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Cincinnati State Technical and Community College

Commencement Address

Secretary Steven Chu

Thursday, June 18, 2009

President Henderson, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, family, friends, and, especially the new graduates, I am very pleased to be your commencement speaker.

To the graduates, I offer my sincere congratulations.  I know how hard you've worked to reach this day, and for this reason, I am especially delighted to be here.

Many of you are the first in your families to have gone beyond high school.  Some may have dropped out of school, and this event celebrates your return and completion of the next stage of your education. Some of you have earned diplomas where your classes had to be squeezed into the nooks and crannies of a full-time work. Some graduates, such as the student speaker, Colin, have a degree, and have returned to school to learn new skills.

Part of the strength of the American educational system is that it provides a wide range of opportunities for us to extend our education and better our lives.

While I was working at Bell Laboratories, the greatest industrial research lab that ever was, I hired a fellow by the name of Alex Cable. He was thirty at the time. He bounced around in a variety of jobs. He worked as a machinist and in a restaurant, moving up from washing dishes to assistant chef of an up-scale restaurant. During this time, he began to take courses in a local community college, and eventually enrolled at Rutgers University in New Jersey, as a full time student.

When I called one of Alex's professors to ask about hiring him, the professor went into a tirade, telling me that Alex should go to graduate school, instead of working as a technician. As I wrote in my Nobel Prize Lecture in 1997, "Officially he was hired as my 'technician'; unofficially, he became a super-graduate student."

When I left Bell Labs in the summer of 1987 to join the Stanford faculty, I asked Alex to come with me and become by first graduate student. He declined. I felt a bit wounded, since we had a great working relationship. But I later learned the he had started a little business on the side, and it had begun to thrive.

Alex had been financing his machinist buddies to make devices to hold laser mirrors and other scientific components. His company, Thor Labs, grew to employ hundreds of people with sales of tens of millions of dollars per year. Alex is now a multi-millionaire. When I asked Alex to join me to Stanford, I didn't know that he was facing a tough choice: he could either be my first graduate student or become a millionaire.

My point in telling you this story is that Alex's return to education was through classes at a community college. In many other countries, once people slip out of the educational track, it is very hard for them to get a second chance. In the United States, you can return at any time. As many of you have shown here today, as long as you have the will, determination, and ability, you will always have a chance to improve your life through education. This opportunity is part of the American Dream.

I now want to turn to that painful part of every commencement speech; the part where I give you advice you didn't ask for, will probably not remember, and almost certainly, will never follow.

Here is one simple piece of advice.  Cultivate a generous spirit. In all negotiations, don't bargain for the last, little advantage. Leave the change on the table.

I want to pass on more advice, not from me, but from Mary Schmich, a columnist who writes for the Chicago Tribune. She wrote a parody of a commencement speech that was entitled: "Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young."

Ms. Schmich's most important piece of advice was simple and clear: wear sunscreen. This is good advice.

She also wrote:


    Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth.

Oh, never mind.

You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.

You are not as fat as you imagine.

Let me expand on her advice. We all get old, so my advice to you is to take pictures of yourself, your family, and your friends.  I didn't take as many pictures as I should have when I was young. Today, I don't have any proof of how much taller and better looking I was than what you see here today.

Years ago, I had a tiny waist, powerful forearms, and muscular thighs. Women sitting next to me on airplanes flirted with me. In those days, I was a contender! Now, my body is shriveling, and my weight is gravitating towards my center. Alas, I have these memories, but few pictures to prove my glorious past.

Take pictures of yourself now so that you record the best times of your life. Even if you believe your youth is not the best of times, you will eventually romanticize that it was. If it turns out that your pictures are truthful, and you really were as fat as you thought, there is always Adobe Photoshop to fix that.

The remainder of my talk can be summed up in two words: Wayne Gretzky.  Perhaps, years later, maybe a friend, an aunt or cousin will ask you how your graduation went.  Maybe they'll even ask you what that person from the Department of Energy said.  If you remember nothing else, you can say, he talked about Wayne Gretzky.

Wayne Gretzky was the greatest hockey player of his generation. When asked what his secret was, he replied: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it's been."

That's what you've been doing here at Cincinnati State.  By getting an education and new job skills, you have been preparing yourself for a changing world. You invested the time, the energy, and the money to position yourselves for new opportunities.

Now, America needs to skate to where the puck is going to be.

When President Henderson invited me to be here today, he wrote of your school's green energy initiatives, stating that "Cincinnati State Technical and Community College is an important contributor to your hopes for the future of our country."

What are my hopes for the future?

We face a looming crisis in energy and climate change. The price of oil and other forms of energy will rise as the world demand increases.

At the same time, we face an unprecedented threat to our very way of life from climate change. Beyond any reasonable doubt, the climate is changing, and the cause of this change is our use of fossil fuel.

A report just released, "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," discusses how the U.S. is changing, and gives a glimpse of what will happen.

It reports that the Midwest has seen a 27 percent increase in the heavy rainfall. Annual precipitation in the last three decades was the wettest period in a century, and you have experienced two record-breaking floods in the past 15 years. As the climate changes, the Midwest will see heavier rains and flooding in the winter and spring, and more severe droughts during the summer. Under a business as usual scenario, heat-related deaths are expected to increase dramatically.

If the world continues on a business-as-usual path, a number of studies predict there is a fifty-fifty chance the temperature will rise somewhere between 7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century. This increase may not sound like much, but during the last ice age, the world was only about 11 degrees colder. During this time, most of Canada and the U.S. down to Ohio and Pennsylvania were covered year round by a glacier. A world 9 degrees warmer will be a very different place.  The change will be so rapid that many species, including humans, will have a hard time adapting.

As a nation and as a world, we have been slow to react to the climate change threat.  We have two choices.  We can close our eyes and wish this weren't happening.  Or we can recognize the new reality, and seize the opportunity. 

As a scientist, I am extremely privileged to be part of the Obama Administration. The message the President delivers is not one of doom and gloom, but of optimism and opportunity. I share this optimism. The task ahead is daunting, but we can and will succeed. If there ever was a time to help steer America and the world towards a path of sustainable energy, now is the time.

America has the opportunity to lead in this new industrial revolution by revving up our remarkable innovation engine that will produce the needed solutions. By skating to where the puck is going to be, we will also lay the foundation of a new prosperity.

The first step is to reduce the demand for energy through energy efficiency and conservation. I'm not talking about giving up our way of life. I'm talking about using our creativity to make buildings that are more comfortable, more economical, and use 80 percent less energy than we use today.

The next step is increase the supply of energy from clean and renewable sources.  We will invent much improved methods to harness the sun, the wind, the soil, and nuclear forces.

The final step is for all of us to do our part on a personal level.  During World War II, we had a massive effort to save energy here at home so it could be used in the war effort.  An old World War II slogan was, "Help Stop Fuel Waste." 

In our war against climate change, look to where you can do your part. Look for areas where you can save energy in your own life. Make your home more efficient by insulating your attic, sealing your doors and windows, replacing old light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. Do your part to break our addiction to foreign oil by choosing a more fuel efficient car, or, better yet, take public transportation. If you're replacing an appliance, look for the ENERGY STAR® logo. Small, simple steps may not seem like much on their own, but they make a big difference when we all do them together.

Why should you do this?  Deeply rooted in all cultures is the notion of generational responsibility. Parents work hard so that their children will have a better life.  Some of you are here because your families worked hard to give you this opportunity.  Some of you are here because of your own children, and the opportunity you want for them.

When you think about the future of your family, make climate change a part of that discussion. One of the cruelest ironies about climate change is that the ones who will be hurt the most are the most innocent: the world's poorest and those yet to be born.

So when you leave here today and someone asks what happened at your commencement, remember that some physics nerd talked about Wayne Gretzky, and how America needs to skate to where the puck is going to be.

Graduates of the class of 2009, please accept my warmest congratulations. You have an extraordinary role to play in our future by helping us skate in the right direction. May you help save our planet for your children and for the all future children of the world.

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