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Remarks at University of Maryland Commencement Ceremony, Baltimore, Maryland

Friday, May 18, 2012

Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks at University of Maryland Commencement Ceremony, Baltimore, Maryland

For most of you, I suspect, graduate school has had its ups and downs. But you are here now, at the very last moment of your graduate student life; you will leave today with a degree in hand. So first things first: Congratulations to you and all the people here who have supported you.

For some of you, today is a moment of unalloyed joy. It’s over. . . the studying, the tests, the hard work. . . today you have your degree and you won’t look back.

For some of you, graduation is more bittersweet. Yes, it’s wonderful to be done, but you leave behind the friends and community, the intense lunch-time debates, and a place where you have worked hard and succeeded.

For most of you, today is probably just a little scary. However much you might have cursed your classes and your professors, school has been a familiar place. The next steps and the new responsibilities you’ll take on are still unfamiliar.

All of you have done one thing right: You’ve received a degree from a school that is soaring up in the rankings. . . particularly in science and engineering. The value of your degree is enhanced by the fact that it comes from a place that commands growing respect in higher education.

As a commencement speaker, it is my duty to give you advice this morning. While I am a Ph.D. economist, my own career has included many jobs, as a researcher, a teacher, a policy analyst, an organizational manager and administrator, and as a public servant. By my count, I’ve worked in 10 jobs since I finished my Ph.D., at four universities, one think tank, and in four different federal-level positions. While that might suggest to you that I can’t hold a job, I would like to think that it means I’ve kept looking for new and interesting opportunities to learn more and take on new challenges.

So I’ll share a few of the things that I’ve learned over the course of my career. If these comments are useful, great.  If not, just sit there and think about how you’re going to miss the free appetizers at GSA Happy Hour at Flat Tuesdays.

First: I can wish nothing better for you than that you have a career, as opposed to just having a job. Some of you have been employed throughout grad school and will return to that same employer; some of you have new opportunities; some of you are still looking for work.  Paid employment is a wonderful thing – as I’m sure your families have told you – and I very much hope that your degrees give you access to good pay and benefits. But, as you enter the next stage of your life, if you think only about your job…that is, about what you do every day and what you earn every month in your paycheck…you will be missing something important.

Don’t get so lost in the daily routine that you forget that over the days, you are forging the story of your career. . . building a record of who you are and how your workand your life – has contributed to society.  Make sure that over time, you don’t just work on a job, you build a career and a story of contribution that makes you proud.

You have done the work necessary to get a master’s degree or to complete a Ph.D. becauseI hopeyou were deeply interested in a particular field of study. Take that passion with you as you embark on a career. If you are lucky, you will find work that not only allows you to pay the bills, but that needs your passion; a job that engages you intellectually but that also speaks to who you are as a living and caring person. When that happens, you will have found work worthy of your full engagement.

Second, your life is more than your work. Yes, look for engaging and important work, but if you spend 20 hours every day in the lab or in the office you risk losing another important part of yourself. I know that graduate school can be all-consuming. You have probably had to be very focused while here at UMBC. In order to get your degree, you’ve put less time into your friends and less time into your family than you would like. Be careful of that. You need to replenish yourself.

I have learned that I work smarter and more effectively when I take time away from the office. At the end of the day, I try very hard to get out of the office and go home to have supper with my family; then I turn the computer back on again. I also have a pretty strong rule that I have followed for years: I take one day a week off. For me, because of my religious commitments, that’s Sunday. Now, I can’t always follow this rule; for example, I’ve surely responded to far too many e-mails on Sunday afternoon. But I know that I need time doing other things than my job. . . reading, biking, being part of a neighborhood, andmost importantspending time with family or friends. Time doing other things keeps me sane and it helps me return to work with renewed energy and passion.

Third, and I want to spend a little time on this: Think about how you can give back. This can take many forms.

For instance, as you gain experience at work, you’ll have a chance to work with younger people. Think about how you can mentor them. I say this particularly to the scientists and engineers among you: In our global economy, we are going to need more and more people with the sort of scientific, mathematical and technical training that you have received here at UMBC. But all of you need to be a role model and a mentor to others who have the interests and the skills to follow in your footsteps.

For some of you, giving back will come not through your job, but through community and volunteer work. There are thousands of organizations and causes that need people who want to give back by offering some of their time. Find one. Trust me when I say that these kind of experiences will help you be more understanding, more effective, and a better person overall.

Let me say a bit about one particular form of giving back that I care a great deal about: Public service. I know working for the government is not the route to riches, and it’s not even very popular in many circles these days. But more than ever before, the government needs good and committed people like you.

I work at the U.S. Department of Commerce. We do a wide variety of things that serve both businesses and consumers: We promote U.S. exports. We issue patents for new inventions. We oversee the Census, the National Weather Service, and cutting-edge labs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

We have close to 45,000 employees, and I am impressed every day with their dedication to their work. Many of them have multiple job options outside government, but they choose to work inside government becauseamong other thingsthey believe that government helps people and they want to make sure it works effectively.

You’ve all heard about the scandals in government because that sells papersor should I sayattracts click-throughs. But when did you last hear about the success stories? There are dozens every day.

  • For example, last September, the president signed a law that modernized our patent system. Among other things, this will make it easier and quicker for an entrepreneur or small business to get a patent on a new idea. Some of you in the audience will receive patents for your work in the years ahead. . . maybe some of the overachievers here already have one. Public servants at the Commerce Department’s U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are making them easier to get.
  • Another example. Cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is not for the faint of heart. Our experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been working on this since that oil rig exploded. Just last month, we teamed up with the Department of the Interior and several Gulf states to start $60 million in restoration projects. The projects will help create marshes and reefs, and improve dune habitats, among other things.
  • Or, here’s another. Doubling U.S. exports in five years is a big job, but that’s the goal set by the president. We’re working on this at Commerce because exports expand the market for U.S. goods and create jobs. My colleagues at the International Trade Administration have been helping businesses sell their products to other countries that want Made-in-America goods and services. A month ago, we hit the mid-point in this five-year goal. We are currently on track to meet the president’s goal.

These three examples are just at the Commerce Departmenta tiny fraction of the local, state and federal public service opportunities across the country.

So, for those of you who feel a calling towards public serviceand I’m not just talking about those of you with public policy degreesI hope you look at your options in government. We need people with science degrees, environmental expertise, communications skills, and more.

As President Lyndon Johnson once said, “You will find meaning only by sharing in the responsibilities, dangers and passions of your time.” Being a government employee is not always easy, but I can guarantee you that you will indeed share in the responsibilities and passions of our time.

One final piece of advice before I close:

I told you earlier that I have held a number of jobs. At some key moments in my life, I’ve had very different job options in front of mewith very different career paths. When faced with these big choices I’ve always tried to do one thing: Take the job that scares you the most. That’s the one that you’ll learn the most from. And that’s the job that will give you the most satisfaction when you master it.

So, celebrate your new degrees. Take your friends out to Flat Tuesdays, Fish Head, orfor the biology studentsJudge’s Bench. And when you’re done celebrating, move into your new life.

Don’t just find a job. Build a career.

Remember that your life is more than your work.

Give back, and consider public service.

And take the job that scares you the most.

Finally, whenever possible, find a way to pass along a bit of your talents, your knowledge and your good fortune to others who can use your help. And, don’t forget that you owe a little loyalty to UMBC, the place where you acquired some of that knowledge.

Congratulations to all of the graduates for 2012 and best wishes as you move forward into the future.