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Powering up the next generation

POSTED June 27, 2009 3:26 p.m.
The following is an excerpt of California State University, Stanislaus’ President Hamid Shirvani’s 2009 commencement remarks.

Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I’m sure you all know the line. Dickens was referring to an epoch of social upheaval more than 200 years ago unlike anything we face today. But it is sometimes tempting to think of today’s financial crisis — which we face in a world miraculously transformed by technology and the Internet — as also confronting us with unthinkable choices in a life most of us had assumed would be defined by unlimited opportunity.
So here we are on one of the most glorious, important days of your lives, your graduation from college, looking into the dark face of an economic meltdown that has even the financial wizards baffled. What are you, as the class of 2009, meant to make out of this confusing moment of great excitement and wide-open vistas — the day of your graduation — and the bleak economy and high jobless rates that await you?
I think the answer lies inside of each one of you. The answer lays in how you see your future and in your willingness to take a different path to forge your own destiny.
Until the 1970s, there were a lot of people in this country who valued work. I certainly did. I want you to know that as an immigrant, I feel that I am blessed. I am really most blessed and I am grateful to have the opportunity every day to be in this country, to be in this position, and to have the opportunity to serve. And most people in this country thought the same way until the 1970s. They were really happy to find work, to support their families and to make a contribution to society as a whole.
Then, in the mid 1980s, the whole structure of finance and banking changed.  With the information technology revolution, a large number of people made huge amounts of money overnight. One or two smart individuals created a piece of software or hardware and formed a company; six months later, that company went public and they had $100 million dollars that they didn’t know what to do with.  And, a bunch of people who were their friends or who helped them, got rich too. Why? Because they had stock options, so they became vice presidents or managers, or held some other title they had done next to nothing to earn. In turn, many with money moved on to real estate and by increasing demand they also increased the price of real estate. It happened over and over again.
But it was, as we know, a bonanza built on a balloon. So we see $10 million loan defaults, and Lamborghinis being repossessed. The reality is a lot of people made a lot of money too fast, without working for it. And they got greedy. The more they made, the more they wanted, and still it was not enough. Life was like a Las Vegas casino — where nobody needed to lose.  They bought houses, boats, and cars way beyond their means. But not only did this tidal wave of greed create a financial disaster, it has also changed the culture. The value of hard work was replaced by the dream of becoming a multimillionaire overnight. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” the game show host asks. And the answer is, everyone.
In the hit film “Slumdog Millionaire,” the winner is the young man who knows the answers to the questions he is asked. But he was not educated in the way you and I are privileged to have been educated, he was just lucky. And so the fantasy continues.
Even now, people think they can bypass this financial meltdown and get rich overnight. They talk about buying foreclosed homes dirt-cheap and selling them when the economy improves at a much higher price. Yes, business is business, but the mentality of those who believe anyone can make a lot with little effort is not going to turn this country and our economy around. We need people like you to change the system. We need educated people like you to reenergize the values of hard work and of giving something back. We don’t need people determined to make money based on the failure or misfortunes of other people.  
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, once wrote, “In times of difficulty, character is not developed but displayed.” Your choices will display your character. Will you become a slave to consumerism or will you display the character and the discipline of a person who only buys what he or she can afford? Will you see that when more is never enough that you are doomed to live an unsatisfied life, trapped on an endless, exhausting treadmill of desire?  Or will you find riches elsewhere, in a good life defined by other values?
Your future is still one of unlimited opportunity — but it is a future defined by unlimited choices about how you can make a difference in the world, not by a fantasy life of unlimited riches at little cost to you. In the midst of what some see as the worst of times — financial failure being just one of the problems we face — you have the opportunity to reengineer the way our society works.  You are the architects of our future — the educated, the privileged, the young men and women who leave this campus today with unlimited options as to how to reshape our world. Each of you has displayed the character that brought you here — the discipline, the hard work, the commitment to improve yourself by mastering each lesson that has come your way.  
The world is in agreement that education is the foundation of democracy and of economic prosperity. You have the education. You have the tools to rebuild our prosperity. And you have shown the character it takes to earn a college degree. If you hold onto that sense of purpose and drive you will play a major role in helping us rebuild the strength of this great nation. And, life’s true riches will surely come your way.

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