I’m always inspired this time of the year. Across America, colleges and universities are pausing to celebrate the graduation of students. This is when faculty, administrators and others in our community come together to acknowledge students’ achievements and recognize this transformative moment in their lives and the lives of their families.
Every year I’m touched by the stories I hear: The sacrifices a family made so their son or daughter, their sister, brother or parent could complete their degree. What level of commitment students make to achieve their dream and position themselves for success in life.
Meet Elizabeth Barnes, who dropped out of school at 16 due to a difficult circumstance at home, worked at Denny’s as a waitress and began taking community college courses even before getting her high school diploma. Now, a decade later, this first-generation college student earned her doctorate in biology and society and has already been nationally recognized for her work.
Consider Maria Ramirez, who married at 15, had her first daughter at 16, helped her two daughters attend ASU, but always longed to go to college herself. Now, at 47, she has completed a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
Or Papay Solomon, who lived in a refugee camp in war-torn Guinea when he was five, where he could be seen doodling in notebooks handed out by the UN. He eventually came with his family to Arizona. Now this talented young man, who discovered his passion painting African refugees like himself, has been honored as the outstanding undergraduate from the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts.
There are many more remarkable stories like these, stories of grit and determination and imagination. These are stories that often get missed amid the discouraging drumbeat of daily news.
We are navigating a trying period in our nation, one in which Americans have rarely been so divided. We are angry with and distrustful of public institutions. We are discouraged by political leadership. And as an educator and university president, it is particularly disappointing to see the level of doubt about the value of higher education, especially since I know how fundamental a role it plays in spurring social and economic mobility. Higher education also serves as a training ground for civil discourse. It is a place where people learn to engage and work with a variety of viewpoints, come to a consensus, advance new ideas and initiatives, and tap into our better selves.
But I diverge from the voices that are riddled with negativity, individuals who are swept up by what’s wrong while lacking the vision to grasp what’s right. Yes, I understand that the daily swirl of headlines can feed the worry that our best days are behind us. I’m not immune to those who question our future.
Yet in the arc of human history, we are living in extraordinary, inspiring times that have taken us closer to our potential as humans. We are continuing on a path of enlightenment-based progress in our society that dates back more than 400 years. Rising literacy and lifespans, dramatically reduced poverty and hunger, accelerating technological achievements. These advances are grounded in the principles of equality, liberty and justice, and in the dedication to science and reason, creativity and education.
Yes, this time of year stirs my optimism, but these thoughts are evoked virtually every day when I meet students, teachers and others on a mission to achieve their personal potential, address problems and improve our world. It’s this daily reality that fuels my confidence and deepens my belief that the centuries-old journey that has created our modern world will continue to lead toward a healthier, wealthier, more positive and more productive future.