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Text of Spring 2000
Commencement Address

Pamela Willeford This is the complete text of the Spring 2000 Commencement address given May 6 by Pamela Willeford, who chairs the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. A record 964 graduates were awarded degrees in ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. in Johnson Coliseum.

Chancellor Urbanovsky, President Marks, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, administrators, family members, friends, and most importantly--May 2000 graduates of Sam Houston State University.

I thank you for having me here today to celebrate a wonderful event--a wonderful event in the life of this university and, in particular, a wonderful event in the lives of you who are graduating.

Please accept my congratulations--and those of my fellow members of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board--for your achievements recognized here today. For you who are receiving degrees are joining a special group of Texans.

You are special for several reasons. Let me tell you why.

First, you have taken advantage of the higher education opportunities that this state offers its citizens. You enrolled in college. We know that only a little more than one-half of Texas public high school graduates go on to public colleges and universities within a year of graduation. Others go to private or out-of-state institutions, but we do not have a good way to track those students. The fact remains, however, that a large percentage of Texas high school graduates do not pursue college.

But you are some of the ones who seized the higher education opportunity, for whatever reason. Maybe it was just because your parents said you had to go to college. Maybe it's because many of your friends went to college, and you didn't want to be left out. Or maybe it's because you wanted a better life and realized that education can pave the road to success.

For most of you, I'll bet it was a combination of these and other factors, and some of the factors may have carried more weight than others. But the important point is that you did it--you made your way here, and you enrolled. Many of you had to overcome quite a few obstacles as you enrolled. For example, the cost of college probably caused some concern. And quite a few of you were worried about leaving home, or making new friends, or other social adjustments that you knew you would have to make. But you went on to college. You found a way to make it happen.

Now I recognize that a sizeable number of you graduates probably did not enter college right out of high school. For you, enrolling in college probably took an even greater effort. Many of you had family and work obligations that you had to juggle just to enroll. But you, too, enrolled and found a way to make it happen.

But that's not all. All of you did more than just enroll.

You also persisted, even when things got a little tough. Academically, your first few days of college were probably not bad. Remember your surprise when you didn't have to go to that chemistry class every day, but only ever other day?

And remember those first days of calculus, the days when you covered the same material that you had covered in high school math classes. College wasn't nearly as hard as you had thought it would be. You may have even wondered why it would take anyone four years to get a degree.

The shock probably came the next week--by which time the instructor had progressed through everything you might have picked up in four years of high school math. All of a sudden, you felt you were in over your head. Not much made sense. And the workload seemed overwhelming with something always hanging over your head. In your classroom, you started looking side to side furtively, looking for a sign that someone else--anyone else--was doubting himself or herself, too.

By that second week, you questioned why you were here. You thought about why you had enrolled. You wondered if you were just wasting money by being enrolled.

Quite a few students drop out at this point, or at some point a little later--before their second year of college. Statewide, about 30 percent of public university students, and about 50 percent of public community college students, don't return to college after their first year.

Certainly, there are many reasons why this happens. for many community college students, just a few extra courses for specific skills--not a baccalaureate degree--is their goal. So you wouldn't expect them to be retained and earn an associate's degree at a community college, or transfer to a university where they could earn a bachelor's degree.

But other students decide that they are not emotionally, socially, or academically ready for college. Others run into financial problems. Older students may face these same challenges, but again more of them must also factor in family and work obligations as well. Any one of these--and many other obstacles--can overwhelm a student and force him or her to leave college before earning a degree.

Back about 90 years ago, the U. S. Secretary of State was a man named Elihu Root. He had some particularly thoughtful words on the subject of persistence, which still seem relevant today.

He said something like this: "People never fail, they just give up trying."

But you who are graduating today didn't do that--didn't just give up trying--at least not for too long. You faced these challenges and found ways around them. Maybe some of you did leave college for a while. But ultimately, you recognized what higher education can do for you and your families. You persisted. You found a way to make it happen and you succeeded.

Today, we're recognizing the importance of persistence and hard work by awarding each of you a degree--a baccalaureate, masters or doctoral degree--the visible, tangible sign that will forever demonstrate to everyone what you've accomplished.

Those of you receiving a baccalaureate degree are now part of another special group of Texans. Only about 20 percent of the people in our state have a baccalaureate degree, and you are now part of that group. An even smaller group--about 6 1/2 percent of our population--have graduate degrees. You can and should be proud, just as all of your families, Sam Houston faculty and administrators, regents, and everyone else here is proud of you. You found a way to make it happen.

But being a member of this special group carries special responsibilities, too. With your hard work, and with the support of the rest of us, you have passed a threshold--marked by the degree you're receiving today--that provides you with the basic tools to become the leaders and the discoverers of the next generation. We have great expectations for you, and you must live up to them for the sake of our communities, our state, and our nation as we move into this new century.

I hope that you'll notice that I said that you "must" live up to our expectations. I don't use that word lightly here. It's just that there is no alternative, and there is no easy way out. For every generation, there are challenges to which it must respond successfully. It is no different for your generation or for the generation following yours.

Speaking to you today, I can't even tell you what all of those challenges are--or will be. Things change much too quickly for that, and there are no omniscient seers who can tell you how the future will ultimately shake out. But trust me--it will be up to you and others like you who have taken the first steps to becoming the people who are responsible for meeting the challenges of the future.

Because of my service on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, I want to speak for a moment about some of the particular challenges facing our colleges and universities today and what you can do to help meet those challenges.

For people of my generation, and probably that of most of the administrators and faculty at Sam Houston State University, a young, White male student from a relatively well-off family typically epitomized higher education. He enrolled in at least 15 hours of courses every semester, lived in a dormitory on campus, did at least a fair amount of partying with other students, went to every sporting event, and ended up with a bachelor's degree four years later. The college process was a neat, simple thing, and administrators and faculty knew just how to teach courses and build facilities to reach the same kind of student who always entered college in those days.

Well, things have begun to change. We still have many students who meet the old profile. In fact, many of you here today fit that profile--except, of course, for the partying aspect, I'm sure! Seriously though, we will always want and need these traditional students to graduate from our colleges and universities and to be successful, contributing members of our society.

But there are also many other students--minority students, older students, part-time students--that make the college student body in our state much more diverse than it once was, and many of you are graduating here today, as well.

What's forcing change in our system of higher education? I think we can attribute it to two things: our state's changing demographics and the statewide recognition of the need to ensure that all population groups have the real opportunity to reach their potential through higher education.

Minority populations--especially the Hispanic population--are rapidly increasing in Texas, as we all know. Demographic projections indicate that minorities in Texas will outnumber Whites by about 2008.

Unfortunately, Hispanics and Blacks are tremendously underrepresented in Texas higher education. Hispanics account for 34 percent of the state's college-age population--which we define as the 15-34 age range, but they account for less than 24 percent of the state's public higher education enrollment. Blacks make up 13 percent of the college-age population, but less than 10 percent of the enrollments at public colleges and universities.

What's more, Black and Hispanic representation decreases at every level as you move up through higher education. For example, blacks account for less that 11 percent of the associate degrees awarded and only 7 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded. Hispanics account for only 20 percent of the associate's degrees and only 17 percent of the bachelor's degrees.

You don't have to be a member of the Higher Education Coordinating Board to find these trends disturbing and to recognize the challenge this poses for all of us in the state.

Full participation and full success in higher education for all Texans is the only sure step to realizing the future economic and social promise offered by our state. It's a lofty goal, but one to which we must all be committed and one towards which we must all work.

So as the recipient of a baccalaureate degree or a graduate degree--making you part of the 20 percent of Texans who hold those degrees--what do we expect of you in response to this challenge?

First of all, we need all of you to simply recognize this challenge and what it means. Full participation and success for all Texans means a better educated work force that will attract and retain business and industry that pay better salaries. Higher salaries lead to a higher quality of life with less demand for publicly funded social services. Higher salaries lead to higher tax revenues to fund public services--including higher education opportunities.

But there's also more to education than higher salaries. Educated people have the critical thinking skills and a broader base from which to make decisions. They are better able to understand all of the challenges that modern life gives us--both personally, in things like personal finance and parenting, and publicly, in things like voting and community service. The implications are enormous, and it is essential that all Texans have the same opportunities you have enjoyed.

Second, as an alumnus of this fine institution, we also need your counsel and support in making changes directed at responding to this challenge. No longer do our colleges and universities have the luxury of providing a "one size fits all" educational experience. The higher education community itself is having to learn more about how to successfully recruit, retain, and graduate students with tremendously different backgrounds and needs.

As I'm sure Chancellor Urbanovsky and President Marks can attest, this institution must make and is making some changes to respond to the new diversity among our state's potential students. Students from groups that have not traditionally participated in higher education often are not familiar with what it's like to go to college. Perhaps he or she is the first in that student's family, or even the first among their friends' families, to go to college. Clearly, these students will need more guidance and help as they are recruited to and attend college. They may need career counseling, more effective advice about which courses to take, and more financial aid. Responses to these changes will create new priorities, and you should recognize and support them when they are needed. As an aside, I will say that you need to support these priorities not only for the sake of the new and different kinds of students we need to attract to our institutions of higher education, but for your own sakes, as well.

For in this day and time, many college graduates, including many in this audience, will return to college at least once--sometimes to a university or often to a community college or even through distance learning--to get the skills they need to move ahead in their careers. Because what once was, may no longer be. And if it is now, it may not be for very long. Change is a part of our fast-paced lives, both professionally and personally--and educational opportunities can equip us to respond to that change. "Lifelong learning" offers new freedom to people who take advantage of it.

Some of you will wind up in careers that will allow you to address the challenges facing our higher education system directly. But the rest of you can have an influence as well. Through volunteer help, communications with professional groups and business associates and legislators, and even in conversations with your neighbors--you can make changes happen--just as you've made things happen before. Use your time, talent and treasure to help others have the same opportunities you have had and to enhance our educational system in general and your alma mater in particular.

All of these things that we expect of you is what is called "paying your civic rent." I'm not the first to use that phrase, but I like it so well that I want to talk about it with you. "Paying your civic rent" means giving back to society at least part of what it gave to you.

True, you earned a college degree with hard work. But our state government heavily subsidizes higher education, though many think it can and should do more. You may have thought your college career cost a bundle, and it probably did, but it would have been much more expensive without the financial support from the State of Texas.

In other words, all of the taxpayers of this state, not to mention the many corporations and individuals who support our institutions, helped pay for your college education. And it's only fair that you give something back to them. So far I've talked about giving back by helping colleges and universities in this state respond to new student needs. But you can pay your civic rent in many other ways.

You have a responsibility to what is known as "the larger community." It's called public service, and I want to encourage you to pursue public service--either in careers or as volunteers--to make our communities better and safer places to live and raise families. I stand here before you today as a volunteer appointed to a statewide board--not as a recognized author, nor a Nobel prize winner, nor a famous actor, nor a brilliant neurosurgeon, nor a former president or ambassador, nor any kind of elected official, nor a world-renowned orator (obviously)--well, you get the picture. My opportunity for service is probably different from what will present itself to you. But we who are blessed with an education and other opportunities must want the best--and do our parts to make the best happen--for not only our own children and families but for our society as a whole.

So let me summarize.

Congratulations on your decision and work to enroll in college, stay in college, and graduate. Far too many students get lost somewhere along that path, and we're all happy to see you who have made it. Good job!

Next, we're going to be expecting a lot out of you, and it can't be helped. The future of the world rests in your hands--and others like you. Every generation faces this. It's called responsibility. Some generations come through it with flying colors. For others, probably mine included, it's been kind of touch and go for longer than anyone wants to talk about. But today, all of us are still here, we remain free, we have a good standard of living, and we have quite a bit of hope for an even better future. Most things are better now than they used to be the last time we passed the century mark, much less the millennium mark.

That's proof that ultimately, every past generation has been more than a match for all of the challenges that it faced. We have every reason to expect yours to follow this long tradition of success and progress. Don't blow it. The consequences are much too high.

Finally, remember to pay your "civic rent." Use your education, to which all of us have contributed, to make your community, your university, your state, your nation, and the world better places.

Throughout it all--keep finding ways to make things happen. Go out there and make a difference. You won't regret it. Because you can't fail unless you give up trying.

Thank you for allowing me to share this occasion with you. We on the Coordinating Board find our work challenging and interesting, but you are what our work is all about. And you make our time and effort worthwhile. Congratulations and good luck!

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
May 8, 2000
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