Good morning, Class of 2017! It is wonderful to be here with you today. And it is an honor to be back where I first got started. Dr. Patrick, thank you so much for inviting me to address this year’s graduates. I also want to recognize the Advisory Board, faculty, staff and alumni who made this day possible and continue to make Penn State Fayette so special.
Graduates, how are you feeling today? Did you have a late night? Don’t worry, I promise to be short and will do my best to supply you all with strong content for your Snapchat stories. But for those of you snapping, please know that dog ears are not my best look.
It’s graduation day. The end of one great journey and the start of another. Today, you finish your time here at Fayette. Tomorrow, you take your place in the real world. And in 175 days, Penn State kicks the crap out of Ohio State at the Horseshoe in Columbus.
It feels great to be home in Southwest Pennsylvania. I grew up about 30 minutes from here in Nemacolin. Like Dr. Patrick, I was the first in my family to get a college degree. And Fayette made it possible.
I attended classes here while working the midnight shift in the mines. I’d finish work about 8 a.m. and be on campus shortly thereafter. I drank a lot of coffee. Maybe you can relate. But even in my most exhausted moments, I was learning and growing. Fayette helped give me a foundation for life. I learned about what it means to be a citizen. I learned the importance of community. I learned how to listen and engage and understand. I suspect and hope you’ve learned those things, too. Because I can tell you from firsthand experience that these tools will serve you throughout your life. To this day, I take Fayette with me everywhere I go.
I want to say a word of thanks to the parents today. For your patience. For your understanding. For your checkbooks. My parents sacrificed for me just as you have sacrificed for these graduates. This is your victory, too—and don’t you ever forget it! Please join me in a show of appreciation for the parents.
Last year, I welcomed my grandson into the world, Richard Trumka III, or as we call him, Trey. Trey is a beautiful soul, and each time I hold him in my lap I am reminded of what is truly important. Happiness is not found in a fancy car or a big house. It is the byproduct of a full life. Class of 2017, that’s what I want for you.
I will not sugarcoat it. You are set to enter a world that is complicated, divided and sometimes dangerous. There has been a breakdown in civility and discourse. All you have to do is check your Facebook feed to see that. America’s institutions are under attack and our economy simply is not working for the vast majority of us. Your generation will have to face these challenges head on.
Here is the good news: I know you can do it. I know it because of students like Kelsey Bailey. Kelsey grew up in Uniontown and came to Fayette because she didn’t want to be a number in a crowd. She blossomed here, making lifelong friends, bonding with faculty members and finding her true calling. Kelsey started with an undecided major but eventually developed a passion for social work. Penn State helped train her to be an advocate for victims of sexual assault. Her study on relationships was featured by the Midwestern Psychological Association at a recent conference in Chicago. Inspired by professors like Dr. Elaine Barry and Dr. Nicole Iannone, Kelsey will soon start a graduate program at California University of Pennsylvania with plans to become a clinical psychologist. Kelsey is going to change the world.
I highlighted Kelsey’s experience, but I could have been talking about any one of you. This is your story. This is our story. This is the story of a small, scrappy campus in the mountains of Pennsylvania. This place changes lives. This is a place to be proud of. If someone ever tells you there’s nothing between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, invite them here. We’ll show them how wrong they are.
Never forget where you came from. Hold on to your experiences. The friends, the teachers, the classes. The parties, the sports, the relationships, hanging out in the Williams Building. These are a part of you. I have been blessed with great opportunities in my life. I’ve sat with presidents and prime ministers. I’ve traveled around the world. I’ve gotten to apply my trade at the highest levels imaginable. But I’ve never stopped being a kid from Nemacolin. I’ve never stopped seeing myself as the son of a coal miner. I remember what it’s like to struggle and go without. I remember when a trip to Pittsburgh seemed like a really big deal. I wear my working-class identity as a badge of honor.
These days, I feel like America could take a cue from our small towns and community campuses. We discuss. We listen. We compromise. We work things out. We see the humanity in each other. Do we have our share of disagreements? Of course. But we don’t set out to tear each other down. Penn State taught me to be open to other points of view. It taught me the value of ideas. It taught me that listening is more than pausing until it’s your turn to talk. It actually requires hearing what the other person is saying.
These core values are being threatened today. We see it in politicians who won’t work together for the betterment of the people they are sworn to serve. We see it in our media bubble, where ideas are reinforced rather than challenged. We see it online, where keyboard warriors bully and mock and rant for sport—yet when the time for thoughtful debate occurs, they are nowhere to be found.
We must do better. And you can help lead the way. Our region has always gone above and beyond for the country we love. Pennsylvania played a crucial role in the Civil War, supplying 360,000 soldiers for the Union side. The battle at Gettysburg—not far from where we gather today—changed the course of history. And our citizens continue to answer the call of duty. So to every service member and veteran here today, we say thank you.
As patriotic Americans, it is natural to be concerned about the future of our country. Listen to this—a recent study from Harvard showed that only 30 percent of young people believe it’s essential to live in a democratic nation. 30 percent! This is a startling statistic.
I believe it reflects the simple truth that young people are bearing the brunt of our broken politics. The American idea that anything is possible if you work hard and play by the rules has become less and less secure for your generation and too many others. In my mind, this breakdown in opportunity is directly tied to a breakdown in civility.
When our elected leaders can’t get together on simple things like fair interest rates for student loans, young people not only lose out on a quality, affordable education, they become more disillusioned with the whole system. Imagine what we could achieve together if we committed to solving problems instead of settling scores.
Compromise can show us the way forward. Let me explain. Fayette taught me that there is value in getting to know someone, in understanding what it’s like to walk in their shoes, in being willing to give something up in order to build a stronger relationship. I am not advocating that you compromise your principles or lose a piece of who you are. Clearly, there is good compromise and there is bad compromise. But you will never achieve a breakthrough from the distant corners of isolation and self-righteousness.
What I learned here at this school is the power of dialogue. Over the past few months, I’ve met with President Trump on several occasions to see if there are ways we can work together. I’ll be honest—some of my friends in Washington aren’t happy about this. But refusing to talk gets the 12.5 million workers I represent nothing. I will never stop trying to reach agreement. I will never stop trying to compromise the right way for the right reasons.
Unions do this every day. Teachers and coal miners and actors and football players sit across from their employers and negotiate a fair deal. Sometimes a deal cannot be reached. Sometimes one side refuses to bargain in good faith. But most times, an agreement is achieved that allows workers to share in the wealth they helped create and management to run a successful business.
The AFL-CIO—where I am proud to serve as president—is pushing to expand this right to all workers. We believe every worker, everybody, deserves a job and the power to make it a good job, to bargain for higher wages, safer working conditions and retirement security. Whether you’re black or white. Whether you’re gay or straight. Whether you’re immigrant or native-born. Whether you’re union or not yet union.
Over the last few decades, as union membership has declined, so have wages and standards for working people. This is not a coincidence. Giving all workers the right to bargain for a better life will help close the opportunity gap. It will create an expanded platform for negotiation and compromise and mutually beneficial partnerships. And it will make our democracy stronger.
I encourage you to embrace fair compromise in every facet of your life. Before you send that snarky e-mail, pick up the phone and talk it out. If you’ve reached an impasse with a friend or family member, do your part to make it right. Clean up your side of the street. If you are able to, let someone off the hook. Give rather than take. Serve rather than expect. See that your neighbors have the same hopes and dreams that you do; remember, there is more that unites us than divides us.
These are the American principles that make us who we are, and these are the principles we are counting on you to restore. You didn’t break it, but we’re asking you to fix it.
In these challenging times, I encourage you to listen, not lash out. To dream, not fear. To live and love and laugh. Don’t take a single day for granted on this Earth. Remember, this is the only life we will ever get.
President Teddy Roosevelt said nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Class of 2017, you are now graduates of Penn State.
Show the world how much you care. Be heroic. Be kind. Be yourself.
And don’t forget, the best is yet to come. Thank you so much!