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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the 2010 Rowan University Commencement, As Prepared

As prepared for delivery.

Congratulations class of 2010! It is wonderful to be here with you today. Thank you President Farish, faculty, alumni, family and friends. I’m proud to join you to honor all of the work these graduates have done, and mark this milestone in their lives. I know that none of this would have been possible without all the family, teachers, mentors, neighbors and friends that helped along the way. We all owe them a big round of applause as well. Please join me in thanking them.

I consider it my great privilege to welcome you into the world as college graduates. It is great to be back in New Jersey. Having worked for former Governor Corzine and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for many years, I consider New Jersey a second home.

There are also plenty of good reasons for me to be here at Rowan. One of those reasons is that, along with having the best baseball team, and the best field hockey and women’s soccer players in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, Rowan showed us this year that the Profs also have the best clean energy team in the conference. Congratulations on making Rowan EPA’s 2009-2010 Green Power Challenge conference champions! I encourage you to keep up the good work. I know how disappointed President Farish would be if you lost that title to, say, Montclair State. I hope you will keep adding clean energy – and keep showing the other schools in New Jersey how it’s done.

That is just one of the many awards and recognitions Rowan has received for its environmental stewardship, including several honors Rowan won while I was Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The students and the faculty here have led by example. President Farish was the first University President in New Jersey to sign the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. The RU Green program has helped set up single-stream recycling programs, encouraged green building and landscaping. Rowan is also taking the lead in the study of clean energy innovation. Combine that with the work going on at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and you’re on the right track to be a player in the global growth industry of the 21st century.

I’m happy to be here to support all of your efforts. However, I didn’t think a speech on environmental policy – as important as it is – would quite live up to this moment. As I was considering what I wanted to talk about today, I started thinking about another place I call home – New Orleans, Louisiana. I grew up in New Orleans and went to school there, getting my bachelors degree in engineering at Tulane before attending graduate school at some other university here in New Jersey. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have been in the news recently because of the BP Oil Spill from an exploded offshore drilling rig. If you’ve been keeping up with the stories, you know that there is a great deal of concern and a great deal of uncertainty about nearly every aspect of this crisis.

The spill began as a human tragedy, when the rig exploded and killed 11 workers. These were fathers and brothers and members of the Gulf community. It has since turned into an environmental emergency as well. I’ve made two trips to the Gulf Coast to meet with the responders and local community members. They are working through complex, often unprecedented challenges. They’re trying to find the best, most creative answers as fast as they possibly can. And they have to do their very best work on little to no sleep.

Think about the week of finals you just went through. Consider that there is no definitive stopping point in sight. And imagine that the President of the United States has asked to see your grades. That will give you some understanding of what our responders are working through right now. Let me just say how grateful I am for their work.

This is, of course, not the first time the Gulf Coast has faced these challenges. Almost five years ago – when you were probably preparing and sending in your application to Rowan – Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and the Gulf. I actually happened to be there at the time, visiting my mother for her birthday. I managed to drive her to safety, but her home – the home I grew up in – was flooded and destroyed. My mother lost everything she had. In the time that it has taken for you to get from your last year of high school to your last year of college, the Gulf Coast has been rebuilding. They have made progress restoring their neighborhoods and their environments. For the first time in a long time, there was a real sense of hope in New Orleans and other Gulf communities. Now they must face a new crisis.

So when I traveled down there, I prepared to meet with a great deal of anger. I anticipated the feelings of people who were all too familiar with deep anxiety and frustration. But what I found was something different. The fishermen and shrimpers and other men and women turned out to our meetings in droves. And the one thing they all wanted to know – the question I heard more than anything else – was, “How can I help?”

“How can I help?” Think about that. Here are people who have only begun to recover from one major setback. They are hearing that an environmental catastrophe could once again decimate their way of life. Some of the fisherman and shrimpers had just made the last runs before their waters were closed. No one could tell them when or if they would ever open again. The wetlands they grew up with, the jobs that they support their families with, even the air that they breathe had been suddenly thrown into jeopardy. They didn’t ask, “Who is to blame?” or “Who is going to pay for this?” They asked, “How can I help?”

I’m sharing this story with you today for a number of reasons.

First, because most of you can only follow what’s happening on the 24-hour news channels, where you’re likely to see finger pointing, partisanship, attacks and counter attacks. That back and forth is a bad example for people my age to set for people your age. It’s also a false presentation of reality. That is not the world you are about to enter. In the real world, when a neighbor has a problem or a community is struggling, people ask, “How can I help?” That may be hard to believe if you use politics and TV news as your guide. But think about all the volunteers helping out with the floods in Nashville. Think about the rush of donations to Haiti following the devastating earth quake there. Think about a friend you have, or a family you know that fell on hard times. Then think of all the people who asked, “How can I help?”

My second reason is that asking “How can I help?” is in your own self interest. Now, after living through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, we know that problems faced by any American have the potential to touch the lives of every American. But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

I recently got a letter from an EPA engineer working in Michigan, who wrote to me about perfect strangers thanking him after hearing that he works to clean up the environment. One woman came from a town that had a rash of cancer cases from chemicals dumped into the local water. He wanted me to know that “people recognize the work we do and are grateful for it.”

That is something money can’t buy. It’s a benefit no title can give. Even glory and fame won’t give this to you. The Greek General Pericles ruled Athens during the Golden Age, helped build the Acropolis and the Parthenon, and enjoyed great fame. And he concluded that, quote, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Rowan University – with its lifelong focus on training educators – knows that better than most places. How many graduates of this institution – like Phyllis Schwed from the class of 1930 – have stepped into classrooms and woven their influence into the lives of others? How many of you will do the same? That is the true measure of success. If you want real satisfaction with the choices you make once you leave here, my advice to you is to start by asking, “How can I help?”

My third reason for this story is that with the urgent issues before us, we need you to ask “How can I help?” We face extraordinary challenges, from dealing with climate change to rebuilding the global economy to fighting disease and poverty at home and abroad. Confronting them will be all-hands-on-deck efforts. Solutions won’t come easy. We need every able person working to make this world a better, safer place. We need you to ask, “How can I help?”

Which brings me to my final reason for sharing this story today. And that is to challenge you. “How can I help?” is not just my aspiration for the Class of 2010 – it is my expectation. If the people of the Gulf Coast can rise to the challenge, and lift each other up at a moment of great need, then we should expect nothing less of ourselves and each other. Compared to their situation, you are not in the depth of a crisis. You are not facing the great loss of opportunities and livelihood. On the contrary, a world of new opportunities has just opened to you. You have spent almost two decades working towards today. You’ve pushed yourself to higher levels and demanded that the best you have to offer gets better year after year. The smartest way to put that training to use is to ask, “How can I help?”

Let me close by saying that we will be right beside you. The people here who, through the course of your life, have always been there to ask, “How can I help?” when you needed them. Your teachers and mentors, your family and your friends, your fellow graduates.

I’m happy to celebrate with you today Class of 2010. I’m excited to see where you will take us. Thank you very much, and congratulations once again.