down sideways, living in towns where bears routinely come for a visit and our food either has to be hunted, grown, or flown in.  Regardless of the challenges, Alaskans learn and exemplify the skills of team work and invention.