Dr. Martha Kanter
Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education
Keynote address delivered at Chatham University
December 19, 2010
Thank you Dr. Rust for that kind introduction. I'd like to offer a special round of thanks to President Barazzone, the Board of Trustees, the entire Chatham community and, most especially, the 2010 graduates for inviting me to join you for this exciting occasion. Thank you also for awarding me this honorary degree that I will forever treasure as a testament to the excellence of Chatham University.
Graduates, today signifies a milestone in your life. It is a day to celebrate all that you have accomplished to achieve your degree and it is a significant day for your family, your friends and your professors who, each contributed to your success. Today is also a step toward a brighter future for our nation. Your graduation moves the United States one step close to ensuring America's social and economic prosperity in the 21st century. Your achievements here today help our nation fulfill President Obama's goal for America "to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by the year 2020."
It was my belief in President Obama's vision – to see America regain its place as the world leader in education – that led me to accept the position of Under Secretary at the US Department of Education 18 months ago. But to be honest, I never planned to work in government.
My background is in education, not politics. My life–long passion for education began in the ninth grade when I tutored third graders at the South End House in Roxbury, Massachusetts. From that point on I dedicated myself to public service and education. I worked as a high school teacher, a community college and university professor and for sixteen years as the college president and then chancellor of the Foothill–De Anza Community College District in California, one of the largest community college districts in the nation. During all those years, I was also a student, continuing to learn, to get more education and to take advantage of new opportunities.
Then, two years ago, the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked me to meet with him in Washington. During our meeting we talked about the impact of higher education on the lives of America's students and their families. I shared my deep concerns about college affordability, quality and how many students who were so talented ended up leaving college before graduation. I urged Secretary Duncan to recognize the obstacles that so many of you had to overcome to be here today and take courageous steps to remove the barriers and increase educational opportunity for what I called "the top 100% of Americans."
As we talked, Secretary Duncan began to lay out the bold, powerful vision for the future of education in the United States that he and President Obama shared. He discussed his plans to boost student achievement in from birth through our K–12 schools, his belief in the importance of higher education and workforce training, and his desire to provide Americans with the opportunity to engage in life–long learning.
We now call this our "cradle to career" agenda and we have put plans in place that are extraordinarily ambitious. There is a great deal of work to be done. Just a few decades ago the United States led the world in terms of the number of Americans with a college degree. Today we are ninth in the world. Other countries have passed us by and the President often says that "the nations that out–educate us today will out–compete us tomorrow." To change course and regain our place at the top, President Obama has challenged all of us that, by 2020, the United States will be first in the world in college graduates.
To achieve this goal, we need an additional 8 million students to complete college over the next ten years beyond the students who we expect to graduate simply because our college–going population is growing! Our 2020 goal depends on putting reforms in place to boost student achievement, ensure greater access, and provide the support that results in raising the number and percentage of America's graduates from 42% to 60%.
Back in February 2009, I left that first meeting with Secretary Duncan inspired by his call to public service, his passion for and belief in education for all, and his commitment to action. I knew that the fight for accessible, quality education for all Americans would not be won overnight, but I was certain that I had to do all I could to bring our nation to "first in the world."
There are profound difficulties facing the American education system. Many students struggle to finish high school. We lose 25% of high school students each year; a high school student drops out every 22 seconds. Educators and employers have told us for far too long that those who do earn their high school diplomas often graduate unprepared for the rigors of a college or the challenges of the 21st century workplace. Americans struggle against social, racial, and economic barriers that hold too many people back.
Yet being here with you today reaffirms my passion and belief that we can, and we must, fulfill the president's 2020 vision. Perhaps no university in the nation embodies the spirit of that vision more than Chatham, a remarkable institution of higher education which has, for over a century, helped students overcome adversity, gain access to a college education and graduate well prepared for the future.
When Chatham was founded as the Pennsylvania Female College in 1869, it was the only women's college in Western Pennsylvania. It was ahead of its time, opening the doors of higher education to women at a point in history when they were often denied even the most basic rights in society.
Now – a century and a half later – that small women's college has achieved university status and offers incredible opportunities for students, both men and women, from all walks of life.
Chatham boasts programs that help women establish careers in fields where they have traditionally been underrepresented or absent. Your Center for Women's Entrepreneurship, for example, provides women with the means to create innovative business opportunities for themselves and their families in the knowledge economy. The Global Focus program engages students in international learning – encouraging you to study abroad, take rigorous language classes and pursue courses in cultural studies. And Chatham students travel and study in places around the globe. These experiences at Chatham have prepared you not only for the knowledge economy but for our intercultural–international society where you'll be working and living with people from around the world wherever you go.
Another hallmark of this institution is Chatham's online undergraduate and graduate programs offered through the College for Continuing and Professional Studies. These programs are scheduled at times and in flexible ways that make it easier for 21st century students to achieve their goal of completing a college degree while working and/or raising a family.
Each one of you has been shaped by your time here at Chatham. You have met many different kinds of people, you've been exposed to many new ideas and you've learned how to solve the many challenging problems that your professors put in front of you, time and time again. I urge you to hold on to these experiences and memories for the rest of your life. They have taught you to think big, expand your horizons, and never accept defeat. They have taught you that your innate human potential when unleashed allows you to exceed even your own expectations of what might have seemed impossible at the start.
Exploring this magnificent campus over the past few days, I've been reminded of one of Chatham's most famous alumna. Rachel Carson graduated from Chatham in 1929 and went on to become a prominent scientist and editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Over the course of her fifteen–year career in the federal service, she had a profound impact on the course of environmental safety and preservation in America. She was the editor–in–chief of all Fish and Wildlife publications, was a bestselling author, and led the fight against the use of DDT and other dangerous agricultural chemicals. As a nation, we owe a great deal to Ms. Carson and her work.
Today Ms. Carson's remarkable legacy lives on through the Rachel Carson Institute, as well as Chatham's Falk School of Sustainability. As you can see, this university does not just help students succeed in their careers; it is a source of innovation and progress for developing methods of safeguarding our nation's most precious resources – our people and our environment.
Ms. Carson once said, "If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life."
The ability to marvel at the world around you – to explore new ideas and discover new passions – is a gift that Chatham has nurtured within you during your time here, a gift that I hope you will nurture throughout your lives. Your ability to explore and discover has deepened because of your education, giving you the strength to see beyond the barriers and limitations of today and giving you the courage to set your sights even higher and do more for yourself, your family, society and our nation!
As a Chatham graduate, I don't want you to think that the hard work is over! It isn't. In fact, I have one last assignment I'd like to give you. As you move forward from today, no matter what you choose to do, always work to contribute to your community and your country. Reach out to someone in need, encourage a young person or an adult who never had the chance to enter and finish college, engage in the political process, and vote. It is only through our collective efforts as Americans that we will achieve the 2020 vision for our nation!
On a personal note, I can tell you that public service is a rewarding line of work! We'll need to hire more than a million teachers between now and 2020. Since that day I walked into the South End House tutoring center to today, the combination of education, hard work and service has inspired me to do more than I ever imagined! It will be the same for each of you!
At a commencement speech like this a short time ago, President Obama said: "No matter what you choose to do, know that you have the ability – each one of you – to write the next chapter in America's story." This is true for each of you. And, if you ever need extra motivation when setting your sights on bigger, bolder goals, remember all that you have accomplished here at Chatham University.
Class of 2010, pursue your dreams without hesitation. Even if they seem impossible, persevere and transform your dreams into new opportunities! You have a whole world waiting for you, and we have every confidence that you will apply your passion and determination to make it a better place for yourself, your family and all of us!