Commencement Address

Congressman Bart Stupak
May 2, 2009
Northern Michigan University
Commencement Speech

Thank you, President Wong, for that kind introduction.  Good morning Northern Michigan University graduating class of 2009!  Good morning also to your excited, relieved and proud parents, families and friends who are here or watching at home on WNMU-TV.

Congrats to our distinguished faculty and student recipients this graduation weekend.  All that I am and have become I could not have accomplished without Laurie and our sons.

I wish to thank NMU President Dr. Les Wong and the Board of Trustees for inviting me to be your commencement speaker and for the honorary doctorate degree the university has bestowed upon me.  I am truly humbled and grateful for this honor and the opportunity to address this graduating class.

To our graduates, congratulations!  I realize I have your attention for only a short time today.  And I promise to keep my comments brief – for a politician!  We in the U.S. House have that ability to be brief, unlike our filibustering colleagues in the Senate!

There is so much emotion – and so many activities – that surround a graduation ceremony.  It’s hard to focus on the moment, let alone a speech!

Yet it is fitting that we are standing – or sitting – here today in the Superior Dome, a.k.a. the Yooper Dome.  This dome constructed for football games nearly 20 years ago has come to host numerous sporting and community events.  It also serves as a community center for Marquette residents and the entire U.P. community.  If that wasn’t enough functions for one building, the dome also houses the facilities of the U.S. Olympic Education Center. And we are proud of the work Northern does in training and educating our Olympic athletes.

I’m sure that when you saw this great dome for the first time as a freshman four or five years ago (maybe even six years ago for a few of you) it seemed like a huge and somewhat impersonal place.

Now it probably feels like home and a place that you will miss when you leave here to begin the next chapter in your life.  One thing is for sure though – this dome and this campus will hold a special meaning in your life.

The degree you receive today also holds a special meaning for you.  A different meaning than it holds for your family, friends and – more importantly – future employers!

To you, your degree represents a set of skills and knowledge necessary for employment.  To your parents, your degree may signify a sense of pride but also relief that they can focus on rebuilding their own financial security.  To your friends, it might signify achievement and a step into the real world of life challenges, achievements, great expectations and personal fulfillment.

While it is true that Northern has equipped you with more than a transcript, textbooks, a collection of facts and many good memories; Northern has also equipped you with the skills necessary for a life of learning!

So learn from learning, learn from listening, learn from experience.

You are leaving Northern with a degree, but more importantly you are leaving with the tools that equip you to achieve your dreams, overcome obstacles and adapt to an ever changing world and workplace.

Northern has prepared you for that change and given you the ability to seize and embrace life challenges, and confront career and family decisions.  The world will force you to accept challenges you cannot even imagine today!

So what I offer as your commencement speaker, a person who has experienced many of life’s challenges, is that some of these challenges will be magic and some will be tragic!

For example, my greatest personal challenge is dealing with the death of our son B.J.  Here in this dome, B.J.’s photo hangs on Northern’s Wall of Fame by the connector to the PEIF building.  It is difficult for our family to accept that he is gone, but still there is a sense of satisfaction in knowing that his memory and drive as a student athlete is being realized by today’s Olympic athletes who are trained and educated with the help of the B.J. Stupak Olympic Scholarship Program.

This past week, Obama Administration officials pledged to place the Olympic Education Scholarships in the President’s budget and seek an increase in funding so more students can train to represent our country in the Olympics while receiving a college education.

You might think – and many of you probably hope – today marks the end of your education.  Probably the last thing you want to hear is that this is just the beginning – you must never stop learning!

You must continue to learn from learning, learn from listening and learn from experience.

In a speech that was never given in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy planned to say that “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

Whenever you have an opportunity to learn, embrace it!

With new technology and a changing global economy, the job you hold today could be gone tomorrow.

The demands of the global economy have placed greater pressure on the American workforce to be more adaptable.

Current statistics indicate that most of you will change jobs at least 11 times during your lifetime.  Changing jobs or careers can be a painful or exhilarating process.

Let me give you several real-world examples, from my own congressional staff.

A couple of my staff members were from my hometown of Menominee and were provided the opportunity to change career paths.

First there was Bob.  He attended Michigan State University and earned his degree in geology.

He graduated in the middle of the Vietnam War and became an officer in the Navy.

After three years in the Navy, he returned home to the Upper Peninsula where he worked on fiberglass boats.  He then spent a dozen years managing a business selling Honda motorcycles, Arctic Cat snowmobiles and other outdoor recreational products.

He left that job when he was in his 40s and was hired on as a rookie reporter at the Menominee Herald Leader newspaper and worked his way up to city editor.

He spent most of his working life in Menominee, but when the local paper downsized I hired him as my press secretary.

I knew he could write, but I never thought he would be interested in moving to DC!

With his sons grown, he and his wife sold their home and moved to Maryland.

If you ask Bob, he will tell you that in ways he cannot exactly define, each job prepared him for the next.

Leslie was another member of my staff, also from Menominee.

She attended the University of Wisconsin and worked for a while as a writer, editor and publicist.

She later earned her law degree and worked in both private practice and as a city attorney in California, living in a small cottage near the ocean.

Always fascinated with flowers and plants, she bought and operated a greenhouse and nursery.

But the political bug bit her during the 2000 presidential campaign and she sold her northern California cottage and moved to Washington, DC.

She applied for work in my office and was hired as a legislative assistant.

My chief of staff, Scott Schloegel, is a Northern graduate.  He grew up working first as a stock boy and eventually manager of his family’s restaurant business.

Scott received a degree in communications from Northern, with no intention of working in politics.  But when I was elected to the Michigan State House of Representatives, Scott came to work for me as a legislative assistant.  After working for me for two years, Scott changed jobs to work for another state representative.

When I was elected to Congress I hired him as my district director.  Four years later he moved to Washington to take the job as my chief of staff. 

Scott is also one of my lead investigators on my Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.  In that role he assists in hearings on food and drug safety, gas price gouging, energy market price manipulation and nuclear safety.

Let me give you one more example.  After graduating from Gladstone High School and then earning my associate’s degree, I became an Escanaba police officer at age 20.

When I turned 21, I applied to the Michigan State Police and became a state trooper.

While working full time as a trooper, I completed studies for my bachelor’s degree and then earned my law degree.

After sustaining a career-ending knee injury, I was medically retired from the Michigan State Police.

The very next day, Laurie and I moved our family to Menominee.  I began practicing law full time in Menominee and Escanaba.

After a few years, I ran against the incumbent state representative and won.

Eighteen months later, the early retirement of a northern Michigan state senator gave me an opportunity to run for the Michigan State Senate.

Maybe I was moving too fast.  I lost that race in the Democratic primary.

But two years later, when our northern Michigan congressman unexpectedly announced that he would not seek reelection, I won my current seat in Congress, a position I’ve held now for 17 years.  This is the longest I have held one job!

So here we were, four of us Yoopers in Washington, DC.

With our backgrounds, we were quite a combination.

A geologist, a Navy officer, two attorneys, a florist, a newspaper editor, a communications major, a restaurateur, and a state cop!

All with different backgrounds and life experiences; all working together.

Every one of us would tell you that each job prepared us for the next.

Following commencement, some of you will be leaving the Marquette area to continue your education.

Some of you will be returning home.

Some of you will find jobs outside of Michigan.

Some will stay here.

There is a unique lifestyle here at Northern that you will miss if you choose to leave – the pace of life, lifetime friends, the proximity of woods, streams and the Great Lakes.

As my congressional staff has shown, circumstances can change with a career-ending knee injury, a company merger, the urge to pursue a new challenge, or an election to public service.

Step out into the world bravely, with the sense that every problem has a solution, every obstacle can be overcome, and every life experience prepares you for the next.

Learn from learning, learn from listening and learn from experience.

Your life need not be defined by where you live.

Your life need not be defined by a particular job or profession.

Your life should be based on a sense of conviction, passion and personal growth.

Embrace opportunity, for as President Kennedy intended to say, “learning and leadership are indispensable to each other.”

So with God as your guide, and friends and family at your side, go out into the world and help to make it a better place.

Congratulations.  The best of luck to all of you, and may God bless you!