MAXWELL:  Message to graduates: Try to give of yourself and serve your communities well

5/27/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I have the dubious honor of delivering two college commencement speeches and one to a group of high school students. I always work hard to keep my speeches under 15 minutes. Here is the gist of what I am going to say. My hope is that some of it will be beneficial:

In addition to striving to achieve personal success, go out and serve others. By service to others, I do not mean quid pro quo, doing something for something similar in return. I mean unselfish kindness and generosity, acts that validate your good fortune, that give meaning to your lives and, above all, that sustain and dignify the lives of others.

In this regard, no acts are too small, and no person in need of assistance is too lowly.

Unselfish service is marked by humility, a hard-to-find trait in this age of egoism, individualism and incivility. I am frequently guilty of the latter.

But I give the same advice offered by George Rupp, then-president of Columbia University, when he spoke to graduates a few years ago. He beseeched them to become committed community volunteers. He asked them to try to comprehend “the need to revitalize our common life as a necessary part of individualism.”

In other words, the life of the community and individualism need not be mutually exclusive.

Rupp’s words complement the wisdom of Dot Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon and the Olympic softball gold medalist who asked graduates not to squander the “moments in our lives when we will be given the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.”

After winning her medal, she brought it to the children’s hospital in Los Angeles where she worked and placed it around the neck of each child there, some of whom had undergone brain surgery. Why did Richardson perform this act of kindness?

“I wanted to make sure every one of those kids got to wear that medal,” she said.

This simple act is at the heart of what makes humans human.

As a parent and a citizen of this great nation, one of my biggest concerns is the increasing strife and indifference among young people of various races and ethnic groups. Here again, service is important. As you enter the workplace as professionals, routinely reach out in kindness and understanding to people unlike yourselves.

Do not simply chat with others around the water cooler or coffee urn. If you are white, find time to regularly have dinner with colleagues of other ethnicities. If you are African-American, invite colleagues of different ethnic backgrounds to explore new areas of black life, even parts of the city that are reportedly off-limits to them.

These efforts, too, are part of community service, for they foster enlightenment, civility and democratic values. The workplace, then, should be treated as an extension of community life, which includes our churches, our civic organizations, our neighborhood sports teams. Be vigilant, always searching for ways to share your good fortune.

Whether you know it or not, you are privileged people. You are graduating from a fine school, with a degree that will open doors. As privileged people, you have a moral obligation to serve. Merely accumulating wealth is not enough. You have an obligation to invent, to produce, to create, to deliver goods and services that make life better for everyone.

If you have been blessed with a brilliant mind, you should use it for good. You have an obligation to teach others. What, for example, can you do to help feed hungry people? To find cures for the world’s fatal diseases? If you become a lawyer, will you regularly work pro bono for the poor?

So, to this year’s graduates, I say this: If you go into the world and serve others, you will give meaning to life itself. You will fulfill our purpose for being alive.

Service ennobles us.