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2006 Commencement Speech by U.S. Secretary of Labor, Elaine L. Chao

Thank you, Chairman [John] Bergstrom [Chair of Marquette University's Board of Trustees], for this very great honor.

Chairman Bergstrom, President Wilde, faculty, administration, staff, parents and graduates, I'm delighted to join you for the 125th commencement of Marquette University.

Some of you might know that I'm a Kentucky resident — Marquette is a longtime rival of the University of Louisville. We have had a long, friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly rivalry that has produced great basketball and some memorable moments.

One of the greatest moments for the University of Louisville's basketball program took place right here. No, not during a basketball game. It was when Travis Diener graduated. Many of us Cardinal fans were getting a bit tired of his 3-point shots.

Probably the best news for basketball fans is that because both schools moved to the Big East conference, this rivalry continues and we get to see some great games!

Despite that strong rivalry, some great friendships have been built between Cardinal fans and Golden Eagles fans.

I know many impressive Marquette grads, including Congressman Don Manzullo and Jim Keppler of Keppler Associations. I have even hired a few Golden Eagles — Andy Rajec, class of 1996, who is currently Acting Director of the Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives at USAID.

To the parents in the audience, let me be the first to welcome your children to America's workforce. To the graduating seniors — congratulations, and I've got good news for you.

A recent independent survey reports that U.S. college graduates are facing the best job market in recent memory. Most employers say there is increased competition to hire new college graduates.

The demand for workers is especially high in the business, computer, engineering, education and health-care fields. Other growing sectors include aerospace, biotechnology, energy, nanotechnology, financial services and homeland security.

These growth sectors reflect the fact that our country is now part of a worldwide economy and is transitioning to a knowledge-based workforce. Most new jobs being created in America place a premium on knowledge and technology and require postsecondary education. These value-added, high- skilled jobs are increasingly the jobs of the future.

And our economy is turning out more of them everyday. America has experienced 32 months of uninterrupted growth, creating approximately 5.3 million net new jobs since August 2003. That's more jobs created than Europe and Japan combined. And the national unemployment rate, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced several weeks ago, remains low at 4.7 percent. This is well below the 5.7 percent average unemployment rate of the decade of the 1990s.

Investments in skills and education are paying off at higher rates than ever before, as the experience of the past 25 years has shown. A high school graduate will earn 25 percent more in earnings, over a lifetime, than a high school dropout. A college graduate will earn twice the earnings, over a lifetime, than a high school dropout. So, by graduating today, you have taken the first step to a brighter future.

And let me share another facet of the technology-driven change that is behind our economic growth. Today, more and more people work away from the office because of technological advances. Many people work in flexible environments connected by little more than a laptop, a cell phone, and a Blackberry.

So technology has not only accelerated the rate of change. It has made the workplace more flexible and dynamic. The workplace today empowers many more lifestyles and career choices.

The level of dynamism and flexibility in our economy is unique in the world. It is at the heart of our nation's competitive advantage, along with our democratic institutions, transparency and the rule of law that form the foundations of our way of life. This is why the United States is truly the land of opportunity, where individuals can implement the Marquette credo of “being the difference.”

When you make a difference, you never know whose life you may touch. Let me give you a very personal example. My father, an American of Chinese descent, left China in 1949 amidst a civil war. In the chaos of leaving his homeland, he was unable to bring his university transcript with him. In fact, he wasn't able to bring very much with him at all. When my father came to America, he wanted to pursue an advanced degree. But a number of well-known universities would not admit him because he had no transcript — no concrete proof that he had graduated from a university.

Then one day, through some newfound acquaintances, my father met a local Catholic parish priest who was also connected with a Catholic university. He listened to my father's story. And even though my family was not Catholic, he helped him get an interview with the university. My father was accepted and did very well. Accessing advanced education was critical to helping him succeed in mainstream America.

My family and I will always be grateful, in ways that words alone cannot express. We are the fortunate beneficiaries of the Catholic tradition that looks beyond the immediate to see the whole person, and teaches that we are all responsible to a higher power.

The recognition that we are responsible to a higher power leads many Americans to devote time as volunteers.

As former President and CEO of the United Way of America and Director of the Peace Corps, I've traveled throughout the world and seen firsthand how volunteers can make a real difference in other people's lives. Helping others is one of the most fulfilling things you will do in life.

Our country is unique in its spirit of volunteerism. It is in the act of giving from stranger to stranger, unconnected by blood or marriage, that the bonds of community are strengthened. By helping others, you are strengthening the character of our country and following in a national tradition that defines us as Americans. Throughout history, the destiny of our country has always been determined by the willingness of its citizens to serve a cause greater than themselves — their willingness to “be the difference.”

So, let me say I hope that whatever you choose to do, you will love what you're doing. Because if you are passionate about what you do, no matter what you choose to do, there will be no limit to what you can achieve and no limit to the difference you can make.

Once again, thank you for allowing me to share this very special day.

May God bless you. And may God bless America.


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