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2018 Spring Commencement: Remarks from Va. Gov. Ralph Northam

Good morning, Hokies. Thank you very much, President Sands, for inviting me to be here today. Congratulations to the faculty, alumni, parents, and of course, you graduates.

Even as we celebrate today, I know we all mourn the loss of President Emeritus Charles Steger. He dedicated his life to Virginia Tech.

I know he would be proud of this graduation and all that Virginia Tech stands for.

On my journey to become a physician, I participated in several graduations, so I think I can relate to all of you who are graduating today.

You want the speaker to hurry up, so you can get out. You want to get started living your lives. When I was in your seat, I just wanted to put the Virginia Military Institute in my rearview mirror. Maybe that’s because there were a lot more pushups, penalty tours, and demerits in my college experience than there were in most of yours.

But looking back, I now see that those were the four most important years of my life. They shaped who I am today. And one day, you may realize that about your time in Blacksburg.

So don’t worry, I’m not here today to make you do pushups. At VMI I learned the three Bs of public speaking: be brief, be brilliant, and be gone. I can promise you the first and the third.

I want to tell you a story.

When I was a second-year pediatric resident in training, still learning how to be a doctor, one night I was on call in the neonatal intensive care unit. We had a case where a premature baby was dying. The baby’s x-ray showed what we call a pneumothorax, where air collects outside the lung.

That wasn’t something I had handled by myself before. Ordinarily, as a second-year resident, you’d call the attending physician.

You’d call for an adult, someone with full training, someone who knew what they were doing, to stand beside you and guide you. But my attending wasn’t there, and couldn’t get there fast enough.

I knew that baby would die if I waited. So I had to put a chest tube in, to save the baby’s life.

I wanted to wait for someone with authority, someone who could shoulder this responsibility. But that person wasn’t there. I had to be the adult, no matter how much I didn’t feel ready to be.

That premature baby whose life I saved as a second-year resident is now 33 years old. You never know whose life you’ll touch.

For many of you, college has been a time where you are still learning from the adults – building experience under the supervision of people with greater responsibility.

But that day is over. As scary as I know it can seem – to you and to your parents -- you’re adults now.

It’s up to you to save the baby.

Because we need your help.

Your education here at Virginia Tech has prepared you uniquely for the responsibility to serve others. Because you weren’t just trained to read and write, code and calculate. You’ve earned a degree from an institution that takes pride in preparing its students to do more than succeed.

Hokies are educated to lead.

Your motto is Ut Prosim. That I may serve.

It would be easy to ignore those words, or assume they’re meant for other people. At a moment when it’s never been easier to lose hope or grow cynical, I understand the temptation to tune out and focus on what’s right in front of you.

When you’re feeling that way, I hope you’ll remember that you’re a Hokie of Virginia Tech. And, as we’ve seen all over the country in recent months, you are a member of a generation that isn’t waiting for my generation to determine the future for you.

You’re ready to be the adults. You’re ready to save the baby.

You have the power and the responsibility to make the world you want to live in.

You make a world that welcomes differences, no matter what someone looks like or where they’re from.

You make the relationships that will sustain you.

You make the communities you want to raise kids in.

You make the world you want to leave your own children.

You can live a life that makes the world around you better. You have that power.

We need you to use it.

Anyone who has watched the news lately understands that we’re in a unique moment of challenge and complexity in this country and in the world.

I wish I could tell you that my generation has a firm grasp on problems like economic inequality, lack of access to health care, global warming, gun violence, globalization and automation, immigration and many others. But the truth is, we don’t.

Fortunately for us, your experience here at Virginia Tech has fitted you with a strong moral compass. It’s written on the seal of this great university.

Ut Prosim.

That I may serve.

That is my charge to you today.

But before I finish, this wouldn’t be a graduation speech if I didn’t have some life advice for you as well. I want you to get your full money’s worth.

Let me tell you about the incredible importance of a phone call a week.

Some of you are probably thinking you make way more than one phone call a week.

And others are surprised to hear that some old people like me still talk on the phone.

But hear me out.

My brother and I both went to VMI. He’s two years older than me.

Every Sunday, we went together to the same phone booth to call our mother and father.

Let me explain – a phone booth was a person-sized box. You climbed inside, where there was the equivalent of a cell phone. You put coins into a slot, and it would let you make a call for a few minutes.

Or, if you were like my brother and me and didn’t have any money, we called “collect”—

Ok, that means we called for free … because we first called the phone company and convinced them to charged our parents for the call.

So we charged them money to ask if they would send us more money in the mail. The only difference now is you all probably text them, and they Venmo you the money instead of call. No call needed.

That weekly call was a touchstone. No matter what we were doing, every week we called and told our parents we were doing ok, and that we loved them.

Over the years, I’ve continued that practice, making at least one call a week for one specific reason: just to tell someone in my life how much they mean to me, and I’m thinking of them.

Those calls aren’t just for the people I’m calling. They’re for me too. For me, they’re a reminder that no matter what’s happening in my life, no matter how high or low I’m riding, nothing is more important than the relationships I keep.

Not jobs, not politics, not money – not even Virginia Tech football.

That one call a week keeps my feet planted where they’re supposed to be – with the relationships that define our lives, more than any of those other things.

If there’s anything you learn as a doctor, it is that life is short and the most valuable things in our life are there with us at the beginning and the end – our families and our friends.

I know you’re going on to do great things. Virginia Tech is a great university and you worked hard to get through here.

It’s virtually impossible to predict what will happen in your lives after this day.

I can tell you for sure that no one, myself included, would have looked at the skinny kid from the Eastern Shore and VMI and said “there’s the 73rd Governor of Virginia.”

But I’ve had a wonderful and supportive family.

My brilliant and beautiful wife Pam is way out of my league. I outkicked my coverage there. And Wes and Aubrey are the best kids a dad could pray for.

And from seeing them, you can assume that no matter what highs or lows might come in life, I’ll be ok.

So my hope for you is that no matter what you do, you will put relationships first. If you do, the other things will come – and no matter what happens, you will have the people you need to build a life worth living.

I hope you will begin this chapter of your life by making at least one call a week to someone who means something to you.

Sunday is Mother’s Day, and that would be a great time to start your calls.

But whoever you call, make the call.

Tell them—I’m just checking in. I’m wondering, how are you? What you’ve been up to. What’s going on.

It’s even okay to tell people you love them.

It’s good for them to hear it, and it’s good for you to say it.

So let’s make a pact, right now.

One call a week. No typing, no texting. Just voice, maybe Facetime. Ask what’s up. And if it’s  right, say, I love you.

In fact, why don’t we all start right now?

Turn to the person next to you, and say, What’s up?

And later today, after this ceremony, I hope you’ll find someone who helped you get to today’s graduation, and tell them, very simply, thank you and I love you.

Do that, and everything else will be fine.