Commencement Address, Spring 2010 - Mike Prusi

Senator Mike Prusi
May 1, 2010
Northern Michigan University
Commencement Speech
The World Is Yours, Go Get It

Watch Senator Prusi's commencement address here

Good morning everyone. Dr. Wong, members of the Board of Control, distinguished faculty, parents and family members, and especially graduates. Let me begin by thanking Northern Michigan University for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of this solemn yet joyous occasion. I know you seniors will be smiling and your hearts will be light as you line up to receive your well earned degrees. Trust me; watching as you transition from carefree student to hard working taxpayer will bring a smile to this politicians' face as well.

Next I would like to express my deep appreciation to the Board of Control for awarding me an Honorary Doctorate today. It is an honor that is truly humbling and I am immensely grateful. Not only is it an honor, it allows me to fulfill a commitment I made to my parents over forty years ago. My mother is here with us today so Mom, it may have taken me longer than I planned but honorary or not your oldest son finally got his degree.

However, graduates, today is your day not mine. While I was searching for subject matter and a suitable style in which to write these remarks, I learned that this commencement address should be a message to and for you. I read a dozen speeches by famous people in the hope that I would get inspired, or at least find some ideas to plagiarize. Then I read a column that said politicians make lousy commencement speakers and that celebrities are much more preferable. Unfortunately, you are stuck with me because Glen Beck and Lady Gaga are unavailable.

Actually, I asked my wife, my daughters and a number of other college graduates I know what impressed them the most, what stuck with them from that big speech on their big day. Most of them could not even remember who spoke at their commencement much less anything the speaker said. That was a huge relief when I realized that nothing I planned to say would alter your course in life. None of you will abandon careers in investment banking or hedge fund management for a life of saving the world no matter how convincing I try to be.

That being said, I didn't come here this morning simply to provide filler in a program of this importance. My remarks may not be memorable but I believe I can offer some perspective gleaned from a lifetime of very diverse experiences. Let me provide some context for those experiences.

I grew up in the little mining town of Negaunee, about twenty miles from where we sit. It's not exactly Mayberry but close enough. I began working at various after school jobs while in junior high. I left Northern over forty years ago after I ran out of financial resources. From there I wound up working on the assembly line at a GM plant down in Lansing, became a technician for the state highway department, served as an orderly at a nursing home and worked in various construction trades before landing back in Negaunee as an underground iron ore miner. I became a family man and helped raise two intelligent beautiful daughters who made me very proud when they graduated from college. While working in the mines of Marquette County I was elected by my co-workers to three terms as President of my union, Steelworkers Local 4950. Now I stand before you as I enter my fourteenth year as a state legislator, leader of the Democratic caucus in your state senate. In the words of an icon from my generation, Jerry Garcia, "What a long strange trip it's been."

After sixty years of all that diversity and experience what can I tell this illustrious gathering as you leave this campus and prepare to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood?  I realize that at any given moment during this address a number of you will appear to be looking down at your laps as though reverently listening to the wisdom pouring forth from this distinguished gentleman on the rostrum. Yeah right, I know you have your mobile devices out and are texting or tweeting, "OMG he's TTL."  Please stick with me, I'll eventually have a point. 

I had planned to talk to you about change because everything about your lives will change dramatically over the years ahead. The pace of change is bewildering to someone of my age but you have been witnessing these changes since you were kids. You will be the drivers of some of the change and some of it will roll right over you. Technology is changing the way we learn, the way we work, how we travel, how we communicate and how we interact as a society. You know what to expect and nothing I can say will enlighten you any further. Plus, change as a subject has sort of lost its' luster since the ‘08 elections.

When you leave here today you will have with you a precious piece of paper, your degree. It will provide proof positive that you have completed the required coursework and demonstrated your ability to learn and absorb a tremendous amount of information. I hope one of the things you have learned is that you still have much to learn. No one gets to stand still for very long.  

After discarding change as a theme, I was thinking I would apologize for the way things are looking out there in that great big world we will be handing over. You have to agree the situation looks pretty grim if you watch cable television news programs. America's economy is struggling to put it as mildly as I can. Not to mention climate change, war, global terrorism and a government in gridlock. The reality is that it's not my fault, or at least hardly any of it is, so an apology would be an inappropriate gesture. The little part that is my fault is simply the fact that all of us collectively bear some responsibility for what happens in our society and the little bit bigger part is that I serve in government.

All of us are familiar with Lincoln's phrase from the Gettysburg address about a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Perhaps that is why things look so chaotic. Perhaps too many people spend way too much time watching who gets voted off the island in "Survivor" and too little time watching who gets voted into our halls of government. (Although I did think they let the skinny girl hang around way too long this season.) More votes are cast in a season of "American Idol" than in some of our national elections. 

So many of the problems that have citizens so upset and out in the streets are a result, in my opinion, of a serious disconnect between our responsibility as the governed to educate ourselves on what is being done in our name and what is actually happening here in America. We all seem to believe that someone else will take care of it or that nothing we do matters anyway so why bother. All of those serious issues I listed earlier are primarily the result of some action or inaction on the part of governments here in America and around the world. The decisions may have been made last year or last century but they will reverberate in your lives and in the lives of the families you will start soon. They can be made better or they can get worse depending on the people we collectively elect to make the next round of decisions.

Now none of these problems are insoluble or beyond the capacity of mankind to deal with. When I was your age, (don't you just love hearing that phrase so often) we had big problems too. Really big ones. We had war raging in Asia. Bands of terrorists were kidnapping and murdering government officials in Europe and the Middle East. In America we had institutionalized cruel discrimination based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. Centuries of industrial pollution had fouled our air and water. There were street protests and demonstrations and campus takeovers that turned into riots. You know, I think they said the earth was cooling and the glaciers were on their way back, but I should check my notes on that one. 

Our political discourse is extremely ugly today but it wasn't much prettier back then. Things changed, however, because people cared enough to change the way they thought about themselves and the society they lived in. It was unrelenting political pressure that brought an end to the war in Vietnam. It took the same sort of pressure to start to end discrimination and to begin to care about the environment. Not everyone changed. Not all of the problems have been resolved. Forty years later some people still hold those biases, still cling to those attitudes. But enough people changed so that our government changed the laws and enacted the policies that made it harder for discrimination to occur or for pollution to continue unabated.

All of this debate occurred on a large scale with our federal government in Washington D.C. All of the issues I mentioned earlier will be dealt with on that scale as well and your only input will be in who you select to represent you in the halls of government. Choose wisely on an informed basis. Too many people either don't participate out of apathy or jump into a debate on information taken from one source or from a thirty second sound bite. You carry around in your pocket the ability to access more sources of information than we could dream of even ten years ago. Use them; check out all sides of an argument before you decide. Don't allow yourselves to be drawn into the extremes on either end. America needs to stop shouting and start listening. There is a lot riding on what happens. If you don't take part you really have no right to complain about the outcome. This concludes my lecture from Government 101.

That was sort of the big picture. Let me zoom in a little to talk about a smaller scale. Here on the campus of NMU we are nearly in the center of my Senate District. In the 38th District there are thirteen counties made up of one hundred twenty two townships, twenty two cities, sixteen villages, four Native American tribes and fifty one school districts. Every one of those political sub-divisions relies on citizens to run them. Sometimes it seems as though half of the people in my district are serving on some sort of governing board, either elect or appointed. These are mainly unpaid, thankless positions. Why would anyone want to serve in this capacity? Why would someone set themselves up for criticism and complaint? Because they care about their communities. They want to be part of making things better. For if no one cared, things would fall apart in a hurry. You will find that community spirit in most parts of the country but it is particularly strong here in the U.P.

That is the point I would like to leave you with; community activism. Ok, I know it sounds a little hokey, sort of like a Jimmy Stewart movie. You are trying to get your lives going, finding jobs and starting families. The last thing you are probably thinking about is running for city council or serving on the library board. But there will come a time when you look around your community and see things that need doing or could be done better.

When you get settled over the next few years take a look around at what your community needs to make it better. You'll be surprised at how much you can help. You'll be surprised at how much satisfaction you can get. There are any number of boards and commissions that need people to serve. Your kids will need safe streets, good parks and well run schools. If you won't help to provide these things, you will cede those decisions to people who may not care as much as you. Who knows, you just might like it. Who knows, you just might wind up on a long strange trip yourself.

Like many of you, the Upper Peninsula has been my home nearly all of my life and I love it here. It is one of the most beautiful places in the country, not just in Michigan. I hope that all of you have enjoyed your time here. I know some of you would like to stick around and we are working on an economy that someday soon we hope will keep you here. But wherever you go as you seek your way in the world I hope you look back at your time here in Marquette with fondness and a desire to come back often.

Parents, I know you are feeling that same sense of pride mixed with relief that I felt as my children completed their degrees. Congratulations to you. Graduates, you are mere minutes away from that goal you set a few years ago. You have accomplished much yet you still have much to do. Congratulations and my very best wishes on every success in the future. To everyone, thank you so much for allowing me to share this special day with you. Class of 2010 the world is yours, go get it.