To the graduating class of 2012

Published 10:24 am Friday, June 8, 2012

Column: Al Franken, Guest Column


To all the seniors who are graduating college this year, first things first: Congratulations.

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All of you have achieved something great.

Al Franken

But more than just a great moment, your success is also an example, and I want to offer a few words about what the country could learn from you.

Lots and lots of American families are really struggling right now. We’ve had a terrible recession, and we all know someone who’s been looking for work for a year and a half with no luck, someone who’s been forced to choose between buying gas and buying groceries, or someone who’s been struggling to keep their small business from going under.

But as tough as things are right now, it’s important to remember that we’ve been through hard times before. In fact, after World War II we had a larger debt than we do today: a staggering 121 percent of our gross domestic product. And we bounced back from those difficult years and experienced three decades of incredible growth, building the strongest economy in the history of the world.

We bounced back from World War II to build a country in which middle class families could enjoy real economic security, and poor families had a chance to pull themselves up into the middle class.

That’s the kind of bounce-back we’re looking for today. And when it comes to bouncing back from tough times, there’s no trampoline quite like education.

By the year 2018, 70 percent of jobs in Minnesota will require some kind of post-secondary degree or other credential. But, today, only 40 percent of the Minnesotans have that degree or credential. That’s not a lot of time to make up a huge gap.

Giving up on our national commitment to education doesn’t just short-change our kids. It endangers our businesses’ ability to compete — and the future of our economy.

Education is every bit as important to our country as it was to each of you when you made the decision to go to college in the first place. But in St. Paul and in Washington, investing in education can be a tough sell at a time when our budget is already stretched to the max. And that’s a tough problem for policymakers to sort out.

But you guys shouldn’t have much sympathy for that predicament — because you didn’t skate to the degrees you’re getting. You fought for them. You didn’t shy away from doing hard things. You didn’t make excuses, and you didn’t let anyone else make excuses for you.

And that’s why, while I know it’s customary to offer advice to recent graduates, the truth is that I need your help more than you need mine.

Our nation faces extraordinary challenges. And I’m working hard in the Senate to do what I can to help.

But the smart policies we passed after World War II were only part of what helped our nation to bounce back. It was the common commitment that we all shared to educating our kids and investing in our own potential that made it work.

And the renewed sense of common purpose we need to address our challenges today won’t come from a piece of legislation. It’ll come from the example each of you sets in your community.

Wherever you go from here, you’ll take with you not only the skills you’ve learned from your classes, but also the courage and dedication that enabled you to make it through.

Don’t underestimate the difference you can make by sharing your passion for learning with those struggling to find their path. Don’t underestimate how inspiring your commitment to doing hard things can be to those tempted to give in to cynicism. Don’t underestimate how badly this country needs the resilience you’ve shown in getting to this day.

An America with a common understanding of the importance of education, an America with the confidence to invest in its own potential, an America that doesn’t make excuses when it faces tough problems — that’s an America that can bounce back from anything.

And that’s the America you can help to build.

So I don’t just want to congratulate you on your dedication and your resilience. I want to thank you for it. And I want to urge you to maintain those things — to keep inspiring us, keep making us proud, and keep leading by your example.

Thank you — and congratulations.


Al Franken, DFL-Minneapolis, is a U.S. senator.