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Tidewater Community College Commencement
Remarks by Marie V. McDemmond,
President Emerita of Norfolk State University and Board Chair for Lumina Foundation for Education
December 17, 2010

Thank you, and good evening, graduates! I appreciate the opportunity to be with you on this special day, and I’m grateful to President DiCroce for inviting me. It’s wonderful to be back in Norfolk, my home for nearly a decade and a place that holds many great memories for me.

Of course, we’re not here today to review my past. We’re here to look to the future, to YOUR future, and to celebrate the milestone that each of you has reached. So let me begin by congratulating all of you! It’s a real privilege for me to join your professors and administrators in acknowledging your academic achievements. Those pieces of parchment that you will accept this evening represent years of hard work and sacrifice, and I commend all of you for that.

I also want to take a moment here to commend the graduates’ families and friends. No graduate completes this journey alone. Without the patience and support of parents, spouses and other family members and friends, students simply don’t become graduates. So I congratulate all of you for this significant — and shared — achievement.

And I don’t want to stop with congratulations. I also want to thank you for what you have done. You may not fully realize it now — on a day that is properly focused on celebrating personal victories — but the degree you’ve earned isn’t just about you, or even about the loved ones who share this moment with you. It benefits all of us. My hope is that, in my brief remarks this evening, I can help you see your achievement in that more expansive way.

Of course, before I can do that, I’ll need to give you at least one good reason to listen to me — and that means a little background is in order. As President DiCroce said, I’m Marie McDemmond, former president of Norfolk State University and the current board chair of Lumina Foundation for Education.

As I mentioned, I have some history here in Norfolk, and with Tidewater Community College. During my years as president of Norfolk State, I worked closely with President DiCroce to implement a collaborative program that helps TCC students build on their academic success. The program — called the Partnership for Academic and Student Success, or PASSport — helps TCC students transfer and succeed at NSU. I’m sure some of you will benefit from PASSport as you prepare for the next step in your college career.

I’m also sure that many of you have already benefited from another TCC program that I’m familiar with. As a Lumina board member and now as its chairperson, I’ve long been involved with a program called Achieving the Dream — a program that, like PASSport, is focused squarely on helping students succeed. Tidewater has been an exemplary partner in Achieving the Dream since the very beginning, and is now recognized as a “leader college” in that important national effort. It’s been gratifying to watch TCC’s great work and to think that, because of my service to Lumina, I have in some small way helped the college serve and support so many promising students.

Helping college students succeed: that, in a nutshell, is what drives me. College has enriched my life immeasurably and in innumerable ways. In fact, it has defined my professional life and shaped nearly all of my efforts in philanthropy and public service. And now, as Lumina’s board chair, I’m lucky enough to lead the nation’s largest organization whose sole purpose is to extend the enormous benefits of college to millions more Americans.  Our aim is to help students prepare for college, get into college and stay there until they reach a glorious day like this one: graduation day.

In a way, everything we do at Lumina points toward graduation day. We have a very clear goal — what we call the “Big Goal.” Simply stated, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality college degrees or credentials by the year 2025. Today — and really, for nearly half a century — the percentage of Americans with degrees is just 40 percent.

For most of that time, a 40 percent attainment rate was fine; in fact, for decades, the United States led all other countries in terms of college attainment. That’s no longer the case. In fact, our 40 percent rate now barely gets us into the top 10, and the young-adult populations of the top three countries — Korea, Canada and Japan — are well over 50 percent. This is a dangerous trend — for our economy, for our society and families, and for our national security. So, you can see that we at Lumina have our work cut out for us.

And you can also see, again, why I am thrilled to be here tonight. Every success like the one you’re celebrating this evening — every degree earned, every certificate awarded — moves us closer to that Big Goal.

But what excites me most about all of this has nothing to do with numbers. It has everything to do with people like you. Because, when I look out into this crowd today — into hundreds and hundreds of proud and hopeful faces — I realize that I am looking into the face of change. I am looking into the very future of this nation, and indeed the future of the global community in which we all live.

You and your classmates here at Tidewater are part of an immensely powerful wave. You represent what we at Lumina call the 21st century student. In short, you are the students of today and tomorrow, not those of yesterday.

You see, in many ways, American higher education wasn’t built for many of you — any more than it was built for me as an African-American woman. Rather, it was built for the 19th century student — some might even say the student of the 18th century. Borrowing its tradition from medieval Europe, American higher education was originally designed to educate a favored few: the sons — and yes, back then it was almost exclusively the sons — of the wealthy elite.

Fortunately, this has changed over the decades, beginning with the determined, early efforts of educational pioneers such as Booker T. Washington, Catherine E. Beecher and Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune, the founder of Bethune-Cookman University, was a major force for educational equality throughout the first half of the 20th century. She, like a few before her, often called education “the great equalizer,” and I can’t think of a better description of the power of learning.

Thomas Jefferson, a proud Virginian and perhaps the prototypical American, certainly recognized the power of learning. In fact, his vision of self-government rested squarely on the need for an educated, enlightened citizenry. He recognized education as a powerful force for progress.    

And of course, the power of learning has been greatly enhanced since Jefferson’s day — and even since Bethune’s time. For instance, college opportunity broadened significantly in the last half of the 20th century, thanks to the GI Bill and the development of the community college system that gave rise to such wonderful institutions as Tidewater.

These and many other advances have opened college doors much wider, to be sure.  But they’re still not open wide enough. There are still far too many people who don’t go to college or who leave without finishing — people whose potential we must develop, people whose economic power we must enhance and whose talents we desperately need as a nation.

The 21st century is here, and our success in this century will depend largely on you and others like you — in other words, on 21st century students. These students run the gamut — racially, ethnically, and socially diverse ... From recent high school graduates to second-career retirees ... From immigrants to native-born citizens  ...  From part-time distance learners to full-time resident students ... From GED completers to certificate seekers to evening MBA students to Ph.D. candidates ... The 21st century student has roots in every country — from Croatia to Jamaica ... from China to Ghana.

When we define the 21st century student, it can’t just be a clever slogan or an empty catch phrase. We must see you — and serve you — for who you are: the future of this country. We must put the past behind us and create a society in which all sectors — industry, government, educational institutions, communities — see each of you as future leaders, taxpayers, and contributors to the standard of living we cherish so much.

Tidewater Community College has done a wonderful job in reaching out to and serving the 21st century student. In fact, it was doing that decades before the 21st century began. Clearly, other colleges and universities can learn from TCC’s example ... just as other students can learn from yours.

You’ve worked hard to earn your spot in this ceremony tonight. This evening, with your degree in hand, every one of you will be a step closer to realizing your dreams — and our society will be very much improved because of that. I urge you to make the most of the opportunities before you. Keep striving — for your own sake and for the others who share this world with you.

As I end my remarks this evening, I want to share with you a little inspirational saying that I use a lot:

“You have reached another milestone on your quest for knowledge. Congratulations, but remember these words: GOOD ... BETTER ... BEST. Never let them rest until the GOOD is the BETTER and the BETTER is the BEST!”