Duckworth Delivers Commencement Address to the George Washington University's Class of 2017
[WASHINGTON, DC] - U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered the commencement address to the Class on 2017 today at the George Washington University, where she graduated with a Master of Arts degree in international affairs in 1992. Drawing on her own life's story and the words of President Teddy Roosevelt, Duckworth urged graduates to never let challenges get in their way and to never let the fear of failure prevent them from pursuing their dreams or from getting involved.
"Teddy Roosevelt once said...'there is no effort without error and shortcoming'...It's really just an eloquent way of saying don't be afraid of failure. Don't be afraid of being embarrassed or of being criticized. Just try. Just get in the arena. Successful people didn't make it because they never failed, they made it because they never gave up.
"We can't predict our successes or our failures - we can only control how we react to them...I've had plenty of moments when I thought of giving up - moments when I thought I had been defeated. November 12, 2004, is my 'Alive Day'...I was flying high that day over Iraq in my Black Hawk with the best crew out there. Then, without warning, an RPG tore through the cockpit of my aircraft...I was quite literally in pieces.
"The days, weeks and months that followed were some of the hardest of my life. But in those most challenging moments, my life's mission couldn't have been more clear. I knew from that moment on I would spend every single day of the rest of my life trying to honor the courage and sacrifice of my buddies who saved me that day. So, with the help of my family, friends and fellow servicemembers at Walter Reed, I began my recovery. It was anything but easy. Tasks like picking up a pencil - or even just sitting up without passing out - were no longer simple.
"But after every time I couldn't do something, after every day when I didn't know how I'd make it to the next, I made the choice not to give up...I got back in the arena.
"There will be hard times, your journey won't be without its challenges. The struggles you will face in life from here on out may be harder than any you faced on campus, but you will only get better at reacting to them. You will only get better at overcoming whatever is in your path. Remember President Roosevelt's words...there will be moments when you feel discouraged. There will be times when you don't get the job you thought you wanted, or moments when paying off that student debt feels impossible...Trust me, I get it - I'm still paying my student loans off.
"There will be hard times when you get hurt or lose someone close to you. But those challenges, those struggles, those are what make our successes possible. We are not successful in spite of our challenges, we are successful because of our will to overcome them...Congratulations, class of 2017. It's time to get in the arena."
Full text of the speech as prepared for delivery is below:
Thank you! Thank you all so much! Congratulations, Class of 2017! And of course, congratulations to all of the parents, sisters, brothers and family members who made this day possible. The last time I was at one of these I was down there as a student. It looks a little different from up here!
To the faculty, staff, students and the entire GW community: Thank you for this honorary degree, and for inviting me to be your commencement speaker today. It's such an unexpected honor, and I hope I am able to live up the standards set by previous speakers - Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, my colleague Cory Booker ... Can't be that hard though, can it?
And to President Knapp, thank you for your service to GW over the last decade. I really want you to pay close attention here, Mr. President-not only because I have a lot to say about all the work you've done to make this university a better place, but also because I've been asked by some students to distract you for a few minutes as they try to kidnap your dog Ruffles, who I hear is quite the campus celebrity ... Now! Go Go Go!
Seriously though, you should be proud of your time here, and I know your leadership will be missed ... almost as much as Ruffles.
I'm here today at a critical time in our nation's history. Every day we are reminded of the challenges and threats we face abroad and here at home - our infrastructure is crumbling, student debt is skyrocketing and we still have troops in harm's way around the world.
Many of you might feel like we're engaged in a battle for the heart and soul of our country. There are leaders in Washington with a dark vision for our future, who will say anything, criticize anyone and everything just further their own self-interest-seemingly without regard for what's best for our people and for our country.
The thoughtful, principled leaders once common in Congress and the White House-the kind of leaders who fought over policies during the day, compromised and then shared a drink together as friends in the evening ... They are today too often drowned out by the loudest voice in the room, whether or not that voice has a plan-or can even string coherent sentences together.
It's in that environment that I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to say today. Thinking about what I wanted you to take away from your time at GW, and hopefully this address, my message to you-wherever you fall on the political spectrum-is to get involved, not discouraged.
The less well-known President Roosevelt-Teddy Roosevelt-once said when explaining what it meant to be a citizen, "It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming."
Think about that-there is no effort without error and shortcoming. It's really just an eloquent way of saying don't be afraid of failure. Don't be afraid of being embarrassed or of being criticized. Just try. Just get in the arena.
Successful people didn't make it because they never failed, they made it because they never gave up. When you don't get that job you really want, see it as an opportunity to find something better for yourself.
If you weren't happy with the outcome of last year's election, think of it as a chance to get involved in your community as a catalyst for the change you want to make. The point is you need to get into the arena. And then you need to stay there and make your voice heard.
When I arrived at GW, becoming a helicopter pilot or a United States Senator were not a part of my wildest dreams. I came here because I wanted to be a Foreign Service officer, and I knew that there was no better place to prepare for the Foreign Service than the George Washington University.
So with the help of student loans, grants and a full-time job, I enrolled in the Elliot School of International Affairs. When I got to my classes, I got to know servicemembers and Veterans from all different backgrounds.
I always knew I wanted to serve my country - but my classmates at GW helped expand my vision of what that service could look like. These were individuals who were so unapologetically patriotic, but also weren't afraid to think critically about our government and of how our nation conducts itself around the world.
They helped me understand that our nation's strength doesn't just come from tanks and guns and helicopters - although I do love those - but that our strength also comes from strong diplomatic relationships and a willingness to engage with those who are different from us.
Here at GW, I was surrounded by servicemembers and Veterans, and they showed me that serving in uniform and supporting diplomacy weren't mutually exclusive. Then it came time for me to decide what my own service would look like. I had just been laid off from my job because the company I worked for had been sold. I chose to take that job loss as an opportunity to do something really different...
At that point, the Berlin Wall was falling, the Gulf War began and it became clear that joining the Army was a way I could serve this nation that I love during a critical time. So I signed up for Army basic training.
I wasn't sure where it would take me, but I knew I had a duty to serve my nation. I wanted to think I had everything figured out - but there was no way I could have known how things would play out. I couldn't have imagined the challenges I would face - challenges in the military, in Congress or as a new mom...
But that's the thing - none of us ever can. We can't predict our successes or our failures - we can only control how we react to them. When you're in the arena, failure is part of the process. But these failures, these challenges, aren't what define us - we are defined by how we respond and persevere.
Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying it's easy. It's not easy to face rejection, to face failure, to feel defeated by forces beyond your control. I've had plenty of moments when I thought of giving up - moments when I thought I had been defeated.
November 12, 2004, is my "Alive Day." It was the day I almost died, but didn't-and it was a good day for me. I was flying high that day over Iraq in my Black Hawk with the best crew out there. Then, without warning, an RPG tore through the cockpit of my aircraft.
It was a lucky shot for the enemy. One of my legs was vaporized and the other amputated by my Black Hawk's instrument panel. The explosion blew off the entire back of my right arm. I was quite literally in pieces. My pilot-in-command managed to land our aircraft, and they started pulling out the wounded.
They thought I was dead at first, but when they tried to give medical attention to one my crew members, Chris, he refused help and told them to help me instead. He saw that I was still bleeding and they thought that maybe my heart was still beating. He did what every servicemember in combat is willing to do, even if they hope they never have to: he refused treatment for himself to save someone else.
My buddies wouldn't give up on me. They refused to leave me behind. It was a hard day for me - and a hard day for my crew. They picked me up - covered in my blood and tissue - as they tried to keep my body intact.
If I didn't make it, they knew they could at least return what was left of me to my family. It was a good day for me because good men saved me and I lived...I survived to serve my nation again.
The days, weeks and months that followed were some of the hardest of my life. But in those most challenging moments, my life's mission couldn't have been more clear. I knew from that moment on I would spend every single day of the rest of my life trying to honor the courage and sacrifice of my buddies who saved me that day. So, with the help of my family, friends and fellow servicemembers at Walter Reed, I began my recovery.
It was anything but easy. Tasks like picking up a pencil - or even just sitting up without passing out - were no longer simple. At first, it was unclear how I would lead a regular life, let alone continue serving my nation... I can't tell you how disappointed I was when they told me I couldn't go back to serve in my Helicopter Battalion.
Being separated from my buddies ripped my core identity out, just as if that RPG ripped out my heart too when it took my legs. But after every time I couldn't do something, after every day when I didn't know how I'd make it to the next, I made the choice not to give up. It wasn't a choice really because giving up would have been a betrayal of the effort my buddies put into saving me and I would never betray my crew.
Then, one day, Senator Dick Durbin from my home state of Illinois invited me to be his guest at President Bush's State of the Union address.
Even though I was just a few weeks into my recovery, I wanted to see the democracy that I had given up my legs - and my career as an Army helicopter pilot - to protect. Senator Durbin also made a foolish mistake when he gave me his business card and his personal cell phone number. Because I used it. A lot.
I figured if I had this chance to speak to a United States Senator about the problems my buddies at Walter Reed faced every day, I couldn't pass it up. I wanted to make it clear to all who lead this nation - and really to anyone who would listen - just what a dear price we pay when we send our troops into harm's way.
I got back in the arena. I may have been broken but I could still be an Army officer. I could still take care of my troops. Maybe I was done serving in combat, but I could see the next step in my life's path still meant serving my fellow Veterans.
After I got out of Walter Reed, I went to the VA, I ran for Congress and then I won my seat in the Senate. So now, I get to bug Dick Durbin in person every... single... day...
My life since my Black Hawk was shot out of the sky has been incredible - and improbable. There have been highs-and there have been unbelievable lows-over the last 12 years, but at least one thing has remained constant: Every time I got knocked down, I got back up. I dusted myself off and I got back in the arena - when my face had literally been marred with dust and sweat and blood. And I am so glad that I did.
My story has a few more years than yours, but I'm not really that different than any of you. I've been in that audience. I know you can get into the arena too, which is good because our nation needs you perhaps now more than ever.
You've been training for it, but now you need to step up. You can be our nation's next generation of leaders. Luckily, as GW grads, you already have a head start on many of your peers. Over and over, the students of the George Washington University have proven to be some of the most civically-engaged students in the nation, showing leadership in and out of the political arena.
GW students and graduates show their commitment to serving others, to making sacrifices in order to serve something bigger than yourself, day in and day out. In the past year alone, GW students donated over 700,000 hours of service in local communities and around the world to improve our environment, our education systems and open up spaces for minority voices.
Many of you take an active role in government, at both the local level and the national level - including two of you who interned in my office this semester. Kathleen Hunt and Steven Shao, thank you both for all the help! A lot of GW students also volunteer to serve their nation in uniform, just as they did while I was here.
There are over 450 servicemembers and Veterans in the Class of 2017 alone. I thank each of you, and each of your families, for your service and sacrifice. Every single graduate here today has something to be proud of. You also have a lot to be thankful for.
As GW grads, you have been given opportunities millions of Americans will never know, and this degree will continue to open up new experiences that you can't imagine yet. Don't lose sight of the good fortune and luck that helped you get here.
Some of you may have been lucky enough to afford tuition here without any help, but even if you worked 3 jobs, took out student loans and earned scholarships just to get to class-there are people out there who aren't as lucky.
I guess what I'm saying is, to reference Kendrick Lamar, whose real last name is actually Duckworth: "Be humble."
Because, in all seriousness, as GW graduates you will have access to resources and opportunities that people who are simply less lucky than you've been won't have. But if you don't lose sight of those who are less fortunate, you can go out and make a difference.
I hope that you continue the work you've already started as public servants, as activists, as entrepreneurs, as scientists, as journalists, as change makers in the years to come.
It's your turn now, but you actually have to do it yourselves. Earning your diplomas wasn't easy. I know you each experienced struggles during your time here-but you made it. And I want you to remember this moment, the tenacity, the diligence, the work ethic and the dedication it took for you to get here.
You have that within you, and those qualities will take you far. But there will be hard times, your journey won't be without its challenges. The struggles you will face in life from here on out may be harder than any you faced on campus, but you will only get better at reacting to them. You will only get better at overcoming whatever is in your path.
Remember that President Roosevelt's words that there is no effort without error and shortcoming. There will be moments when you feel discouraged. There will be times when you don't get the job you thought you wanted, or moments when paying off that student debt feels impossible...Trust me, I get it - I'm still paying my student loans off.
There will be hard times when you get hurt or lose someone close to you. But those challenges, those struggles, those are what make our successes possible. We are not successful in spite of our challenges, we are successful because of our will to overcome them.
President Roosevelt understood that well. In his mind, the credit belongs to people who actually do things, people who, and I'm quoting him again: "at best [know]...the triumph of high achievement and who, at worst, ...[fail] while daring greatly."
And his last line about that person who dares greatly, it's a great one: their place "shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat." I want to let that sit with you for a moment.
It's not just about credit and who gets-or takes-it. It's about trying. It's about doing. Don't be afraid of failure, be afraid of never tasting it. Take this as your call to action; I am calling on you to serve. We need your contributions.
So get loud, get active-in whatever field you want to get involved in. Make a difference in the lives of your neighbors, in your city, in your state, in your country - just like many other GW graduates have done, including those who've gone into space, who've won Olympic medals and held public office. They all took risks, got knocked down and maybe failed the first, second, or tenth time they tried - but every single one of them made the choice not to give up.
Now, I'm not saying you all need to become astronauts or run for office. I'm saying put yourself out there. Don't be a timid soul that knows neither victory nor defeat. You should never forget the time spent here, or what you accomplished here.
But you also shouldn't lose sight of what lies ahead, what you can still accomplish. What you must accomplish to move our country forward. So with that, I cannot tell you how much of an honor it is for me to welcome each of you as the newest members of the George Washington University alumni community.
Congratulations, class of 2017. It's time to get in the arena.
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