Colin Powell High Point University Commencement 2014 Speech Transcript
General Colin Powell delivered the 2014 commencement address at High Point University. Read the transcript of his full speech here.
Transcribe Your Own Content
Try Rev and save time transcribing, captioning, and subtitling.
Colin Powell: (05:23)
Thank you so very much, thank you. [inaudible 00:05:38] Mayor. Thank you. Thank you so very much.
Colin Powell: (05:47)
While the graduates are standing, I want you to turn around, see if you can find your family members who brought you to this day, blow them a kiss, say hello and let them take a picture of you if they can get it in. Thanks mom. And while you’re standing, look over to your left and thank this magnificent faculty, has passed onto you, their education and experience.
Colin Powell: (06:19)
It said you can sit down now, it’s all right. It’s a great pleasure to be with you this morning. I have never been at High Point University before, and I must say that when I came onto campus yesterday, I had seen pictures, but I was struck by the beautiful work that has been done here over the last seven or eight years. I was deeply impressed by the facilities that were put in place for your education and for your comfort, but I also know that those facilities were put in place, not just for that, but to give you the best possible learning experience. And I want to congratulate the president of the university, the chairman, all those sponsors of the university, who have contributed to make this one of the leading institutions, not only in North Carolina, but in the United States of America. Congratulations to all of you and to High Point University for what you are doing.
Colin Powell: (07:16)
Now, I still remember my own college graduation, which was some 56 years ago. A long time ago, and it was an evening ceremony in an open amphitheater and it was very dark, you couldn’t see much. And so I figured, Hey, you know, I can slip away, no one will notice I’m not here. And so with a couple of my buddies, we slipped away and went somewhere else about a block away. But mothers being mothers, my mother sniffed the air and sensed that I was not there, and she also knew where I would be. I was at the Emerald Bar, a block away with about six of my buddies. And my mother sent two of my cousins to retrieve me because she was not to be denied after all the suffering she had gone through to get me to this evening.
Colin Powell: (08:10)
The funny thing about it is that even though it was 56 years ago and I wasn’t that crazy about going, I distinctly remember who the graduation speaker was. It was Dr. Jonas Salk, the man who developed the Salk vaccine, which ended the threat of polio, which was rampant throughout our country at that time. And I’ll never forget that. Now, I want to make sure you never forget who your graduation speaker was 56 years from now. The name is Powell, P-O-W-E-L-L. Don’t forget it, don’t embarrass me, put it in your mind and never, never let it go. So thank you very much for that.
Colin Powell: (08:48)
It is a great pleasure to be with you here And I also know that I am privileged to stand before you as somebody who had got a public school education, and as you heard I mentioned earlier, I went to the City College of New York, one of the greatest schools in our country, and it originally created in 1847 as the free academy of New York, dedicated to the proposition that all of the city’s children should be educated, whether rich or poor, and to do that, they made it a free academy, which then became the City College of New York.
Colin Powell: (09:24)
I wasn’t considered one of CCNYs greatest successes at the time that I graduated. The only reason I did graduate was that they noticed that not withstanding my fairly mediocre academic record, I got straight A’s in ROTC. And so they said, “Look, he’s been here a long time, let’s take his ROTCA’s and roll his grade point average of ROTC into his overall grade point average and see what that does.” And they did. And it brought me up to 2.0, and they said, “That’s good enough for government work, get them out of here, we’ll never see them again.” And now I’m back, and I’m back in [inaudible 00:10:06] and I’m considered one of the greatest sons the City College of New York has ever had. They name things after me, they even named a school after me, the Colin Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership encompassing all of the social science departments, one-third of the entire student body. I’m the Chairman of the Board of Visitors and distinguished founding professor and my old professors are rolling over in their graves.
Colin Powell: (10:31)
So I just want to say those of you here this morning, who were not graduating with 3.5 GPAs or better, have faith my young friends, have faith. As you just heard, it ain’t where you start in life that counts, it’s what you do with life that will determine where you end up in life. Do you work hard? Do you never stop learning? Do you believe in yourself? Do you believe in this great, wonderful country of ours? Did you dream big? Will you dream big? Do you set high standards for yourself? Are you your own role model as you go through life?
Colin Powell: (11:06)
I’m often asked by people when they see that I’ve become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Well, did you go to West point? What year?” “No, I didn’t go to West Point.” I couldn’t have dreamed of getting into West Point. “Did you go to one of the great schools like VMI or Texas A&M?” I said, “No. When I was entering college they were still segregated and I couldn’t go there, so I went to the City College of New York.” “But when you were a kid growing up in Harlem in the South Bronx, did you dream of becoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?” And I just smile and say, “Yeah, there I was.” I believe I was about 10 years old, and I was standing on the corner of Kelly Street and 160 Third, and I said to myself, “Self, you’re going to grow up and become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of the armed of the United States.”
Colin Powell: (11:54)
That aint the way it happens. It happened because I worked hard. I belonged to an institution that was only concerned about my performance and my potential. The United States Army in those days was the most progressive social institution in the United States. And what they said to me when I got there, “We don’t want to hear any hard luck stories about your immigrant parents or growing up poor in the Bronx, we don’t want to hear that you’re black, we don’t want to hear any of that. All we care about is performance and potential. And if you perform well and you demonstrate potential, you will move forward. If you don’t, you want, do you understand?”
Colin Powell: (12:32)
Yes I did. But when it really works, what really made it work for me was that I was doing something that I love doing. I love being a soldier and I wanted to be a good soldier, and I didn’t have to become a General to find satisfaction in my life and satisfaction in my career. I found satisfaction every single day of my life, knowing that I was trying to do my best and trying to do the very best for my country. I went into the army to be a soldier, not to be a general, and to be a good soldier. Some of you may already know what you want to do with the rest of your life. You may know exactly what is waiting for you. I doubt that, but many of you still will be unsure and are looking, and you may have to change your mind several times in the course of your young lives. Wherever you go, you have this excellent education behind you, this wonderful education from HPU that will always serve you well.
Colin Powell: (13:29)
And the advice I have for you is, keep looking, keep looking until you find that which you love doing and that what you do well. And when you put those two together, you have put in place the roadmap for a successful and satisfying life. Make sure you give a good measure of your time as you think about the future. Make sure that you share the talent and the time and the treasure you have with others who are in greater need than you. Money and position will or will not follow, but satisfaction will always be there, always have a purpose in life beyond just position and money. Above all, participate in the governing of this country. Serve on local committees, join school boards, join a nonprofit organization, seek public service, run for elective office, if that is your inclination.
Colin Powell: (14:21)
You know, we complain a lot today about politics and politicians and often for good reason, but we can’t sit around waiting for Superman or Superwoman to come in 2014 or 2016. We, the people, are the Superman and the Superwomen. We are the deciders, so make yourself smart about the issues. Don’t fall for slogans, one-liners, screamers, hate peddlers, or cable pundit commentary. Don’t fall for those who will not compromise. This nation is here because our founding fathers, with all of their different beliefs, with the arguments they had in that room in summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, as strongly as they felt about everything they knew they had to compromise in order to create a constitution, in order to create the great country that we now enjoy.
Colin Powell: (15:13)
So as you go through life, listen to the other side, have your eyes and your ears and your heart open to counter views so that we can get back to what makes this country great in a political sense, the ability to compromise with each other and not just freeze ourselves on a spectrum of political desire from the right or from the left.
Colin Powell: (15:33)
Listen, if you don’t like what your elected representatives are doing, vote them out. If you do like what they are doing, then vote them in. But don’t stand on the sidelines. Don’t stand on the sidelines, complaining and moaning, be informed, speak out and vote. Anyone of you who is eligible to vote but is not registered, come see me right after this ceremony. We need to have a chat. If you’re going to be a responsible citizen in this country, get yourself qualified and make sure that you vote every single chance you get. It’s one of the greatest gifts you’re getting from this country of ours.
Colin Powell: (16:15)
And we need to be a society that makes it easy for every qualified citizen to vote. We want leaders who win votes by sound policies that appeal to people, not by throwing up barriers to voting because they don’t have confidence in their own policies, that ain’t the American way, you know, what’s right. The world you are now entering is so different and so much better than the world I entered some 50 odd years ago. Back then there were two great empires sworn to be our enemies, the Soviet Union and the people’s Republic of China. Armies and nuclear weapons were aimed at each other and they could have destroyed the whole world if we had not prevented the war. That danger is gone, but the world remains a complex and dangerous place. We see it on TV every evening, places like Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and many other places.
Colin Powell: (17:17)
As disturbing as those images are, none of these crises rise to the level of the threat we faced during the time of the Cold War. While we are living in challenging times, remember that more nations are living under democracy now than ever before. More people are living under democracy than ever before. There are more representative governments than ever before. Hundreds of millions of people have been brought up out of poverty around the world over the last 25 years. Millions more are still in despair. They’re hungry, they don’t have water, they’re displaced by war, lacking education, healthcare, and hope. They need and deserve our help.
Colin Powell: (18:00)
America is still looked to as the leader of the world that wants to be free. We serve as an inspiration and we have the ability and the obligation to help other nations in need. The most powerful political force at work in the world today, however, is wealth creation, economic growth. China brought 400 million people out of poverty and into the middle class by selling us stuff, and by lending us money. They’re not going to be our enemy, they’re doing too well by being our trading partner, and they still got 800 more million people who now are saying, when is it our turn to be able to move up? And so it is economic growth and wealth creation that really is the force that move the Arab spring, that moves so many other nations to throw off the systems they have and ask for a non-corrupt representative government so they too can gain wealth, have jobs, and provide for their families.
Colin Powell: (18:57)
America’s greatest challenge is similar. We have to fix our economy. We need growth and we also need discipline in our economy. This is principally the work of the private sector, working within the sensible framework of government policies. The world will need more energy than ever before to sustain worldwide growth, and America is slowly emerging as being one of the leading energy providers in the entire world. We have to do this though, in a way that does not devastate our economy, and does not devastate our environment especially. I’m not an expert in climate change and I don’t want to pretend to be, it just seems to me that if we stopped sending more emissions up into the sky, and if we do a better job of conservation, we should be able to make this a safer, better world for our kids and grandkids. So let’s stop arguing about it, let’s find the way forward and make sure that we are not destroying this nation for those who come after us.
Colin Powell: (19:57)
And we owe our kids the best possible education. The forward-thinking nations in the world know that their future will be determined by how well they educate their people, their young people, and the large part of my life is now spent on young people and their education. 17 years ago at the request of President Clinton and all of our living presidents, we created The America’s Promise Alliance. America’s Promise has become one of the largest youth-serving alliances in the country with hundreds of partners. We are an umbrella organization, and the major effort of America’s Promise now is to make sure that we become a nation of graduates, a grad nation, and we’ve been working very hard on this project. America’s promise is now chaired by my wife, Alma, and she held a summit earlier this week to review the progress that we’ve made. And I’m pleased to say that for the first time in America’s history, our high school graduation rate has gone over 80% of all American young people. It’s a remarkable achievement, and we should be proud of us coming together.
Colin Powell: (21:07)
Americans are coming together to support education just as you have seen here at High Point University in recent years, because Americans understand that without an educated citizenry, we are not going to be as competitive as they need to be, to participate in the 21st-century world economy. But even while we we’re happy about the 80%, we’re worried about the remaining 20%. It would be far more difficult to get those youngsters in, but the problem is identifiable, we know how to go about it. It’s mostly in our inner cities and our very rural areas, in our Indian reservations, with youngsters who have specialized needs, and low income and poverty does not necessarily mean you won’t graduate, it means it’s harder for you to do so because of the background that you have.
Colin Powell: (21:58)
But if young people like you, and if folks like me get into their lives as mentors, as someone who can be a role model for them, as somebody who will give an example of what you can do if you stick to school, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in their country, it’s up to us to take care of that next 20% by getting into the lives of these young people. In a nation with all of our wealth, with all of our talent, with 900 youngsters like you going out into our society, we can make this happen. We can make it happen if we all do our part.
Colin Powell: (22:33)
I hope that each of you, as you move out into life, will do what you can to reach down, back and across, to help a young person stay in school, to help a young person believe, to help a young person to a brighter future. Join big brothers and big sisters, join a faith-based programs, start your own little nonprofit, do something simple, just adopt a school as I’ve done in my life, and marry that school in the inner city up with my suburban church. Two different cultures, two different social-economic levels, but they’re all kids and they know how to relate to one another and help each other.
Colin Powell: (23:10)
And so if you want to save the world, my young friends, and I hope you all do, start by just saving one kid. That’s what the world is all about. Whatever you think of the world, it’s going to be yours. You’re going to be the ones who will shape it’s future, and America still has a vital role to play. Despite our difficulties, I can tell you, we are still looked to buy the rest of the world for inspiration and opportunity. Tomorrow morning, people will be lined up at every one of our embassies and consular offices that I used to be responsible for, and when they get to the head of the line, they all say the same thing, “I want to go to America.” We are still that unique place that inspires the rest of the world. So never, never sell America short.
Colin Powell: (23:55)
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 touch every nation and every nation touches us, and as long as we continue to enrich ourselves with new generations of leaders such as you here this morning, we’re counting on you, you are our future. And so congratulations again, 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 the blessings and pride of your teachers. Go forth to take your place and perform your duty and serve the nation. Go forth to make this an even more perfect union. Go forth and raise strong families, remembering 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 limitation.
Colin Powell: (24:57)
Good luck and God bless you all.