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Price Delivers Fayetteville Tech Commencement Address

May 10, 2013
Price Delivers Fayetteville Tech Commencement Address

Washington, D.C. – Representative David Price (NC-04) delivered the commencement address at Fayetteville Technical Community College's graduation ceremony this evening. In his remarks, Rep. Price congratulated the new graduates, urged them to be active in the civic lives of their communities, and asked them to remember, as we confront familiar challenges, how investments in education, research, innovation, and infrastructure have transformed North Carolina in recent decades. The text of Rep. Price's remarks is below.

President Keen; trustees, faculty, and staff; other distinguished guests; families and friends; and members of the Class of 2013: thank you for inviting me to be with you today. It is truly an honor to address the 51st graduating class of Fayetteville Technical Community College.

My main order of business is to offer congratulations and encouragement to the nearly 1,500 outstanding individuals who will receive their degrees and certificates today, as well as the more than 250 of you earning your adult high school diplomas or GEDs—and to the families, mentors, and friends who helped you reach this point. Nobody, after all, reaches graduation day on his or her own.

As is customary on such occasions, I may also offer a bit of free advice as you look ahead to your lives as graduates. But I will try to do so sparingly, taking to heart the advice of the famous quipster and Army veteran Cullen Hightower, who once remarked that "talk is cheap—except when Congress does it."

Before looking ahead, however, I want to begin by reflecting briefly on the past—on the profound changes we have experienced in recent decades as a state and as a nation, and on the unique role that community colleges have played in anticipating, navigating, and responding to those changes. This is a fitting moment for such reflection, for it was 50 years ago next week that the North Carolina General Assembly established our state's community college system, incorporating this and other pioneering institutions into a unified statewide network.

I have had the privilege of representing North Carolina's Fourth Congressional District, with one brief interruption, since 1987. The district has changed dramatically during this time—from a district with many small towns and rural areas, stretching from Randolph County in the west to Franklin County in the east; to a largely urban and suburban district centered in the Research Triangle; and now to a district that defies all geographical logic by snaking from Burlington in the west to Raleigh in the east to Fayetteville in the south.

Throughout these changes, though, the Fourth District has always been defined by a common thread: the presence of some of the greatest institutions of higher education not just in North Carolina, but in the entire country. This includes, of course, our state's excellent four-year colleges and universities, to which many of you will make the transition after you graduate. But it also includes a community college system that has been the true engine of our state's economic progress—and the true envy of our neighbors.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to address the graduating classes of several of Fayetteville Tech's sister institutions. It is always kind of a homecoming for me: I began my own higher education at a two-year school—what was then Mars Hill Junior College, across the mountains from my hometown in Erwin, Tennessee.

So in thinking about what I would say to you here today, I looked back on some of the previous commencement addresses I have given. As it turns out, they offered a striking glimpse of the broader changes our nation has undergone in recent decades—but also a stirring reminder that when we come together as a society to confront our even the gravest challenges, our ability to persevere through times of hardship and change is virtually limitless.

In August of 1992, I stood before a graduating class like this one and painted a gloomy picture of a nation in decline. Unemployment was over 7 percent, wages were falling, workers didn't have the skills they needed to compete, and the federal government was running budget deficits as far as the eye could see. "We are not the world economic leader we were for so long," I lamented, citing the rise of Japan and Western Europe as global powerhouses.

Nine years later, in July of 2001, I addressed another class of technical college graduates, and doom and gloom had been replaced by sunny optimism. "Today, we are in a different world," I said. "Unemployment is low, family incomes are on the rise, technology workers have transformed our economy, and the federal budget is in surplus...the United States has led the globe in a technological revolution and once again sets the pace for the world economy."

Needless to say, today feels a lot more like 1992 than 2001. Just two months after I spoke those latter words, the attacks of September 11 shook our nation profoundly. Over the decade that followed, we entered two wars, sending many members of this community—including some of you here today—on extended deployments and leaving your families at home to bear the sacrifice. Budget surpluses became record deficits once again, as those wars plus $2 trillion worth of tax cuts were put on the national credit card. Even before the global financial crisis hit in 2008, wiping out years of hard-earned savings overnight, the American dream was slipping further out of reach for millions of families.

Five years later, we are still recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We have now seen 38 consecutive months of private-sector job growth, and unemployment is at four-year lows. But as many of you can attest, we have much more work to do to ensure the recovery is felt in every corner of this state. And unfortunately, our bitter and divided politics are now threatening to undermine the fragile progress we have already made.

I recount this history to make two basic points. First, even when it feels like our current challenges are insurmountable, the American people have a remarkable ability to innovate, adapt, and come together around common-sense solutions that keep our nation moving forward.

In 1992 it felt like there would be no end to our woes. But the next decade became the most prosperous in our nation's history—thanks to the wave of innovation unleashed by the Internet, but also to the ability of our nation's leaders to balance the budget, make strategic investments in research and education, and create economic certainty for businesses and workers. And while the challenges we face today are daunting, I remain confident that there are better days ahead for America.

The second point I want to make is that you are the source of this confidence. The education and training you have received at Fayetteville Tech have given you skills you need to compete in today's economy, and you are likely to be rewarded many times over. Family income is typically more than 30 percent higher when the primary breadwinner has a two-year technical degree, and jobs that require at least an associate's degree are going to grow twice as fast as jobs that don't require college in the coming years.

Your education is not only relevant to your personal success; it is also critical to our economic future. By continuously adapting its curriculum to meet the needs of employers, Fayetteville Tech has managed both to stay ahead of the curve with new industries and help workers displaced from older industries acquire new skills. The results are impressive: in Cumberland County alone, the increased productivity of workers trained at this institution creates more than $530 million in added income for local employers every year.

For years, North Carolina's leaders have recognized the critical role that technical and community colleges play as drivers of economic growth and renewal. Visionaries such as Fayetteville's own Terry Sanford understood that community colleges were not just a rising tide that would help lift generations of North Carolinians out of poverty; they were also a powerful magnet that would draw new businesses and industries to our state.

Our national leaders have also shown a renewed commitment to technical and community colleges in recent years. President Obama has made them a key focus of his innovation agenda, with enthusiastic support from the Vice President's wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who has taught in community colleges for the last 17 years. The President convened the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges, and it seems like every couple of months he or one of his senior advisers is visiting another community college campus in North Carolina.

Institutions such as this one do more than just support the broader economy; they also serve a vital purpose by meeting the unique needs of populations that might otherwise fall through the cracks of our education system—especially our military service members, our veterans, and their families. From special programs aimed at military spouses to the North Carolina Military Business Center, Fayetteville Tech is leading the nation in opening doors of opportunity to the latest generation of American service members. So for those of you here today who have worn our nation's uniform—or supported loved ones who have—we owe you a special debt of gratitude and congratulations.

So all of you should find reason for optimism and confidence as you leave here today and take your place in the high-tech workplace tomorrow. But there is something else which I hope you are also beginning to realize: you are also graduating with enhanced potential as an informed and active citizen. I urge you to take that responsibility seriously. The opportunities you've had and will have in the future owe a great deal to the efforts of the active and engaged citizens who have gone before.

As our President put it last weekend to a group of your fellow graduates, "this country cannot accomplish great things if we pursue nothing greater than our individual ambition." "We, the people, chose to do these things together."

I don't know what image first comes to mind when you hear the word politics, but I hope it goes beyond mutually insulting 30-second ads, the ranting of talk show hosts, or selfish power- seeking by politicians. I hope it goes beyond what our President called the "voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that's at the root of all our problems." As the President said, you should reject these voices.

The fact is that politics in a democracy is an indispensable means of achieving our common purposes as a community. I learned that as a young man coming of age politically as the civil rights movement swept across the South—a movement that pricked the nation's conscience and convinced millions that the barriers of segregation and discrimination must be broken down. I have always been grateful that this was my formative political experience, because it was such a positive one, demonstrating that committed people acting together, using the legitimate instruments of power and persuasion, could right ancient wrongs.

We have all had experiences, of course, that cast politics in a less favorable light. But it is important not to lose that vision of politics in a democracy as an instrument of common purpose. For that is the kind of politics it will take, with each of us participating, whether as leaders, advocates, or informed citizens, if our community is to flourish and more people are to have the opportunity to prosper and to realize their dreams that we celebrate here today.

This is especially the case at a time when the achievements of previous generations of North Carolinians—our public schools and universities, our roads and bridges and communications networks, our services to veterans and their families—are under severe threat from the partisan gridlock and excess that dominate our institutions of governance today. The voices of those who believe in common-sense solutions to our problems, who believe education is a vital investment in our future, are needed today more than ever before.

Let me end as I began: with heartfelt congratulations for what you, with the help and support of many, many people, have achieved. You have made it through Fayetteville Tech's demanding program, often under trying circumstances, on tight budgets, balancing competing family and job demands. You have earned the admiration of this community and we look forward to the contributions you will continue to make.

I wish you good fortune and Godspeed as you take your skills, industry, and determination into the workplace. I wish you the satisfaction of productive work that utilizes your full potential. And may you also make a positive contribution to those around you, giving as well as receiving, blessing even as you have been blessed, gladly assuming the joys and responsibility of citizenship.

Thank you.

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