The Catholic University of America

Columbus School of Law Commencement Address
Elaine L. Chao
U.S. Secretary of Labor
The Catholic University of America
May 29, 2004

Graduates, parents, family members and friends, faculty and administrators-congratulations! This day has finally arrived!

I want to commend Dean Fox, Father O'Connell, and the entire faculty. You are a big part of what makes this university such a special place in our nation's capitol. In fact, Dean Fox is so concerned about you that he asked me to pass along a special message: pay attention to the bar examination!

Well, as you, graduates, stand on the threshold of a new professional life, you should be confident in the opportunities available to you.

You are fortunate to be entering a world that offers you an unprecedented variety of opportunities to realize your dreams.

Only a few decades ago, employees and workers spent their entire lives working inflexible hours with one or two organizations.

Today, all that has changed. More and more people work away from the office, with flexible working arrangements. And the average 34-year old will have changed jobs nine times over the course of his or her career.

Despite some of the headline about the economy in some papers, the fact remains that there are many growth sectors creating new opportunities.

Our economy has seen 8 straight months of job creation, with 1.1 million new jobs created since August 2003.

The unemployment rate nationally is 5.6 percent. Although higher than we'd like it to be, that's lower than the average unemployment rate of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Many of you will pursue careers in Washington before your return home. So you should know that the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation-just 3 percent in March. And Washington has another thing going for it: abundant opportunities for women professionals. The median income of women professionals in this area is the highest in the nation. And the Washington metropolitan area has the highest proportion of women employed in managerial and professional occupations. This has special meaning for me because half of the top leadership of the Department of Labor is composed of women, the best record of any Cabinet Department.

Those of us who serve in Washington share another bond with the class of 2004. The day students began their studies just two weeks before the devastating attacks of September 11th. None of us will ever forget the tragic images of that day and what it was like to be in the nation's capitol.

It is truly memorable that you are graduating at the very same time and day that the president is dedicating the national memorial to the veterans of World War II. The memories of 9/11 and the tributes on the mall today remind us that freedom is a precious gift and that others have sacrificed to protect it. As advocates of the rule of law, you will have a role in maintaining the freedom and opportunity that makes American such a beacon of hope in the world.

Preserving freedom and opportunity has a special resonance with me personally, because I came to America as an immigrant from Asia when I was 8 years old.

My parents left everything familiar behind so that they could give their children the freedom and opportunity that America offers.

Our initial years in this country were very difficult. We didn't speak the language, didn't understand the culture and traditions of this country. We had neither family nor friends in this new country.

Yet, we survived and thrived through the generous help of newly found friends and neighbors. I will always remember the many kindnesses of strangers to a young immigrant family new to these shores.

Like so many other newcomers, we were assisted in our early years by members of the Catholic community. Education is very important in Asian culture. So when my father came to America, he wanted to pursue an advanced degree. But the civil war in China prevented him from taking his university transcript when he left China, his homeland, amidst the turmoil and chaos. A number of well-known American universities, therefore, turned him down because he couldn't produce a transcript.

But a New York catholic priest heard about my father. And even though my family was not Catholic, he arranged for my father to get an interview with the dean of St. John's University and he was accepted. My father worked very hard and went on to earn a graduate degree. That expertise was key to building a better life for his family.

If a Catholic university hadn't been there for my father, I don't think I'd be standing here before you today. That is why I am especially pleased to participate in these ceremonies and to honor another Catholic university that has provided opportunities for so many.

As you progress in your careers, you will find that success is about more than professional achievement. It's also about helping others. No other country in the world has such a wonderful tradition of helping others unconnected by blood or marriage as America. The Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America in the 1830s, noted that Americans were unique in their passion to form associations to address community problems. That commitment to compassion has only increased through the years. So as you embark on your next adventure in life, I hope that you will honor this great tradition and remember to give back to your community.

President George W. Bush created the USA Freedom Corps to provide meaningful opportunities for Americans to serve their neighbors. He has asked all Americans to dedicate at least two years or 4,000 hours over their lives in service to others. By doing so, you will be adding to the millions of acts of kindness and generosity that are strengthening our country, one heart and one soul at a time.

Some people claim that America is the strongest nation because it has the mightiest army. But the president has said that America is great because of the compassion and generosity of its people. It is the character of the American people that makes our nation such a force for good in the world.

Giving back to others is a way to earn the freedoms we enjoy. At the ceremonies on the mall today, I was reminded of the movie "Saving Private Ryan." It tells the story of a group of soldiers during World War II, some of whom made the ultimate sacrifice to rescue a Private Ryan.

In the movie, Captain Miller who leads the mission is mortally wounded. But before he dies, he tells the young Private Ryan the two most powerful words he would ever hear, "Earn it."

Years later, an elderly, former Private Ryan visits the grave of Captain Miller with his family. With tears in his eyes he asks, "Have I been a good man?" He wanted to "earn it!"

Private Ryan never forgot that others had sacrificed so he could live in freedom.

Today, our country is at war-a war against terrorism. Men and women in uniform, whom we will never meet, are making the ultimate sacrifice to defend our nation, spread freedom and uphold rule of law. Because of them, we will continue to enjoy freedom, opportunity and security in our homeland.

The best way to repay them-and the generations who sacrificed for us before them-is to earn it. So as you make your way in life, I hope you'll remember to cultivate a grateful heart, to thank the people at home who made sacrifices for you, to share with others and to give back to your community.

May God be your light. And may God bless America.