Sandra Day O'Connor address

Gettysburg College
Commencement Speaker 2008
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Ret.)

It is a great pleasure to be with you today at Gettysburg College. After all, it is a day of joy for everyone: you graduates have no more university exams or class to endure. And I might say, the faculty no longer has you to endure; you have fame and fortune ahead of you; your families and spouses and friends can look forward to seeing more of you; and your speaker has a respite from her labors across the nation.

I realize we have gathered here today to applaud those of you who will be receiving degrees. I suggest, however, that there are several heroes and heroines here today who should be recognized and with whom you graduates would like to share your glory. I refer, of course, to the parents, who have made two significant contributions to your presence today. First, they had the brains, which you were lucky enough to inherit, and, secondly, they probably provided at least some of the money you needed to sustain yourselves while you were here. I congratulate your parents, and I commend you graduates for your good judgment in selecting them.

A commencement speech is a particularly difficult assignment. The speaker is given no topic and is expected to be able to inspire all the graduates with a stirring speech about nothing at al. I suppose that's why so many lawyers are asked to be commencement speakers: they're in the habit of talking extensively even when they have nothing to say.

In this case the College asked not only a lawyer but an elderly judge to be the commencement speaker. I was born in Texas. In Texas they say an old judge is like an old shoe - everything is all worn out except the tongue.

Now today, we note and celebrate our liberation from the rigors of academic life. And tomorrow, you will have to decide where you go from here.

Commencement speakers are always full of advice. And true to form, I want to mention two things that I think are very important to keep in mind.  One relates to how you should go about performing the tasks you will soon undertake. The other deals with the quality of your relationship with your community.

Now the first suggestion is to aim high, but be aware that even before you have reached your ultimate professional destination, if you always strive for excellence, you can and should have a substantial impact on the world in which you live.

Presumably, most of you plan and hope to reach the point where you have interesting and important work to do and you are paid as much or, better yet, more than you are worth for doing it. But if your career path is anything like mine-and who knows, for one or more of you it may be, right down to the last detail-you won't be starting at the top of the ladder. As some of you may have read, the only job offer I received in the private sector on my graduation from Stanford law school many years ago was a job as a legal secretary. So I started my own practice, sharing a small office with another lawyer and a shopping center in a suburb of Phoenix. Other people who have offices in the small shopping mall repaired TVs, cleaned clothes, or sold groceries. It was not a high rent district. I got walk-in business. People came in to see me about grocery bills they couldn't collect, landlord tenant problems, and other every day matters not usually considered by the United States Supreme Court. But I always did the very best I could with what I had. I learned about how the law affects the average citizen, and how a lawyer can help solve day-to-day problems.

When I eventually applied to the Arizona Attorney General's Office for work, they didn't have a place for me. I persisted, however, got a temporary job, and quickly rose all the way to the bottom of the totem pole in that office. As was normal for a beginner, I got the least desirable assignments. But that was all right because I managed to take away from those rather humble professional beginnings some valuable lessons.

I learned, for example, the habit of always doing the best I could with every task, no matter how unimportant it might seem at the time. Those habits can breed future success. As Abraham Lincoln once observed, "I always prepared myself for the opportunity that I knew would come my way." As his career attests, devotion to excellence in all things-even when it seems that "the world will little note nor long remember" the small task in which you find yourself engaged-can have its rewards.

Starting at the bottom, and working hard while you are there, can have its present benefits as well. The pay is lower, the perquisites are nonexistent and maybe the title isn't impressive. But, you will quickly learn, as did I, that the person at the bottom gets the first opportunity to propose a solution to whatever the problem is.  That first proposed solution, if supported by the right facts and logic, often will be the one that is ultimately adopted.  Though it may be years before you have the authority to decide which solutions will be adopted, you can begin right away to generate the ideas that make solutions feasible.  For those of you who are disappointed today not to be moving from your graduation directly into a cabinet-level position in government, this should give you at least some solace.

Now, the second suggestion I have to help make your life meaningful and fulfilling is to become involved in the community in which you find yourself.  Become a part of it by participating in it directly, whether as a volunteer worker, or a representative in some community agency or institution, or simply as a citizen who persuades others to take needed action.  The individual can and does make a difference even in this increasingly complex world of ours.

It is true. The individual can make things happen.  It is the individual who can bring a tear to my eye and then cause me to take pen in hand.  It is the individual who has acted or tried to act who will not only force a decision, but also have a hand in shaping that decision.  Whether the individual acts in the legal, governmental or private realm, remember a single person can meaningfully affect what some consider to be an uncaring world.  At this college, you have invested several years to acquire the skills to become a more effective person, and the experiences and insights to become a more caring person.  Your efforts will pay enormous dividends in the future-not only for you but for countless others who may also benefit from your actions.

Be willing to serve as a volunteer in community activities.  I have gone around the world and no other nation has the level of volunteer service that we have had in this country.  Perhaps it was the pioneer spirit of helping each other build and develop a new nation that caught on here.  Even in Western Europe there is no the same tradition of volunteer service.  Some to be sure, but it is not pervasive.

I have been reading lately that we Americans are losing some of our own tradition of gathering together in voluntary associations.  One leading essay is entitled the "Lone Bowler." People are leaving bowling leagues and bowling by themselves in greater numbers.  The author believes that is only one example of a wider trend.  I urge you not to let that happen.  Give of yourselves to voluntary associations that you care about. Nourish that American tradition.

Never forget that an individual can make a difference.  Many of the individuals who have made a significant contribution to their communities have perceived, in the course of ordinary life, a great need.  After identifying this need, they had both the insight to envision a solution and the capacity to inspire others to help make the solution a reality.  These individuals drew upon their own experience and education to tackle the problems they see around them.

Let me give you a few examples: Princeton undergraduate Wendy Kopp saw a need among her fellow students for a competitive, high-prestige alternative to the investment banks, corporations and management consulting groups that recruited on campus.  Many students wanted to go into public service, but lacked direction.  She worked up a proposal for Teach for America as her senior thesis, boiled it down to a prospectus, and sent it to about 30 CEO's.

Mohommed Yonus put his background in economics to work to improve the lives of the poor in his native Bangladesh.  After spending 7 years studying economics at Vanderbilt University, Yonus returned home.  He taught economics at a university, but became frustrated with its irrelevance to the Bengali poor.

Yonus saw a way to address poverty at its roots, by helping villagers to set themselves up in small businesses.  Along with the assistance of his students, some government money as well as some of his own, Yonus founded the Grameen Bank, meaning "village bank," to provide small loans to women - today, between $75 to $100 - to allow the women to start small businesses.  About 50% of Grameen Bank borrowers have pulled themselves our of poverty thanks to these starter loans, and about another 25% have come close to crossing the poverty line.  What's more, Grameen Bank has a 98% repayment rate, and is economically self-sufficient.

Another one who made a difference is Candy Lightner, who wanted to stop drunk driving because her daughter died by a drunk driver.  Candy Lightner transformed her private grief into a nationwide movement to make the streets and sidewalks safer for everyone.

Remember also that perhaps the most important work in our nation is not being done in our nation's capitol.  It is being done all over our country, in every state, in every community.  Wherever you go, wherever you live you can be part of solving our nation's problems.  We have 50 separate state laboratories working on solutions. 

So be a part of it.  I can give you no better advice than that of John Wesley when he said:

"Do all the good that you can

By all the means that you can

In all the ways that you can

In all the places you can

At all the times that you can

To all the people you can

As long as ever you can."

Thank you.

Standing-ovation