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Dear 2020 Graduate,

I love commencement addresses. Every year, about this time, I seek out commencement speeches on the Internet just to listen. Learned people from all sorts of professions give perspectives on life’s meaning. Speakers share goals, platitudes, inspirational quotes, fresh ideas, and jokes that leave me inspired and entertained. Although I may not be the graduate they are addressing, I listen in amazement with a hope that I can become more than what I am.

It has been a few years since I retired from public life. I have not been asked to speak at a graduation since, and I miss it. I miss the music of Pomp and Circumstance. I miss the joy of looking out on a field of bright smiles and high hopes. I miss the anxious awaiting of an end to the toils of education. And I miss the dreams in the eyes of those who are becoming much more than a framed diploma.

I miss it so much, that I am taking the time to write this commencement letter for your consideration and in lieu of the graduation address that you may be missing because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

I am a graduate of the University of Dayton and I once had a student who interviewed me for a school project (Erin Anderson). She was a family friend who I knew well. Among other questions, she asked, “Which part of the University of Dayton’s motto do you think is most important?” The motto, is, “Learn. Lead. Serve.” (Learn, pursue new knowledge. Lead, be a beacon for the world. Serve, Put others first, always.) I replied, “Serve.” The student looked at me with a glint in her eye and I knew her well enough to know what she was thinking. Although a good student, she was not fond of school. Then she asked, “Could I skip Learn and go directly to Serve. I responded to her with an immediate, “No, it does not work like that. Unless you are willing complete your education, to finish the learning part, your service will be incomplete at best, and ineffective at worst. Education is essential to completing service.”

You are now what we call “educated” and the real challenge of a commencement address is to inspire you beyond your joy of leaving the hard work behind, and convincing you the hard work ahead, the work of service, is necessary and worthwhile.

You are privileged. You are fortunate. You are blessed to be able to call yourself a graduate. Many in this world cannot do the same. For you, education was readily obtainable, but for some of your contemporaries it was not so easy. they left school before they could complete the task at hand because they did not have your stamina, your intellect, or your financial resources. By financial resources, I mean more than your family. I include your fellow citizens who through your government gave taxpayer dollars to your school to keep it viable for you. I include benefactors who make donations because they believe in education in general, in your school, and in you specifically. They may not have met you, but they know that like themselves, you will use your education to make the world a better place. They have put their faith in you to serve.

In many countries of the world there is no opportunity for education either because of one’s gender or because of the lack the schools, or because of the lack of the financial resources like those made available to you. By the end of this year, there will be more than a billion people living in extreme poverty – living on less than $1.90 a day. This is true poverty. Poverty that keeps an individual from being able to eat, able to thrive, able to serve.

In 2019, more than three million of these impoverished souls did not graduate because they didn’t even live to be your age. That’s 8,500 children a day, all of them dying of hunger and preventable diseases. Of those who survived, more than a hundred million will have their physical and intellectual growth stunted incapacitating them from ever taking part in a formal education.

There is a new report from the Brookings Institute that indicates almost one in five American children are not getting enough to eat. We know that a hungry child is less likely to do well in school and more likely not to graduate like you.

The economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic will soon make all of these statistics out of date and worse than we can now imagine.

My point is this: You are privileged. You are among the richest people in the world. When you get your diploma, do not just congratulate yourself. You are not self-made. You owe many for where you are and for where you go from here. Pay it back. Pay it forward. Serve. Put others first. Think of those 8,500 children who will die today and commit yourself to doing what you can to be certain that someday every child has the chance to become educated like you. Change the world. Because when every child is educated, every child will be able to serve. Imagine that world where we all serve on another. Know that, because of your good fortune, because of your diploma, because of your willingness to do what’s next, to do what’s right, you can be the change that makes a better world possible.

A few years ago, the University of Dayton motto was improved upon by an alumna (Molly MacCready) who recast the instruction as, “Learn. Lead. Serve. Repeat.” I like that. Don’t ever stop. Keep it going.

Congratulations and blessings upon all that you have achieved and all that you will become.

A.J. Wagner

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

John F. Kennedy