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University of Washington Commencement

June 11, 2011
Seattle, Washington

President Wise, Trustees, members of the faculty, Class of 2011: it’s an honor to be here with you today in beautiful, partly sunny Seattle. This is a nice view you have here. In fact, I’ve decided that this Washington is a much better backdrop for my speeches than the OTHER Washington. It’s going to take some work for my staff, but I think they’re up for it.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the friends and family who are here today. I have a good friend who reminds me that: “we all drink from wells we didn’t dig, and are warmed by fires we didn’t build.”

Graduates, you would not be here without the sacrifice, support, and encouragement of your loved ones who are here with you today. So before I go any further, please give them a round of applause.

When I was thinking about what I could say today, I thought back to my own college days and to some words that have always stayed with me. They’re from a speech Bobby Kennedy gave 45 years ago this week to college students in South Africa.

This was 1966, the year I started college, and the Civil Rights movement was in full fervor. Congress had outlawed Jim Crow two years earlier, but in our cities and towns, the fight for equal rights was still a day-to-day struggle

In South Africa, apartheid reigned. Black South Africans attended separate schools, rode separate buses, used separate restrooms, and were being forced out of their homes in a national campaign to separate blacks from whites.

At the time, few foreign leaders would even meet with black South Africans. But when Kennedy was invited to give a speech to a group of students, black and white, at the University of Capetown, he decided to go.

In his remarks, he argued that overcoming prejudice and discrimination was the defining challenge for both of our countries. And when it came time to suggest a way forward, here is what he said: “Our answer is the world’s hope; it is to rely on youth. The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans…. This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”

Think about that for a second: In the struggle against the greatest challenge of his age, Kennedy did not appeal to government; in fact, South Africa’s leadership refused to meet with him on his trip. He did not appeal to CEOs or wealthy philanthropists. He did not appeal to academics or to famous entertainers. He appealed to young people, to students.

Often, folks my age come to graduations and say: “Here are the lessons I’ve learned. Follow this advice – and you will be successful.” But what Kennedy knew – and what I want to stress to you today – is that wisdom isn’t the only thing that builds with age. Growing older can also bring complacency and cautiousness. It can produce timidity and a lack of moral courage

I’m not saying that experience has no value. (You still need to call your mother and listen to what she tells you!)

But it’s no accident that when you look back at the most transformational moments in America’s history, you often see young people leading the way. Thomas Jefferson was just 32 when he wrote the words that became our nation’s North Star. Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. And Seattle’s own Bill Gates was just 20 when he dropped out of college to start a company that brought the power of the computer into America’s homes and offices.

Gates is a good example. He was just a college sophomore when he read in a magazine that a company needed software for a new type of machine: the personal computer. Gates called them up and offered to sell it to them. There was one problem: he hadn’t written the software yet. Luckily, they gave him a month.

Gates had what Kennedy called the “qualities of youth.” He had the vision to imagine a totally different world than the one he lived in – a world in which computers were not huge devices used only by experts, but valuable tools for average Americans. More importantly, Gates took a risk. He had enough confidence in his own idea that he pitched a product that did not even exist yet.

Without risk, there is no transformative change. But as you grow older, it will get harder to take that chance. With every new milestone in your life, there will be more excuses to play it safe. Even now, some of you may feel that you’ve invested so much time and money to get your degree that you’re committed to a certain path. I urge you to discard these thoughts. When I graduated from college, I had never been to Kansas. A few decades later, I was Governor of the state.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because you are setting out into a world that I believe demands the “qualities of youth” – that demands the imagination to see the world as it could be, not as it is, and the courage to believe you can be the ones to change it.

I see this every day in my work in health care. Today, in the United States, we have the best trained doctors, nurses and researchers in the world. We have the finest equipment, devices and medicines. We spend far more on health care than any other country. Yet, we have been struggling for decades to answer some basic questions.

How do we provide affordable health coverage to every American? How can we slow rising costs that are taking away from other investments like higher education? How do we reward doctors for the quality of the care they provide, not the quantity? How do we keep people healthy rather than waiting to treat their illnesses?

How we respond to these questions will have a huge impact on our nation’s future health and prosperity. And the answer, in many cases, is not incremental improvement, but a fundamental shift in how we do things. Government can provide an initial push – that’s what last year’s health care law is doing. But the transformation of health care will not happen without you behind it.

I can already hear some of you saying: “I’m 22-years-old. I don’t own a hospital. I don’t run an insurance company. I don’t have a vote in Congress. What difference can I make?”

But just look at the Middle East and North Africa, where young people with far fewer resources and advantages than you have are leading the fight to remake their countries. Leaders clinging to power want to shut down Twitter and Facebook, not to stop people my age from rising up, but to stop young people who are willing to take huge risks for a brighter future they can only imagine.

Or look around you at classmates like Geoffrey Morgan. Geoffrey was studying abroad in China when the 2008 earthquake hit. UW offered to bring him home. But Geoffrey decided to stay and, with a classmate, raised $65,000 that helped pay for much-needed school supplies. He then organized a letter-writing campaign that led to him delivering 5,700 letters to students affected by the earthquake from their peers around the world.

So my advice to you is to embrace the qualities of youth: to dream big and live boldly. This is not a new idea. It’s captured in dozens of graduation clichés: swing for the fences, reach for the stars, no risk, no reward. But the reason we hand down these clichés is because they contain real wisdom.

Today, our country faces big challenges that will not yield to incremental change or small ambition or a narrow vision of what’s possible. And it will be up to you, Class of 2011, to help us solve them, not in 10 years or 20 years or once you’ve reached the end of some “path,” but starting now.

Let me end by quoting Mr. Spock from Star Trek who used to say “Live long and prosper.” It’s a good motto for the health care system we envision for America – one in which all our citizens have the chance to live long, prosperous lives. With your energy, your talent, your education and, most importantly, your “qualities of youth,” I am confident that we can not only make this vision a reality, but also rise together to meet all the greatest challenges of our time.

Congratulations, Class of 2011, and good luck!