Remarks by Colin L. Powell, USA, Ret.

Northeastern University

110th Commencement

May 4, 2012

Thank you so very, very much, ladies and gentlemen, for your kind and warm welcome.

Mr. President, Chairman Sternberg, Provost Director, Ms. Batt, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, parents, family members, and the fabulous Northeastern graduating class of 2012, good morning! I am so pleased to be with you on this beautiful spring morning on this historic campus that has produced so many of America’s leaders.

I thank the Board of Trustees for conferring this honorary degree upon me. I am deeply appreciative and especially pleased to share this occasion with my distinguished fellow honorees. I am doubly pleased to receive the degree from Chairman Sternberg, a good friend. Sy is on the advisory committee of the Colin Powell Center for Leadership and Service at the City College of New York, a wonderful school that we both are graduates of. Sy graduated in 1965 with a degree in engineering. I graduated seven years earlier as a soldier, having busted out of engineering.

In his success, Sy has never forgotten the obligation he has to the schools that gave him the education that led to his success. I offer my congratulations to Chairman Sternberg as he steps down from the chairmanship of the Board of Trustees. You are fortunate that he will continue on the board.

No Stranger to Boston

This is the first time I have ever been on the campus of Northeastern University, and a beautiful and creative and exciting campus it is. But I am not a stranger to this neighborhood. I have to tell you this story. Many years ago, I was a young infantry lieutenant stationed at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, about an hour west of here. One day a fellow lieutenant asked me to join him on a double date with some young ladies who lived in the Back Bay section, about five minutes from here on Marlborough Street.

He was interested in one of the ladies, and he asked me to join him, to run interference with the other one. I had never been on a blind date, but he persuaded me to go. She was no more interested in a blind date than I was. I was a young Army lieutenant from Harlem and the South Bronx. She came from a prominent family of educators in Birmingham, Alabama. She was working on her master’s degree here in Boston at Emerson College, and she worked at the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. She was definitely out of my league.

I walked in and was pleasantly surprised, as, apparently, was she. We ended up dating for a number of months, and then President Kennedy had an idea. Let’s send Powell to Vietnam, to help with the build-up of advisors to see if we can help the Vietnamese. I was to be part of that team. I was excited and eager to go. So I drove to Marlborough Street and shared the news with the young lady. I talked about the adventure that was ahead, and that this was what being a soldier was all about.

She listened patiently and then she quietly said, “What about us?” “No problem,” I said. “I’ll be back in a year!” Her eyes narrowed, and she raised one of those scary eyebrows that women sometimes raise. I knew I was in trouble.

We were married two weeks later in Birmingham. We had a one-day honeymoon, and then I moved in with her at 372 Marlborough Street for a few months, before I left for Vietnam. It was a wonderful little one-roomer—that was our first home. This August, Alma, the pretty girl from Marlborough Street, and I will celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary. So, thank you, Boston! Thank you, Marlborough Street!

A Day to Remember

But this is not a day about me. This is a day about you. This is especially a day for your parents, as, with joy in their hearts, they see the culmination of all those years of anxiety, love, panic, and cost in this moment of achievement and success.

Now, I noticed as I was coming in, you were all trying to spot where your parents are. Your parents are trying to spot you. So, let’s stop right now. All of you get up. Find your parents. Blow them a kiss. And say, “Thank you. I love you.”

I offer my congratulations to the faculty and staff of Northeastern who imparted to the graduates their wisdom, their experience, and their example of service. You owe them a great deal. So, please, applaud the faculty and staff of this fabulous school.

I remember my own graduation ceremony from the City College of New York, fifty-four years ago. I was not planning to attend the ceremony. It was a night ceremony in a dark outdoor stadium. And it was a large class, like this one, and you didn’t get to cross the stage and have your name called out. So I figured my mother wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t there.

In fact, I was at the Emerald Bar, about a block or so away, with a number of fellow miscreants, figuring, you know, we’ll have a good time and we’ll show up later. However, mothers being mothers, she sniffed the air and did not catch my scent. She knew where I was. Mothers are like that. So she sent a couple of my cousins over to catch me and drag me back to the ceremony. She had waited a long time for that moment. It was not to be denied.

As President Aoun noted, although most folks forget such things—about what the speaker said or what the President said—I still remember who the graduation speaker was fifty-four years ago. It was another CCNY graduate, Dr. Jonas Salk, the developer of the Salk vaccine that defeated polio, which was so terribly common in those days. I pray that fifty-four years from now, you will remember who your graduation speaker was. The name is Powell—P-O-W-E-L-L. Don’t forget it!

Purpose Beyond Position

I’ve got to tell you—I wasn’t considered one of the great successes of the CCNY educational system. The only reason I got out of CCNY was that they included all of my ROTC grades in my grade point average, and I got straight As in ROTC. When they rolled those in there, it brought me up to 2.0, and they said, “Good enough for government work, get him out of there.”

Now, I’m considered one of the greatest sons the City College of New York has ever had. So those of you who are not graduating with a 3.76 like Emily Batt—have faith, my young friends, have faith. It ain’t where you start in the life, it’s where you end up, and what you did along the way.

Did you work hard, and never stop learning? Did you believe in yourself? Were you your own role model? Did you believe in this country? And did you dream big?

It’s funny, but many people come up to me, now that I’ve been a secretary of state, and a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a national security advisor for the president. They say, “Gee, when you were a kid growing up in the South Bronx, did you dream that you would grow up to be a four-star general and a secretary of state?”

I smile and answer them, “Yeah, there I was. I believe I was about twelve years old, and I was standing on the corner of Kelly Street and 163rd. And I said to myself, ‘Self, you’re going to grow up and become a four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.’”

It doesn’t happen that way. And it never will for anybody. I worked hard. I belonged to an institution that was only concerned about your performance and your potential. The army, in those days, was the most socially progressive institution for blacks in the country, while segregation still was the law of the land in many parts of our country. But it worked for me mostly because I loved doing something that was dear to my heart—and that was being a soldier. I loved being a soldier, and I was a good soldier because I worked hard at it.

I didn’t have to become a general to find satisfaction in my career, nor was that ever promised to me. I found satisfaction everyday knowing that I was trying to do my best, and that I was serving my country. I went into the army to be a soldier, not a general.

Some of you may also know by now what you do well and love doing, and you know what your life’s work will be. But many of you may still be unsure. You may change your mind several times in the years ahead. Wherever you go, whatever path you follow, you have been well-prepared by the rigorous education you received here at Northeastern.

As each of you looks toward your future, always focus on finding that which you do well and that which you love doing. Do something that gives you satisfaction everyday and makes our society a better place. Do some- thing that helps your fellow citizens. Make sure you give a good measure of your time, and your talent, and your treasure in service to others. The need to serve others has never been greater in our nation.

Money and position will or will not follow, but satisfaction will always be there. Always have a purpose in life that is beyond position and money. The marvelous and famous Northeastern co-op and service programs exposed you to the nonacademic world, to ground you and connect you to the real world that you will be a part of. Above all, participate in the governing of this country. Serve on local committees and boards. Seek public office. And seek elective office if you are so inclined.

The Power of Compromise

You know, we complain a lot today about politics and politicians, and with good reason. But we can’t sit around waiting for Superman to come save the day. We the people are the supermen and superwomen. We are the deciders. So make yourselves smart about the issues. Don’t fall for slogans, and one-liners, and super-PAC money. Don’t fall for the hate peddlers and the cable-pundit commentary. You make your own mind up. Make your own decision.

If you don’t like what they’re doing, you vote against them. If you do like what they’re doing, you vote to keep them in, or to bring them in. But don’t stand on the sidelines. Vote.

Any one of you who is eligible to vote but is not registered, come see me right after this ceremony.

We need in our political life now the kind of consensus-building that our founding fathers knew so well. I still think about them, in Philadelphia in 1787, for four months. And then I compare it to what our political system is like now. They sat there for four months. They all had strong views. These were men of powerful opinions. But they knew they had to find compromise with each other. It’s good to fight for what you believe in, but at some point you have to realize the other person may have a point, and come together.

And so they compromised on what the House of Representatives should look like. The power of the president. They compromised on what the Senate should look like. What the Congress should do. They compromised on one of the most difficult issues facing them at that time: slavery. And they couldn’t solve it, because they were there to create a nation, and a constitution—not to solve slavery. So the issue had to be put off.

If these men, in a hot room in Philadelphia, with no press watching, could do this so long ago, why can’t our politicians give us a budget that makes sense?

The Example of Democracy

The world you are now entering is so different and so much better than the world I started out in on my night of graduation. Then, there were two great empires sworn to be our enemies: the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Great armies and nuclear weapons were aimed at each other.

I spent thirty years being a soldier in the Cold War. I stood watch on the Iron Curtain in Germany, as a corps commander and as a lieutenant. I fought in Vietnam for two years—an extension of that conflict. I served in Korea, on the demilitarized zone. It finally ended for me—finally!—on a day in 1988 in the Kremlin. I was National Security Advisor to President Reagan, and he was getting ready for his first trip ever to the “Evil Empire.” He was going to go to Moscow. And he sent me to Moscow first to talk to this interesting new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and to see what he was really planning to do.

It was a very difficult meeting. President Gorbachev kept beating up on me, and criticizing my role as a soldier for all of those years, and criticizing the right wing of the party that Reagan represented, thinking they didn’t understand the changes he was making. He was opening up his country. He was reforming his political and economic systems. And he didn’t think we understood.

And I just sat there watching him, impassiveness on my face. Finally he realized he wasn’t getting to me, and he stopped. He paused. He looked up. And then he had an idea and looked back down. Then he stared unsmiling across the table at me. His eyes were twinkling. And he gently says to me, “Ah, General, General. I’m so very, very sorry. You will have to find a new enemy.”

And I thought to myself, “I don’t want to.” I have a whole career invested in this enemy. Thirty years! Just because you’re having a bad year, why do I have to change?

But he was having a bad century. Within two years of that meeting in the Kremlin, the Iron Curtain was gone. That border I had guarded so many times. The Soviet Union was gone. Germany was unified. The Warsaw Pact disappeared. And Gorbachev had to step down, because he was a reformer, and they needed a revolution.

Our system triumphed—the system of democracy, free economics, giving people the right to select their own leaders and represent themselves to the rest of the world—and recognizing the need for individual human dignity triumphed. We were the leader of that crusade, that helped bring us to a new place in the world.

On the other side of the world were the leaders of China—a country of 1.3 billion people, with a system not like ours. They don’t respect human rights like we do, as we’ve seen in recent days. But they realized that they had to change, too. What they decided to do was start making things to sell us. And if we didn’t have enough money to buy the things they wanted to sell us, they were going to lend us the money to buy the things they wanted to sell us. As a result of that simple economic theory, China has become the second largest economy on the face of the earth.

I have also watched India emerge, and Latin America, and all parts of Asia, and now—slowly—Africa is starting to emerge. All of this was a triumph for the example of democracy and economic freedom that we presented to the world. It doesn’t mean other nations need to look politically just like us. But we present an example that works.

The Need for Economic Opportunity

Yet, people often say to me, “We are living in the worst of times.” Not so. I’ve seen far worse times than this. We are living in challenging times, but more nations are free and democratic than ever before in history. More people are living under democracy than any other time in history. Hundreds of millions of people in the last twenty years have been brought up out of poverty—out of despair—and brought into the middle class, and given a better life.

The Arab Spring is all about jobs and economic opportunity, not fundamentalism. They have a religion. They have history and culture. But what they want more than anything is an economy that works, leaders that they selected, and the end of corruption, so that they can start to build their economy. The need for jobs is what’s driving the Arab Spring. Ending corruption is, perhaps, the most difficult task for them.

But while we celebrate these achievements, millions more of our fellow citizens of the world are in despair—hungry and without water, education, health care. They need and deserve our help. Those of us who have done well in this world—those of us who have used the resources of the world to better our lives—have an obligation to those who are not yet benefiting from the resources of the world.

Yes, the dangers are still there. Everyday we read about terrorism, or Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and other crisis areas. But none of these pose the kind of threat we have faced in the past. What’s unique about the situation today is that the entire international community is with us, and with them, as we try to solve these problems. They are, for the most part, isolated and without friends to take their side. We are still looked to as the leader of the world that wants to be free.

These dangerous places I just touched on represent about 600 million people in a world of seven billion. What are the rest doing? Trying to build their economy. Trying to create wealth to bring people up out of despair. Economics. Wealth creation. The need to create national wealth is the most powerful political force at work in the world today.

China brought 400 million people up, but they still have 800 million people who are in despair and poverty, and guess what? They can now see on television and on the Internet what the others are getting, and they want theirs. That will be a major focus for China. Their people will demand greater influence in choosing who their leaders are. It is the same thing throughout the world.

The Challenges Ahead

America’s greatest challenge is for us to fix our economy. This is principally the work of the private sector, working within a sensible framework of government policies and fiscal discipline. We need to tell Congress that you can’t keep spending $3 trillion a year, while only taking in $2 trillion a year. You can’t run a 7-11 like that! How are you going to run a country? It doesn’t work.

The world will need more energy of all kinds to sustain the economic growth that’s going to take place. We must find ways to use this additional energy, and to generate it, without devastating our environment. I am not an expert on climate change. It just seems to me—as a simple soldier—that anything we can do to reduce emissions and conserve energy makes sense, and we owe it to our kids to do it, and be the leader of the world in achieving it.

Above all, we owe our kids the best possible education. The forward-thinking nations of the world realize that their future will be determined by how well they educate their young people. That must also be our focus. A large part of my life is now spent on young people—getting them ready for education, and then educating them.

Fifteen years ago, at the request of President Clinton and the other living presidents, I founded the America’s Promise Alliance. It is now chaired by my wife, Alma. America’s Promise has become one of the largest youth-serving alliances in the country, with hundreds of partners.

Our major effort right now is to make America, again, a nation of graduates. We have to create a nation of graduates. Almost a third of our kids are never getting to a Northeastern, because they’re not getting out of high school. They’re dropping out. Fifty percent of our minority kids are dropping out. This is a catastrophe for our country, and with all the wealth that we have, and with all the capacity that we have, we can fix it, and we must fix it. All of us have to play a role in fixing this situation.

We know what it takes to bring young people along. It is based on a simple set of promises that is at the heart of the America’s Promise Alliance. Every child should have, in his or her life, loving, caring adults. And if the parents are not there to do it, we need to come in with Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers Big Sisters—the programs that surround these youngsters with a positive adult experience. That’s how you learn how to be a good child and a good adult.

We owe our children safe places in which to learn and grow—Boys and Girls Clubs, afterschool programs, longer school days—so that we protect them and give them more education, which they need.

Our children deserve a healthy start in life. How can we, as a first-world nation—the richest nation on the face of the earth—have 6 million uninsured children on our streets? It is a national tragedy and a disgrace. We ought to fix it.

We have to make sure that our children are getting educated with a marketable skill that will fit into a twenty-first century economy.

And, finally, something that is so well known to you, but we have to bring it to every school level, down to kindergarten. Give youngsters an opportunity to give back—to serve others—so that this virtue will grow with them as they become adults.

Governments can’t fix it. All of us have to fix it. You can’t just blame the schools and the teachers. I want to give them better salaries. I want better schools. But that’s not the sole problem. Education does begin in the home, not in the schools.

In the first weeks of life, there comes a moment when a child hears its mother’s voice and knows that it’s his or her mother. At that point, the brain shuts out all other languages, and only listens to the mother’s language. At that moment, this child makes a bond with her mother. That’s when education begins. That’s when language begins.

And if the child is not read to over the next few years, he doesn’t learn colors, doesn’t learn numbers, and is behind by the time he gets to the first grade. And if we haven’t fixed that by the third grade, that kid is on the way to being a dropout or going to jail. It’s demonstrable statistically.

All of us have to get involved. And I hope that each of you, as you move out in life, will do what you can to reach down, back, and across, to help a young person stay in school and reach their potential. Find a program that you can get involved in. You are the educated role model that kids can look up to. Be part of the solution. Make service a part of your life. Don’t go about trying to save the world. You’ll start saving the world by just saving one kid.

The Role You Play

Whatever you think of the world right now—good, bad, better than it used to be, worse than it used to be—it is going to be yours to shape. It’s going to be yours to help bring a positive future—a better future—to all of our citizens of the world. America has a vital role to play.

Despite our difficulties, we are still looked to as the inspiration for reform; we are still looked up to by the world that wants to be free. Tomorrow morning, people will be lined up at every consular office and embassy we have in the world. And when they get up to the window, they all say the same thing: “I want to go to America.”

We’re still that wonderful place that my parents found some ninety years ago when they came here. We are still the best hope, as long as we remain faithful to our values, and as long as we keep reaching out to the rest of the world. We are a nation of nations—we touch every nation. Every nation touches us.

As long as we continue to enrich ourselves with new generations of leaders such as you. We are counting on you.

And so, congratulations, my young friends. Enjoy this beautiful day with your families. Go forth from this place inspired by those who have gone before. Go forth with the love of your families, and with the blessings and pride of your teachers.

Go forth to take your place, and perform your duty, and serve our nation. Go forth to make this an even more perfect union.

Go forth and raise strong families, remembering, as Emily Batt pointed out, that all you can ever leave behind is your reputation, your good works, and your children for the next generation.

And let your dreams be your only limitations. Good luck, and God bless you all.