Woodberry Forest, VA – Today, Congressman Eric Cantor (VA-07) will deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2011 at Woodberry Forest School. The following remarks are as prepared for delivery:
Dr. Campbell, parents, seniors, distinguished guests. It’s an honor to join you and address the Woodberry Forest Class of 2011.
It’s a particular pleasure for this Collegiate Cougar to be at the home of the Tigers.
Today represents the culmination of a journey you began when you first entered these grounds. That day you accepted the challenge to live by a higher standard to honor a commitment to excellence that few of your age have.
Class of 2011, this is a moment to be proud of. As a parent of three, I know your parents, grandparents and other family members here today share that pride and I congratulate you as well.
Celebrate today. Know that your experiences at Woodberry Forest have prepared you well to meet new challenges and will be with you your whole life. This institution has laid the foundation for the long journey ahead.
So I ask you today: What will you do with the lessons you have learned and the talents you have acquired here?
The giants of 18th Century Virginia – Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – founded this nation and launched the cause of American democracy right here amidst the beauty of the hills of the Blue Ridge in Virginia. Like them, will you use your abilities to give back to your communities? Will you challenge yourself and dare to do big things?
When opportunities arise, will you pursue them with passion and vigor? And when people tell you that you can’t achieve something, will you go quietly, or will you prove them wrong?
If you carry on in the tradition of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, there is nothing you can’t accomplish or do. That’s the essence of our history. That is what makes America great.
On Monday, America will pause to pay respects to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have sacrificed their lives in service to our country. There are many ways in which you can serve and lead.
Americans have a rich history of standing tall in tough times and going the extra mile to propel us forward. Whether it was the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution or the Internet Revolution: we are unique in our ability to apply creativity, intellect and leadership to solve any problem.
Now our country finds itself at a crossroads and we all have to make a choice: Will we be weak or strong? Will we lag or lead? Will we shrink or grow?
We all play a role in determining this – but graduates, your generation more than any other will oversee the rise or decline of America. You will chart our course. You will weigh in on our path.
In my role as Majority Leader of the United States House of Representatives I meet with many leaders from around the world.
We always cover a wide range of issues, but what strikes me is their fascination with what makes us uniquely American.
They focus on and ask about how we continue to have the world’s most innovative companies, from Google to Apple to Facebook – launched in America?
The answer starts at schools like Woodberry Forest that encourage their students to harness their creative energy, test ideas and think critically.
The excellent universities that you will be attending build on your accomplishments here and foster the creative spirit that has made our country the crucible of innovation.
Simply put: we in America invent things that change the world.
We come up with ideas and pursue them even though we know we might fail. This is who we are as a people.
Where else in the world do you see so many ideas formed in basements, garages and college dorm rooms become global game changers?
Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are all examples of this – only in America.
And where else could you have a political leadership that includes a black President, a Mormon Senate Majority Leader, a Catholic Speaker of the House and a Jewish House Majority Leader?
Only in America.
In America, there are no limits.
Like many of you, I am the descendant of immigrants to America.
My grandparents came to this country nearly a century ago fleeing persecution in their native Russia. They passed through New York harbor and the statue of liberty on the way to a better, freer life.
My grandmother was widowed at a young age. And she eventually made her home in a predominately African American section of Richmond. She raised my father and my uncle in a tiny apartment above a grocery store that she ran.
Through hard work, perseverance and faith – the very values on which America is built – she lifted herself up into the middle class, and even sent her two children to college.
But never did she dare to dream that her grandson would someday be a Member of Congress, much less the Majority Leader of the U.S. House.
When I think of my grandmother in that cramped Richmond storefront, I am reminded why people come to this country in the first place. It’s as true today as it was for my grandmother. Because here, you have the freedom and opportunity to work to be whatever you want.
When I was growing up, my family and my school taught me the value of public service.
During college I got an internship working as a driver for former Virginia Congressman Tom Bliley. This is how I got my start. I used this ground-level opportunity to begin a career that, after making some tough choices, working hard and taking risks has afforded me the opportunity I have today.
So let me suggest three things:
First: This country needs a new generation of leaders who will stand up and make the tough choices necessary to keep us strong. You are that generation. Step up and lead.
Second: Work hard and earn your success. This may sound cliché, but most of our ancestors lifted themselves from nothing – just like my grandmother – to earn their success.
Third: Never be afraid to take risks, even though you might fail.
Henry Ford is the father of American made cars. His repeated early failures in business left him broke five times.
Abraham Lincoln is widely regarded for his political success. He was defeated running for office on numerous occasions.
Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all-time. He was cut by his high-school basketball team.
Because economic times are tough, there are those who wring their hands and say, ‘America has seen its finest days’ and we are in decline.
I reject that and so should you.
Your generation has access to technology and capabilities far beyond our wildest dreams. You can use social media and the abundance of connectivity to access information, create communities, rally individuals and solve problems collectively that will make this world a better place.
So, will you make tough choices and lead or will you wait for someone else?
Will you work hard and earn your success, or will you wait for someone to provide it for you?
Will you take risks or will you stand on the sidelines?
For yourselves, for your parents, for all of us – now is the time for you to step forward and this is the place to begin.