Thank you all very much. It’s a profound honor to speak at this ceremony, as I have immensely enjoyed my time here, studying at the Sanford School of Public Policy. These past 4 years, the things I’ve learned, the friendships I’ve forged, it all just means the world to me.
The first class we take at Sanford, Intro to Policy Analysis, always has two main units: evaluating social outcomes and understanding rational choice. The very first two things we were asked to do as students were think about what a better society actually looked like and then analyze the mechanics of how we make choices to get there. The intersection of those two tasks always seems to drive what we here in Sanford.
Over the past 4 years, we as a group of students have evaluated every policy issue under the sun. From federal trade policy to racial inequalities in our prison system. From pay-for-play in collegiate athletics to the ethics of international development projects. From the Affordable Care Act to whether we can afford another large-scale engagement in the Middle East.
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Senior Steve Brenner delivered remarks at the undergraduate ceremony in the Wilson Gym on May 14 as part of the Sanford School graduation events.
And yet, the thing that connects all of these different areas of inquiry is some awareness of the realities of choice. From the very beginning, in our first intro class, we were all taught to understand that there are limited resources to fix the world’s problems.
If we wanted to get serious about solving these problems, we first had to define them, study them to no end, and then present the best possible, feasible solution. We always remained cognizant of that harsh reality that nothing is perfect. There are always trade-offs, but real progress is actually possible.
Similarly, we are all connected by the reality that there is no one “right” answer to complicated policy questions. This education, while unquestionably grounded in traditional academic methods, feels special and unique because of its normative quality. We did not spend our undergraduate experience simply filling our brains with memorizeable facts, only to dump it out the day after a midterm. We instead chose to engage with the difficult, messy process of considering how government could create a better society. We asked ourselves what that really meant. We evaluated who we were as people and what type of world we wanted to live in. From there, we listened, we read, we wrote, and we argued for what we believed in. And we learned that crafting truly ‘good policy’ means never giving up at this process. You have to keep working at it. Again and again and again.
Obviously, the health of our democracy requires personal investment from each and every citizen, but the deep policy knowledge and skills we’ve gained over the past 4 years allows us to give something more. We can bring a concrete perspective on how government can better function in society. Terry Sanford, the namesake of this school, once said “You can’t run this nation like a town meeting,” and he’s still right. Our nation is going to need more than just a passing protest or a re-tweet of a really great article. It needs people, actual physical people, with the ability to understand the choices necessary to making real, meaningful societal change.
The degree that we’ll receive today tells us that we can be these people. But I’m here today to tell that we should be these people. We must be these people. We can help create the next generation of new policy ideas. We can change our government for the better, and we can change our world in the process. But to do so, we have to make a choice.
This choice is far different than anything we experienced in the classroom. It can’t be quantified in a dataset, and it can’t be presented in a paper or class debate. We now face the choice of what type of people we will be in our communities. We will soon head out into the world, into prestigious careers, fellowships and graduate institutions of learning. But we will have to choose whether we actually want to use the perspectives that we developed here. We may either continue to advocate for the better society we once theorized in our Public Policy classes, or we may simply put our blinders on and focus only on our own advancement.
I urge each and every one of you to choose the former. After four years together in Sanford, I know how much you all care. How much you all know. How successfully you can all argue for what’s right. But ultimately, for each and every one of you, it’s your choice. Your choice alone.
But just don’t forget, you made the right choice once before. You chose to come here. To Sanford. You chose to learn from amazing, passionate faculty. You chose to research that issue that you were passionate about. You chose to think and care about more than just yourself.
My friends, democracy is under threat when people like us sit on the sidelines. So don’t. Our game is just beginning. Thank you.