Congressman Cantor's Commencement Address to Woodberry Forest School
May 27, 2011
Contact: Doug Heye, Megan Whittemore


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. Congratulations.

It’s a particular pleasure for this Collegiate Cougar to be at the home of the Tigers.

To the graduates: 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 your age ever have or ever will.

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 them as well.

Celebrate today. Know that your experiences at Woodberry have prepared you well to meet new challenges. The friends and memories you’ve made here will stay with you. This institution has laid the foundation for the journey ahead.

So I ask you today: What will you do with the lessons you have learned and the talents you have developed here?

The giants of 18th century Virginia – Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and Monroe – 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 and your country? 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 those 18th century public servants – our nation’s founders – 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. The men and women paid the ultimate price in order to protect the very idea of America – freedom. So, let their sacrifice serve as a reminder of how profound a blessing we have as Americans. It’s worth cherishing and fighting for.

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 member of Congress, I have the privilege of meeting with leaders from around the world.

Discussions always cover a wide range of issues, but what strikes me is the fascination these leaders have in what is uniquely American.

They ask, why is it that America seems to always breed the game changers. Whether it’s Google, Apple or Facebook or even 20 years ago, Microsoft, Cisco or Intel. Why is it that all were born in America?

These foreign leaders want to know what our secret is.

The answer starts at places like Woodberry Forest – places that encourage students to harness their creative energy, test ideas and think critically.

The colleges and universities you’ll attend will build on your accomplishments here and they too will foster the creative spirit that has made our country the crucible of innovation.

Simply put: we in America invent things that change the world, and that’s why people continue to bet on us.

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 and then almost overnight become global game changers?

Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are all examples of what is uniquely American.

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.

We’re really not like other countries. In America, there are no limits. Because here, it really doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s about where you’re going.

Like 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 downtown neighborhood 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. In America, impossible dreams are possible.

While in 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 as you look ahead to chart your path, allow me to suggest three things:

First: Be willing to make tough decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader. This was the advice of General George Patton, perhaps the most legendary American combat commander of the 20th century. He is remembered for his toughness, grit and leadership while commanding corps and armies during World War II.

Bottom line, 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.

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.

The vaunted football coach Vince Lombardi said it best: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.

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.

Today, economic times are tough, causing many to doubt the future. Some are wringing their hands, witnessing the rise of our global competitors like China and India and predicting, ‘America has seen its finest days’ and we are in decline.

I reject that and so should you.

Technology today has given you a louder voice. Facebook groups, blogging, twitter and online forums afford you the chance to pursue great things instantaneously and on a scale unprecedented. As challenges are greater today, so are the avenues to address them. The world has never been so ready to accept American ingenuity and problem solving to make life better for all.

So, the real questions is: 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.